When Phil Southerland, now 37, was 7 months old, doctors told his parents he likely wouldn’t live past the age of 25.
The baby was thirstier than normal, crying all the time, losing large amounts of weight, and struggling to breathe. One doctor first dismissed his condition as the flu, but a nurse noticed something important: fruity breath—, which occurs as a complication of uncontrolled high blood sugar.
“The attending physician at time told my mom, ‘Good news—your son is going to live for now, but the bad news is, he has juvenile diabetes,’” Southerland, a resident of Atlanta, told Bicycling. “They basically said here’s your insulin, and good luck,” he says.
His parents knew Southerland’s life was in their hands. They squeezed urine from diapers to check glucose levels and pricked his toes 10-15 times a day to check his blood sugar.
“As an infant, I was captive to my insulin,” he says.
As he grew, his doctors always advised his parents that —a condition where your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin, causing blood sugar to build up in your bloodstream—and sports were a no-no.
But his parents encouraged him to give it a try, and he got on his first bike at 4 years old. It marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for cycling—and the start of advocacy so that others with his same condition could find a respite in riding, too.
Finding Freedom on the Bike
As Southerland got older, his love for riding seemed to fit with his diabetes.
“When I was on the bike, I was normal. I didn’t have to check my sugar, my insulin—it was a great equalizer for me,” he says. “The bike made me feel freedom. It became an addiction.”
It also influenced him to manage his diabetes better so he was able to get out and ride his best.
He developed a close relationship with riders at a local bike shop in his native Tallahassee, Florida, and started riding competitively. He competed in his first race—mountain biking—at the age of 12, and by 14, he knew he wanted to be a serious bike racer. This meant he had to focus on managing his diabetes even more.
“In the early stages, I’d have to check my blood sugar 4-5 times an hour before we went out on rides to make sure my glucose high enough, and once I went out, I just had to go by feel,” he says. “I was always over prepared—the journeys were stuffed with food.”
Soon, he started riding on roads, and completed his first road race at 16.
He attended the University of Georgia and was quickly adopted into Athens’s strong cycling community. His teammates and competitors knew he had type 1 diabetes, something that at the time was a bit of a hush-hush disease.
It was there where he met one of his best friends, Joe Eldridge, who saw him checking his blood sugar before a race. Eldridge had diabetes too, but unlike Southerland, was not managing it properly.
“I took it upon myself to get him to finally care,” he says. “We’d go on rides together, and I made bets with him—whoever had higher blood sugar pays for dinner. He bought my meals for a while, but one day, the tab was on me. He told me, ‘Hey man, I just want you to know you saved my life.’ That was a big turning point for me. The bike brought us together, and I wondered what the bike could do for others with diabetes.”
It was a catalyst for Southerland to start talking to other people with diabetes. Back in 2004, he said, it was a disease that you hid—and was “still a disease about what you could not do.”
Riding Toward Advocacy
Despite how others viewed diabetes, Southerland didn’t believe it to be a limiting factor. That belief was only strengthened during a 165-mile bike ride home over Christmas in 2004, when he found himself mulling over Lance Armstrong’s impact on those with cancer.
“It got me thinking, why not use the biking platform to unite people with diabetes, to inspire people to take control of it?” he says.
At the time, Southerland was taking business classes at UGA, and during his final semester, he was assigned a project to create a real-life business plan. He decided to combine his love for biking and new passion for type 1 diabetes awareness with the creation of “Team Type 1.”
His goal? To assemble a full team of cyclists with type 1 diabetes.
In February 2005, a chance meeting at an Atlanta Starbucks led to his first investment.
“I was working on my project, and a man named Daniel Hopkins started asking me about what I was working on. He said, ‘What would you do if you had $400?’ I told him I would buy T-shirts, get business cards,” Southerland said. “He said, ‘Kid, go start your business.’ He gave me $400 cash right then and there, and I drove straight to the bank and opened an account for Team Type 1.”
He quickly ordered 100 Team Type 1 T-shirts, and called Daniel Hopkins to thank him again, only to find out the number didn’t exist.
“I sent him an email that bounced. I tried calling every Daniel Hopkins in the Atlanta phonebook. I never found the guy,” he says.
To this day, he has copies of his bank statement from that $400 investment framed in his office.
Building a Winning Team
With time, the team grew from two athletes to eight athletes—including Joe Eldridge. They participated in clinical trials for continuous glucose monitors so they could monitor their blood sugar levels throughout their rides and take out the guesswork.
Then, in 2006, they competed in their first Race Across America, a 3,000-mile race across the United States, which the team used to raise awareness. When Team Type 1 arrived at the start, they were viewed as the charity team. Five days, 16 hours and four minutes later, they finished second overall. A year later, they arrived smarter in their diabetes management and were the competition to beat.
Five days, 15 hours and 43 minutes later, Team Type 1 and at the time set a new record for fastest time. (They repeated wins again in 2009 and 2010).
In 2008, they became a professional team and had earned UCI Professional Continental status by 2011. Team Type 1 ran a mixed squad of diabetic and non-diabetic riders.
By 2012, the team was in the top 25 in the world, and caught the attention of Novo Nordisk, a global healthcare company. In December 2012, Novo Nordisk partnered with Team Type 1, creating Team Novo Nordisk.
The team just had one request—all the riders competing must have type 1 diabetes. Southerland complied, and it became the first professional cycling team made entirely of cyclists with the condition.
“We went on a recruiting mission and were able to find 17 athletes from around the world to try out with our development team. The rest of cycling world said that it was impossible, that there was no way we could do this,” he said. “We had kids from 10 different countries, and the majority had never used continuous glucose monitor, let alone race professionally. And we got teeth kicked in.”
But the team slowly got better. By 2014, the team at the Tour of California.
“We put our stamp down, and people finally said, ‘Oh, they can race!’ It was on a global scale, and they saw that,” he says.
Since then, they’ve created a junior team and training camps for further team development.
“We have an amazing family environment. Of the athletes on our professional team, 14/16 came from our pipeline,” he says. (At press time, the team was .)
And of course, each athlete’s health and diabetes management are top priority.
“Everyone wears a continuous glucose monitor, and we use technology to see glucose levels at every moment of a bike race,” he says. “A lot of fans just assume we’re perfectly controlled diabetics. But we recently started showing our data on social platforms, and it shows that we have the same challenges they do. But we have the technology to take very swift action. When glucose levels are high or low, it negatively impacts performance, so we just have to stay on top of it all the time, adapting to every situation.”
So, what’s next for the team?
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“It’s been my dream to get to the Tour de France,” says Southerland. “2021 marks the 100th anniversary of insulin being admitted as treatment for diabetes, and I would love for my team to do the Tour de Italia in 2021 to mark it.”
While competitively there are big goals, ultimately, he hopes the team inspires awareness and hope in others with diabetes.
“This team is the inspiration they need. We stand proud living with type 1 diabetes,” he says. “We make it about what you can do with diabetes, not what you can’t. You can do anything, and I hope that we’ve inspired those dreams.”