PEZ Talk: Novo Nordisk’s Thomas Raeymaekers
Thomas Raeymaekers was on his way to a promising career, in the best under 23 team in Belgium and then he finds out he has diabetes and was advised to hang up his wheels. From his hospital bed he saw the Tour of Turkey and knew he had a future in the peloton.
At this time of year we usually catch up with Martijn Verschoor of Team Novo Nordisk (and will when he has time for a coffee), but as the team were training in Spain recently we managed to have a word with one of the team’s young Belgian riders; Thomas Raeymaekers. Thomas has come through some hard times, but now he is were he should be due to inspiration from the team. This is his story… so far:
PEZ: How did you get into cycling?
Well, I am from Belgium and cycling is such a big deal in Belgium. My father was a cyclist at amateur level, so I think it’s in my blood. I was fascinated by cycling since I was about 3 years old, watching the Tour de France, the Worlds and all the big races on TV and I always wanted to start cycling, but my father kept saying wait, wait. At the age of 10 he couldn’t stop me any more, but my parents said I was to only ride one race and then go back to soccer. I won my first race and then my second race, so they had to say OK.
PEZ: Racing at ten years old?
In Belgium you can start racing at eight, I think, but I had my first race when I was ten and I won and then the second race and then just kept racing.
PEZ: When did you find out you were type 1 diabetic?
When I was 17 years old, I was in my second year as a junior and I was in one of the biggest teams in Belgium, maybe in Europe; Avia. We had the World champion and national champion in our team. The team expected a lot of me and I expected a lot from myself too. But I could only just stay with the bunch and not do any more, just finish races and it was getting worse every week and at one point I had lost seven or eight kilos in one week. I was drinking seven or eight liters of water a day and I felt tired all the time. I still wanted to try to race, but I would be dropped after only 500 meters. So I started to look at my symptoms on the Internet, drinking a lot and losing weight, and all I could see was diabetes. I thought it was impossible, I can’t have diabetes, I was seventeen, healthy and into sports, but I went to my grandmother who has type 2 and I checked and it said high so I immediately went to hospital. They said ‘you have diabetes’ and that was pretty hard.
PEZ: Did you think you would not be able to race at that point?
I didn’t know. That was the only thing I cared about and I knew nothing about diabetes. So it was like, OK I have diabetes but can I race? I was told I couldn’t race anymore, maybe I could ride my bike one hour to school and come back, but that’s it. Basically my dream was gone. It was always my dream to become a professional cyclist and it was gone. The next day when I was lying in bed watching TV while still in the hospital, the Tour of Turkey was on and I saw Team Type 1 (the predecessor to Team Novo Nordisk) and Efimkin won the final stage. I started looking on the Internet for Team Type 1 and sent some emails to Vassili (General Manager of Team Novo Nordisk) and Phil (co-founder & CEO of Team Novo Nordisk). Then I knew I could still race, I didn’t know if I would be good enough to be a professional, but I knew I could race and that was enough to keep trying.
PEZ: So how did the team help you?
It was a tough time in my life because I was seventeen and only one week before we found out my girlfriend was pregnant, so it all came together. It took me a couple of months to get back on the bike and get my life back on the rails. I was doing some training and I tried to do some races; some good, but a lot of them were bad. I was still in cycling, so it didn’t matter if I was good then because I had other things, like taking care of my son…my son was coming. But yes, they gave me the motivation to keep cycling.
PEZ: The team helped you get back into the whole racing thing.
They gave me some advice, but at first I just wanted to stay in Belgium and see what happens, I had to find my way. The year after I was diagnosed, I was a little bit better in the races, that was my first year as an under 23. I sent an email to the team in the summer time asking if I could come to the devo house and they said I could come for three weeks and at that point it helped me a lot. I was in a house with ten guys who all had type 1 diabetes and were able to cycle. Apparently I was good enough to get a professional contract and my dream came true. Thanks to the team.
PEZ: Have you notice a difference with yourself now that you are in the team with other diabetics?
The biggest difference is that now I want to make a difference for other people who have diabetes. Taking care of myself was something I did before as a cyclist and then as a diabetic before I was in the team, but now I like the team because we inspire others.
PEZ: But being in a team made up of diabetics must make a difference?
Yes, but in the end we are all different and my management of diabetes is individual to me. But at least you know you are not the only one, you always have someone to talk with about your diabetes.
PEZ: That wouldn’t happen on another team.
No. In the Belgian team I was in before; they asked about diabetes but they couldn’t say anything about it as they had no idea.
PEZ: What is your plan for this year?
Well, I have been out for most of the past season because I was sick, so if I can help the team get some good results that would be a good achievement. Maybe we will see if I can get some results, but I’m not saying in this race or that race.
PEZ: Which kind of race do you want to be riding?
I like the one-day races, of course the Tour of Turkey again because it’s an important race for me and it was nice to be there two years ago. I hope to be there again and of course in Belgium, it’s nice to race at home, it’s awesome to race in Belgium. There are so many races in Belgium and it’s so much fun. I really enjoyed the Brabantse Pijl so much, even if I was in a bad shape it was awesome to ride that race.
PEZ: You are still only 21, what sort of rider do you see yourself, what sort of race suits your style?
Cobbles, any race with cobbles with maybe a short climb, steep ones or with short steep climbs without cobbles like the Amstel Gold Race, it would be a good race for me. A race like the Brabantse Pijl is a good race for me, but maybe it’s too much in the final, but maybe in a couple of years it will be good for me. I love to race in the rain and cold weather… because I am from Belgium. Not in training, just racing. But when you are racing, some riders can’t stand the cold, but I can.
PEZ: What about the heat?
I don’t like it too much, 30 degrees is OK, but 35 is too much.
PEZ: Does it make any difference being diabetic in hot weather?
I don’t think there is a problem, you have to drink more, but so does everyone. I suffer anyway if it is hot, before I had diabetes I was suffering when it was hot. So there isn’t much difference.
PEZ: It get’s pretty hot in Turkey and that’s more than a one day race.
I suffered a lot, but I finished. That was my goal before from when I was diagnosed, day-by-day I just had to finish the Tour that saved me from stopping racing. I had a couple of hard days in the mountains, but I made it. I’m not really a climber, but it was nice and a great experience. We finished with a full team, all diabetics, so that was nice.
PEZ: When you were first diagnosed, was racing really difficult?
It was difficult, I rode some good races, and a couple of big races with the team and in most of them I was pretty good. Then when I did the smaller local races and usually they were so bad, I don’t know why. I think it had to do with motivation, but in the big races I did OK.
PEZ: Was there at any point you thought you would never race again?
There were some points when I said ‘I will try just one more time.’ But then the next day there would be some good points, good enough to stay on the bike for another week and I would race really well, but the next week would be bad and then the next week I could stay in the race for 15K more and that would be good enough to keep racing. Then the next week I would be bad again, but because the previous week was good I would keep trying.
PEZ: So you had good days and bad days?
Well, everyone has good days and bad days. I had them before I was diabetic so I don’t feel any difference. But I have more good days than bad days.
PEZ: At 21 you still have many years ahead of you, where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
I’ll only be 31 and should be in my best years. I don’t know, I hope in 10 years I can say I’m still a professional and have a good career. I don’t know where my limit is, maybe win some smaller races. I’m not a sprinter so winning races will always be hard; I will always have to win from a break away. I hope to be in the Tour de France with the team and I really hope to be in the spring Classics. But for the team I hope to be in the Tour de France. Looking to this year I have to see how the first couple months go and then take it from there.
PEZ: Who was your hero when you were younger?
Frank Vandenbroucke, everyone in Belgium loved him and probably outside too. I remember the Worlds in Verona, broke both his wrists and he still finished 7th. Then later it was Cancellara, before he was really good, I was already a fan, when he was still with Fassa Bortolo I already liked him. Two of my idols. Now I don’t really have any idols, I just try to be the best I can be. I’ve never raced against Cancellara, I hope to at least one time, maybe this year.
PEZ: What does the Novo Nordisk team mean to you?
It means quite a lot, personally. Because of this team I am still racing and because it makes you feel so good that you can do something for people who have diabetes. If I can do what the team did two years ago for me, for another cyclist who is lying in hospital. If I can be what Efimkin was for me for someone else that would be great. OK he didn’t have diabetes, but some of the other guys in the team did. Martijn Verschoor was there. I love the idea about the team, it’s good, people with diabetes need it.
Thomas has had some hard times to get through, but that can only make him stronger. Good luck for the future.