How continuous glucose monitors are poised to reshape pro racing
Forget power meters and heart rate monitors – glucose monitors are poised to change pro cycling forever. Here's a look at how the new tech could push the peloton forward.
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This is part one of a series diving into the pioneering continuous glucose monitoring technology that could change the game for pro racers and weekend warriors alike. Stay tuned through the coming weeks for hands-on reviews, insights from racers, and an update on the controversial UCI ban.
It’s the tool that Chris Froome always dreamed of, and the technology that has changed the game for elite runners, triathletes, and crossfitters.
Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) is the newest big thing in sports science, and it’s poised and ready to change the game in pro cycling.
“I think we have a chance to optimize the sport,” Supersapiens founder Phil Southerland told VeloNews.
“We can improve the way athletes fuel and train, and take some of the mental pressures out of trying to get your optimal power to weight ratio. And ultimately, to help guide personalized nutrition.”
Supersapiens is leading the way in the development of CGM technology. A small sensor stuck to the skin tracks glucose levels in real-time, allowing users to monitor every post-donut sugar rush and mid-ride bonk via a mobile app.
Froome is so impressed that he believes glucose monitors could reshape pro cycling in the way power meters did two decades ago.
“That’s just going to grow and grow and grow in the next few years,” he said. “We are going to see them more important at top-level sport.”
CGM marks the next data-tracking step forward in what is becoming an increasingly sophisticated world of ride data. But unlike the power and heart rate monitors that went before them, sensors like Supersapiens trace the inputs of exercise rather than its outputs.
With an understanding of how to fuel optimally, riders will be safer, faster, and able to deliver more thrills to the spectator.
“Without glucose, you can’t produce power. And without glucose can’t make decisions. So if we can help people fuel better, their legs should go faster, and their brain should be sharper – and you can take a bit of the guesswork out of it,” Southerland said in a recent call.
“It’ll be truly woman versus woman, man versus man – rather than who took a gel at the right time because that’s what they were thinking on that day.”
Where pro cycling and glucose monitors collide
Supersapiens chief Southerland is a former racer, and the brains behind the Team Type One diabetes foundation and the all-diabetic pro team Team Novo Nordisk.
And the pro cycling links don’t stop there.
The Atlanta-headquartered business is backed by Froome and Ineos Grenadiers boss Dave Brailsford, among many others, and has gained investment from Wahoo Fitness, and the founder of Zwift, Eric Min.
- Bobby&Jens: Southerland talks glucose monitoring and the origins of Team Type 1
- Froome looks to future with investment in Supersapiens, Hammerhead, Factor
Given those connections, it’s no surprise Supersapiens is diving deep into the pro peloton.
Jumbo-Visma, Canyon SRAM, Ineos Grenadiers, and EF Education Nippo are among the most active users of the system as they look to find the edge in the increasingly cutthroat world of elite racing.
Although pro riders are already bombarded with data points about watts, heart rate, cadence, and more throughout their racing and training, Supersapiens hopes to make the difference through its 24/7 application.
It’s a full-lifestyle sensor for a sport that demands a day-long focus on fuelling, recovering, and meeting target body composition.
Asker Jeukendrup is a leading sport scientist and works as head of nutrition at Jumbo-Visma. He backed the use of CGM early and introduced the men’s WorldTour team to Supersapiens last summer.
He sees it as a game-changer.
“The fact that you put a patch on which starts measuring internally is a real breakthrough. That’s what’s really going to change everything, just as much as power meters have made changes in cycling,” Jeukendrup told VeloNews.
“And the power meter is a little bit limited because it only works the few hours you’re on the bike. It doesn’t tell you anything during the other hours of the day. This technology is 24/7.”
Another step toward robo-racing?
Blood glucose monitors are currently banned from competition by the UCI, but Southerland is hoping to see that change sometime soon.
But would the ability for riders to see exactly when they need to take their next gel to make racing go stale? Alongside race radios and power meters, CGM could be seen as another way of reducing the sport to a watts-per-kilo contest.
Southerland is not so sure.
“You could argue, yes, you could argue no. At the end of the day, people want to see the best athletes competing against each other. They don’t want to see Julian Alaphilippe attacking and then Wout van Aert has no gas in the tank so he can’t follow,” Southerland said.
“The other aspect to it is we have athletes going down mountains at 100kph through team cars trying to catch up [to the peloton]. And if they’re not doing that with a full mental faculty, then it’s not just dangerous for them, but it’s dangerous for the riders around them.”
Even highly tuned modern racers remain liable to mid-race “bonks.” Froome was handed a penalty when he took a late gel to avoid a hunger-flat on the Alpe d’Huez in the 2013 Tour, while an ashen-faced Mathieu van der Poel lost his hopes of a world title in 2019 when he blew up in the final of the road race.
Also read: Van der Poel stunned by dramatic bonk at worlds
Just as heart rate straps and power meters encountered initial pushback before they became prevalent, those driving Supersapiens acknowledge that they are likely to encounter headwinds.
“I’m probably biased as a scientist, but there may be people that say, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have power meters and heart rate monitors,’” Jeukendrup said. “I think it just takes things to a new level … it’s fantastic to have this sort of information. Things evolve. We need to learn and not just continue riding the way we always did.”
Froome is one rider keen to push cycling forward and couldn’t be more excited to see CGM gain traction. “It’s a technology I’ve been waiting for for years,” Froome recently told VeloNews.
The grand tour great has invested big in the brand and credits the technology with helping him to hit race weight ahead of the 2021 Tour de France.
The use of CGM tech for weight management is something that Southerland didn’t intend for Supersapiens however. He acknowledges the possibility for it to be misused by pro or amateur cyclists looking to get dangerously lean. Like any tool, glucose monitors are only as safe as the user in control of it.
“I have seen pro athletes doing crazy things to hit weight, damaging their bodies, and their minds in the process. I think we have the chance here to help people do it safely,” Southerland said.
“We are not marketing ourselves as a weight management tool. It just seems that the feedback we are getting is that it helps. When you know what works for your body, you can become efficient at doing so, without putting yourself at risk.”
On the brink of the big-time?
So how have riders taken to the tech so far?
Like when a rider first saw their heart rate was 140bpm or their power was 300 watts, a number means nothing without context, and Jeukendrup and Southerland both admitted education would be key to the wider rollout of CGM systems.
“Riders saw the potential. But they struggled a little bit with, ‘Okay, what should I change now?’” Jeukendrup said.
Some elite racers have thrived, however.
Froome used Supersapiens to dial in his nutrition this summer. Jeukendrup spoke of riders in the Women’s WorldTour that have used the tech to reshape their pre-training nutrition and see notable upturns in performance.
Beyond the bike, riders on Canyon-SRAM have praised Supersapiens for helping them to understand how to use nutrition to conquer jet lag and tweak their diets through the phases of the menstrual cycle.
So what does that all mean for weekend warriors like you and me?
Supersapiens is currently not available in the USA as it waits on regulatory approval, but can be purchased in countries throughout Europe.
The system integrates with Garmin head units and watches to put glucose readings in eye-view, while a new wristband also offers quick-time data away from the phone app. Southerland indicated integrations with Wahoo and Hammerhead units are also in the pipeline, or close to completion.
Partner integration and improved education could be the tipping point in making CGM the next must-have alongside your power meter, HRV tracker, and Normatec boots.
“When you have the number in front of you, it’s so easy to learn,” Southerland said. “I think if it’s an app in your pocket, you’re not going to get the full value. But when you see the data in front of you when you’re active, it’s so easy to get the maximum value out.”