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Team Novo Nordisk feels pressure to perform in 2017

Team CEO Phil Southerland says the next six months are "critical" and his riders "must deliver" to help secure the squad's future.

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ATLANTA (VN) — After celebrating three straight years of growth since re-launching in 2012 as the world’s first all-diabetes professional sports team, Team Novo Nordisk took a backward slide in 2016.

The U.S.-registered UCI Pro Continental squad enjoyed a 36 percent jump in rankings from 130th in 2014 to 83rd in 2015. However a spate of injuries and health issues resulted in 15 of the team’s 18 rostered riders missing action, which ultimately led to Novo Nordisk dropping to 92nd out of the 209 combined WorldTour, Pro Continental, and Continental teams competing last season.

Like last year, the team once again participated in a rigorous off-season training program led by former U.S. Navy SEALs and built homes for impoverished families in Latin America. There was a sense of urgency radiating from team co-founder and CEO Phil Southerland during media day in Stone Mountain, Georgia not far from the team’s Atlanta-based headquarters.

“We are in a contract year and we have to get results,” Southerland said regarding the team’s final year of the five-year deal with naming sponsor Novo Nordisk, a multinational pharmaceutical company specializing in diabetes management. “The priority is not on putting riders in the break and being in the top 10, we need visible results this year.”

Novo Nordisk registered one win, two podiums, nine top 5s, 21 top 10s, and zero jerseys in 2016, which, again, was a drop off from the year before.

In an effort to reverse fortune, the team has recruited new personnel to help keep the 18-man roster focused and healthy in the new year, including former IAM Cycling sport director Lionel Marie and former Tinkoff doctor Peter Lagrou, who was Peter Sagan’s personal doctor last year.

The squad will also look to 33-year-old Spaniard Javier Megias to continue his rise as the team’s top GC threat. Megias, whose grand tour experience includes a fifth-place stage finish at the 2007 Vuelta a España, placed second overall at the Tour de Korea and 14th at the Amgen Tour of California in mid-2016. He was 10th at the Tour of Turkey the year before.

Italian Andrea Peron, Dutchman Martijn Verschoor, and Spaniard David Lozano will also be counted on heavily, as well as French track champion-turned-sprinter Quentin Valognes, who was called up from the team’s development squad in August.

After competing in its first WorldTour race (Milano-Sanremo) two years ago and its first WorldTour stage race (Tour of Poland) last year, Novo Nordisk will have to dig deep to produce results in 2017 with an ambitious race schedule that could include up to five WorldTour events.

“The cycling media has heard our story a thousand times over the last four years, which is great as we’ve done an amazing job of getting the word out,” admitted Southerland. “But we need results and we are going to go in with very clear directives and operate more like a WorldTour team.

“Meaning there will be more of a focus on prioritization from us, so you might not see us in some races, but we will be there working toward a bigger target.”

The Dubai Tour, Abu Dhabi Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milano-Sanremo and the Tour of California are all potentially in the cards, and Southerland said the pressure could give his team the edge it has perhaps previously lacked.

“It’s a fresh start for the riders,” explained Southerland, who authored “Not Dead Yet” in 2011 about his own struggles with diabetes since being diagnosed at 7 months old. “We have not been as risky as other teams in the past, maybe our riders have felt secure in that they were good enough athletes to maintain a slot on an all-diabetes team. They could play it safe.

“Now these boys have to deliver,” he continued. “We are one team. If they don’t do their job, I can’t do my job and if I don’t do my job, they don’t have a job. We are in this together this year and I am going to fight like hell to keep them around and vice versa.”

“The next six months are critical for our future, but together I am confident of our success and hope to have good news by June in terms of a new deal.”

Southerland’s program consists of 47 athletes from 16 countries spread over men’s and women’s elite cycling teams, a development squad, and running and triathlon teams. Off the bike, the team continues to make its mark by providing inspiration and empowerment to its 4.5 million followers on social media. It also provides 91 NCAA college scholarships in the U.S. and supports more than 1,500 Rwandans through the Team Type 1 Foundation — so named after the team’s inaugural squad in 2005.

When it comes to commercial sponsorship, however, good deeds only go so far — especially for a sponsor currently surrounded by concerns about competition and pricing.

“It’s no secret that [Novo Nordisk] is going through some tough times as a company,” said Southerland. “When you go through tough times, you look at costs. We’re not an inexpensive program, and we really need to prove our worth and prove it in the first six months of this year. Our riders are very clear of that objective.

“Novo Nordisk is the best in diabetes healthcare and they have been around for 93 years now, next year going on 94,” he continued. “One way or another, I am confident they will be a part of our program for many years to come.”

With a goal of racing the 2021 Tour de France — coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, which provides life for those afflicted with diabetes — there is still a long way to go for Southerland and company.

“As an all-diabetic team, we can’t go sign the best riders from other teams to fill our needs,” explained Southerland. “We have to build our own. Through our development program we are creating a runway of talent for the future. I am excited about the pressure to perform and I am excited to place it on the riders.

“I think it gives our team that little extra motivation we need.”

Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.