Ramsey: Diabetes team cyclists linked by bond to compete, thrive

August 16, 2014 Updated: August 18, 2014 at 7:53 am

Joonas Henttala rode the mountains of Colorado last summer as part of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

It was wonderful. It was terrible. He experienced extreme agony. He experienced extreme joy.

"When you know you're facing those long climbs," he said, "it's a special feeling. You know you're going to hurt and everybody else is going to hurt but you know there is reward in the pain and it feels special.

"When you are cresting the climb, it's the feeling of job well done. You see almost like the top of the world, and it's hard to breathe and so many people are cheering you on.

"The atmosphere and the feeling are awesome."

Henttala is quick to talk about what he shares with other riders. They share the same pain as they struggle for breath while seeking to conquer a mountain pass. They share the same outlandish ambition as they day after day make astounding ascents.

But Henttala, from Finland, is not so quick to talk about what makes him distinctive.

He lives with Type 1 diabetes.

"Mmmmm," he said recently, thinking of what to say after a long training ride. "I see myself as a cyclist. I'm a cyclist who is coping with diabetes, but I have the same ambitions as all the other riders. I want to win a race someday.

"I do my work and I hope other people respect that. It's part of me and that's who I am."

Henttala competes as a member of the Team Novo Nordisk, which is comprised of cyclists living with diabetes. Team Novo offers a clear, encouraging message to spectators. Diabetes, the team's cyclists announce to anyone paying attention, does not stand in the way of competing at the highest level of sport.

This message carries special power to spectators also living with diabetes.

Spanish rider David Lozano is Henttala's teammate.

"The message is just to inspire and empower these people," Lozano said.

"Showing that they can do anything. That's a really powerful message to them. I think it's great to do that."

Other athletes compete with diabetes, including former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler and golfer Scott Verplank, but few face the strenuous ordeals of cycling.

Henttala said the rigors of his athletic life are eased by his teammates, who all live with the same condition and find ways to thrive.

"It helps a lot," he said. "I think every rider gives something to all the other riders. You learn from each other every day."

If Henttala sees a discouraging reading after checking his blood, he knows he can turn to his teammates.

"We have shared experiences in how to deal with this condition," he said. "It's a big bond."

He knows a brutal challenge awaits him in Colorado. He's still excited.

"Crossing the finish line in Denver last year was awesome," he said. "I enjoyed every moment of the race, but the last time I crossed the line it was a feeling of mission accomplished. It was awesome."

He already has his mind on the finish line.


Twitter: @davidlukeramsey

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