Sidelined by COVID-19 pandemic, Team Novo Nordisk cyclists crank and jam on social media instead

What does a professional cycling team do when it can’t ride? For Team Novo Nordisk, switch gears to social media. 

The all-diabetes professional cycling team should be well into the 2020 season, but instead has taken to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn with news, interviews, training tips, throwbacks to past races, contests (#GuessTheRider) and general encouragement.

From Instagram Live and Zoom chats with star riders such as track cyclist Mandy Marquardt and the team’s co-founder Phil Southerland to at-home training sessions with riders, Team Novo Nordisk's social media content is keeping the diabetes community engaged and informed. While the content in general is not specific to COVID-19, some posts and interactive sessions do delve into concerns for people with diabetes in dealing with the novel coronavirus.

“Team Novo Nordisk has always been about more than results, so we knew that we were well-positioned to weather this storm if we had a clear plan in place. While we may not be racing, we remain ambassadors for the diabetes community, and we are driven to inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes in everything we do,” Fitzalan Crowe, vice president of marketing and sponsorship for Team Novo Nordisk, said in an email interview.

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The social media effort is purposeful; Team Novo Nordisk's own marketing team (separate from parent Novo Nordisk's) formulated a plan in early March when it realized the team would no longer be able to race. Every day the group huddles to figure out what is needed for the day as well as to plot bigger topic ideas for the future, Crowe said. A WhatsApp group that includes all the athletes, including the pro team, development team and ambassadors, along with the marketing team, helps everyone keep in touch and share ideas.

“We are fortunate to have nearly 50 extremely motivated and creative athletes, so this means we have a steady flow of content coming in,” she said.

Content ranges from a lighthearted at-home workout with a cyclist pedaling in place as his children hand him water bottles to outdoor athletic efforts to raise money for health workers with ambassador Stephen England’s rooftop marathon run in lieu of the Boston Marathon.

And the group’s reach is significant—Team Novo Nordisk is one of the world’s largest online diabetes communities, with 8.3 million followers on Facebook, 280,000 followers on Twitter and 85,000 followers on Instagram.

Before the COVID-19 shutdown, the team was just beginning its ninth season, having grown from 16 athletes from 10 countries with varying levels of diabetes education and diabetes technology when it began in 2012.

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“Many had never raced at the professional level before,” Katrine Sperling, Novo Nordisk’s VP of corporate communication, said via email. “We had pretty poor results. We were viewed as the charity team of the professional peloton and people didn’t respect our athletes. Yet we kept showing up knowing that we were inspiring, educating and empowering everyone affected by diabetes.”

Today, the team numbers 36 athletes—16 on the pro men's cycling team, one female professional, nine development athletes and 10 ambassadors.

“Over the years, we've learned from our successes and mistakes, both in bike racing and with diabetes. Slowly, we've gotten better on the roads and this led to respect within the peloton," Sperling said.

Crowe, from the Team Novo Nordisk communications team, said they appreciate the support from Novo Nordisk through its sponsorship, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Numerous professional cycling teams ... have had to let go of staff and riders, but not us. We cannot express how grateful we are, and together we want to keep showing the world what is possible with diabetes and that you can keep chasing your dreams,” she said.