Diabetes: Dealing with the diagnosis when you’re a young cyclist

When teenage racer Alfie Peters was diagnosed with diabetes, his world was turned upside down. Happily, with a little help, he found a way to right it

Being diagnosed with a life-altering illness isn’t how most youngsters envision beginning their teenage years. So when, at age 13, Alfie Peters was told he had type 1 diabetes, he was hit by a tumult of thoughts, and foremost were fears for his future as a cyclist.

Would his disease close the door on an already successful demonstration of talent in the saddle? Would his bicycle now be forever confined to the back of the shed? The answer was a resounding no.

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Speaking in thoughtfully composed and articulate sentences belying his tender 16 years, Peters recalls starting to feel unusual after summiting the Col du Semnoz in Annecy three years ago.

“We were on a cycling holiday and watching the [2013] Tour at the time. We had just cycled up the Semnoz, which is where the Tour [stage 20] finished, and I started to feel dizzy, a bit like I was bonking.”

Confused and a little panicked by this sensation, Peters was also taking on dangerous amounts of water — arousing the concern of one particular member of his group.

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“I was drinking crazy amounts of water. We were on holiday with our friends out there, one of whom had just been diagnosed [with diabetes], and she said that those are the symptoms and that I ought to get myself checked out when I got home.”

Prior to this trip to the Tour de France, Peters had — despite being just 13 years old — already forged a fine pedalling palmarès.

“It started with just me and my dad: he always cycled so I thought it was something I’d like to try and I really enjoyed it.”

Leisurely outings with his father quickly whet his appetite, and Peters began to pit his prowess against like-minded youths.

“I started doing mountain bike races, and then moved on to road races, and began racing in local criteriums at the age of nine. I pretty much won every one.”

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To complete the full set of disciplines, Peters didn’t shy away from a pop at the clock:  “I rode my first time trial when I was 12, in Bude. It was a horrible, hilly, brutal thing — but I won my age category.”

Upon returning from France, Peters, who had rapidly began losing weight, went straight to his GP and underwent a finger-prick blood-glucose test, which gave a reading of 30mmol/L (far above the normal range of 4-7mmol/L).

His family’s fears were confirmed: he had developed type 1 diabetes. Head swimming with questions, Peters was quick to query his GP on the ramifications this would have for his cycling.

“The doctor said that I hadn’t been developing properly for a couple of months, so I was quite behind with growing and therefore would probably not be able to cycle.

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“I spent the next four days in hospital in order to get the ketones [the body’s emergency energy source but which make the blood acidic] out of my system — if they build up in your bloodstream too long it’s poisonous and can kill you. So once that was controlled, they had to teach me to look after myself.”

But then came an intervention by a man with the first-hand experience and knowledge to restore hope for Peters’s cycling career.

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The persistence of a winner

“When I was in hospital, a guy called Ian Rees contacted my dad. Rees is actually a type 1 diabetic himself and was racing for a professional team.

“So he really inspired me, and told me that this wasn’t the end and I could keep cycling. Once I got out of hospital, I didn’t really stop; I just got straight back on my bike — I wanted to keep going.”

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Not even slightly deterred by his diabetes, Peters has done exactly that. The only difference now is that, come race day, his preparations start well before the mandatory warm-up.

“First thing I do every day after waking up is take a finger-prick test to check my blood glucose level —ideally you want it to be about 6mmol/L, and you want to have a low-glycaemic index breakfast that will give you long-acting carbs for the day, and you need to keep eating to keep a constant blood glucose level.

“Going into the race, you have to keep testing your blood to make sure it’s in the right area [to race].”

Peters recently received an official offer to ride for UCI Team, Team Novo Nordisk for the 2017 season.

Make the time after each ride count

How it worked for Peters

In order to keep tabs on his condition and to optimise his racing performance, Alfie Peters uses a CGM (Constant Glucose Monitor) which — as its name suggests — constantly reads blood glucose.

This is a relatively new piece of apparatus which comes in the form of a small sensor inserted into the back, and the data is displayed on an insulin pump.

The pump, which Peters uses in lieu of injections, allows him to administer correction doses as and when needed.

This is a huge advancement for diabetics, offering a precise means of keeping blood glucose levels stable.

‘Alfie proves that diabetes need not be a barrier to elite performance’

Ian Rees, founder of T1 Diabetes Racing Team

“I heard about Alfie Peters when I was riding the ITV4 Tour Series. We both have something in common: type 1 diabetes. I have set up a team, T1 Diabetes, to bring together type 1 diabetic cyclists to show that this condition does not stop you doing what you want in life.

“I met Alfie when we won a criterium series, and he is a great ambassador for our team. Alfie strikes me as a 100 per cent winner, no second places, an attitude I have drummed into him, and hopefully, coming from me and my experience, he knows I mean it. Thinking like this should make the difference for Alfie as it has done for me.”