Aged just four, George Kirkpatrick was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, meaning his pancreas wasn’t producing insulin, the hormone chiefly responsible for controlling blood sugar levels. It meant he’d be reliant on daily injections and blood tests for the rest of his life.
“Having been diagnosed so young,” says Kirkpatrick, “I can’t really remember not having it, which is probably helpful.”
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He contrasts his own experience with that of his younger brother Gus, who was diagnosed with the same condition aged 13 – and had to deal with adapting to it at the same time as the upheaval of puberty. Kirkpatrick, who has just turned 28, has never let diabetes hold him back – in fact, sibling rivalry instilled an appetite for competition from a young age.
“I have two brothers, a sister and lots of cousins,” he tells me. “In that environment – competing all the time, whether to be heard or just for an extra piece of toast – I got used to life being competitive.”
As a kid, he rode a bike for fun, but most of his energy was channeled into playing team sports. His will to win would occasionally hit up against the realities of diabetes: the night after a hard match, his blood sugar would plummet, sometimes perilously.
“I was very competitive at rugby, and I would get delayed hypos and sometimes go into a fit and have to go into hospital.”
‘Hypo’ is shorthand for hypoglycaemia, insufficient blood sugar, which leads to confusion and loss of cognitive function and, if untended to, loss of consciousness and seizures. It is perhaps surprising, then, that Kirkpatrick has taken up a sport that places the body under a phenomenal demand for glucose: ultra-distance endurance. What prompted him to start taking cycling more seriously?
“After I moved to London [in 2014], it was the most practical way to get around,” says Kirkpatrick, “but I didn’t start racing until 2018 – taking it more seriously and began Ironman training.”
Having sketched his first foray into endurance training, Kirkpatrick makes a candid confession: “When I started work, I had quite bad mental health problems,” he says. “I’ve never been diagnosed with depression – I’ve never told anyone about this except you, right now.”
The grind of a high-pressure job in an investment bank began to get on top of him.
“I was struggling and was pretty miserable at work; that was why I turned to triathlon and cycling — to get away from everything and give me something to focus on in my spare time.”
Kirkpatrick threw himself into high-volume training, squeezing in up to 25 hours per week despite being “a complete amateur” with a demanding day job.
“I had such a good time in 2018 and enjoyed the racing so much,” he remembers. “It was a real outlet for me, with huge benefits, not just for my mental health: I was eating better, my blood sugar was more stable, I was much fitter and healthier — everything was improved.”
An intensity bordering on zeal infuses Kirkpatrick’s description of his high-performance, high-stakes lifestyle.
Doesn’t he fear burning himself out?
“I don’t get to bed until 11 most nights,” he admits, “and I’m up at five, so I’m getting five or six hours’ sleep a night max. The relentless pursuit of excellence is a big focus. I’m a believer in, ‘if you’re going to do anything, do it to the best of your ability’ – in it to win it, or what’s the point?”
Last summer, he completed a double Ironman (4.7-mile swim, 220-mile ride, 52-mile run) in Austria, followed by the Barcelona Ironman in October, which he finished in 9hr 36min. His season’s crowning glory came at Red Bull Timelaps, a 25-hour bike race around Windsor Great Park, after he made a last-minute decision to enter the solo race — and won it outright. How was a type-1 diabetic able to perform at the sharp end in such a carb-depleting event?
“My brother Gus was my support crew, so we were a diabetic team.” A continuous blood glucose monitor sent real-time readings to Kirkpatrick’s phone and enabled refuelling adjustment to rule out hypos. His confidence boosted, he is determined to demonstrate that diabetes need not be a limiting factor.
“[Leading the race] it struck me: wow, I could win this — and I’m diabetic!” he recalls. “I was thinking, come on, let’s prove to everyone that just because you’ve got diabetes doesn’t mean that you can’t win stuff like this.”
What are his plans for 2020? “Either to get points on my licence and climb up the categories,” he says, “or focus on ultra-endurance races like the Transcontinental Race.”
As he continues to list targets, it’s clear that no race is too long or mountain too high to hold him back. “I’d like to defend my Red Bull title, and contest Revolve24, a qualifier for Race Across America — something I’d like to look at for 2021.”
The diabetic pro
Triathlete turned cyclist Sam Brand, 28, rides for all-diabetic team Novo Nordisk: “I signed pro in 2018 and have competed in numerous WorldTour races including Milan-San Remo twice. It’s a crazy adventure that I’m in love with. Professional cycling is in itself challenging. For me, type-1 diabetes is just another step in this challenge, not a hurdle that stands in the way. Being part of Team Novo Nordisk is amazing because we not only race for the win but to inspire, educate and empower everyone around the world affected by diabetes.
“All of us on the team have diabetes; it’s a special bond that we share. Diabetes has given me a community, a family, and something to fight for. I want to use it as a positive, always.”
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.