Brian Kamstra: This unexpected journey is more beautiful.
21 December 2020
Brian Kamstra is in his fifth season with Team Novo Nordisk. The Dutchman is a former national cross-country champion and competed in the European Championships in 2011. Below he talks about being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 19 years old and how that put him on a new path in life.
How has 2020 been for you?
It’s definitely a year that went better than other years.
I’m still pretty new to cycling. I only started in 2015 and that’s also the year I turned pro. In 2014 I was still a track runner so I basically started cycling very late.
Every year on the bike so far I’ve been developing as my body gets used to an extreme endurance sport. I came from running 1500m on the track that takes less than four minutes so professional cycling is a huge change for the body. Since switching to cycling, I’ve gained 10 kilograms and it’s not fat, just muscle. My legs are twice as big as when I was a runner.
This year we noticed that I’ve gotten more stable and felt that some races were not so hard to just be there anymore. I could actually attack. Tour de Slovakia went pretty well as I was in some attacks and some breakaways. I could still be in the first group even after attacking. The last race of the season, Paris-Tours was pretty good. With 40 kilometers to go I was in the front with the last 40 guys but I just missed some experience so I got dropped from that group and finished with the group behind.
Usually, I’d be happy to just finish these races but now I am also in the front. This year has been a huge turning point so I’m happy.
Do you feel disappointed that there were so few races this year because you’re starting to get momentum in your career?
Yeah, definitely. When racing started up again after the lockdown, I was really improving but just as soon as the calendar started up again, we were done again. I felt like I was just starting to hit my peak form in the races towards the end of the season. But the good thing is I took a little time off and now I’m back on the bike and I’ve noticed I haven’t lost a lot of fitness so I should be back pretty fast.
What happened in Tour of Poland when you didn’t finish the race?
It was a long stage, over 200 kilometers and it was pretty hot. I went to Poland from the Netherlands where the weather was not so hot. I thought I had been drinking enough in the race but probably not enough electrolytes. I was extremely dehydrated so we decided I should stop the race after 90 kilometres into the third stage.
I drank 4 liters of water and electrolytes and the next morning I still didn’t go to the toilet. It was a good learning moment. Now I know in addition to carbohydrates, electrolytes are good in the extreme heat.
Is this an example of how the team learns about the limits of what’s possible with diabetes and endurance sports?
Yeah. In the debrief, the first questions my coach Kristina [Skroce] asked were, “Did you have electrolytes,” “How hot was it?” “How many bottles did you drink?” It was a good learning curve.
You’re racing at the top level in the world so you’re learning at an extreme level. Do you find a lot of value in what you’re doing in order to inspire others?
When I’m at home, I give lectures at school and teach children about diabetes. It’s the most enjoyable thing.
I’ve also done some events for Novo Nordisk in Belgium. Two years in a row we’ve done an event called Climbing for Life. Last year it was on the Stelvio. The goal was for these cyclists living with type 1 or type 2 diabetes to reach the top of the Stelvio. I rode with them to the top and they had so many questions for me. They also contact me throughout the season to see how I’m doing and they really appreciate me spending time with them answering their questions. It gives them hope.
It’s not that I am obligated to do these events, it’s that I want to do them because I always make friends for life with these guys. Sometimes they educate me too. It goes both ways.
It sounds like you’re appreciative of this unexpectant journey you’re on.
I always dreamt of being an Olympic athlete in the 1500m. Then I was diagnosed and I switched sports. The team picked me up and gave me a contract. I was never a guy who dreamt of riding the Tour de France. I wanted to be the best runner in the world when I was 12 years old. Now that has changed. Even now when I go to a running track I still have that “what if” feeling but this unexpectant journey is more beautiful.
Did you come to terms with your diagnosis pretty quickly? You were diagnosed pretty late at 19 compared to other guys on the team.
I was running on a high level at the time. My whole 2012-2013 season went to waste. I knew something was wrong. I thought I was over-trained. I was the best runner in my age group and national champion but after a while I was being passed by guys who were never on the podium. I knew something was wrong.
I did some blood tests and the first time they didn’t notice anything wrong with my blood glucose. They basically said nothing was wrong. Then I did another test after a while. The next morning they called and said you have diabetes. I started googling, “What is diabetes?”
My doctor was honest and said he knows nothing about diabetes and sport, go find out for yourself. If you listen to 90% of guys on the team, their doctors said you have to stop cycling because you can’t do it with diabetes. My doctor telling me he doesn’t know much about it and that I should go discover what it means was actually the best advice. It was strange for me to hear a doctor say “I don’t know” but I appreciated the honesty. I was never angry because I could still do what I love doing which is sport.