In his seventh year as a professional cyclist, Chris Williams shows what it means to be a true domestique in the peloton. He excels at getting into breakaways, which he showed on Stage 4 of 2014 Post Danmark Rundt where he held on solo until the final 50 meters and earned the most aggressive rider jersey. In 2016, he earned his best results to date when he sprinted to fifth on Stage 3 of the Tour de Filipinas and powered to 10th during the Prologue at the Tour of Taihu Lake.
The Aussie’s athletic career didn’t begin until university, when he started competing in triathlons. Switching to road cycling after graduation, Williams worked his way up the ranks, but he never actually believed he had the skills to become a professional rider.
While riding for the Australian domestic squad, Merida Australian Road Team, Williams was still working as a school teacher. At the end of a race he collapsed and was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The doctor recommended Williams take three months off the bike. Williams, however was back on the bike a few days later and his career continued to improve.
In 2011, he signed with the professional continental squad Champion System and was introduced to a former Team Novo Nordisk director. At that time, Williams had considered ending his professional career, but when Team Novo Nordisk offered him the opportunity to race on an all-diabetes squad, he eagerly signed on.
Whether in a race or just for fun, the 36-year-old loves riding his bike. Williams embraces the Australian mentality of enjoying life and his personal motto is, “embrace adventure.”
"I don’t think that just because I have diabetes, it’s something that has to hold me back."
Most Aggressive Rider – Post Danmark Rundt , Stage 4
Queensland State Road Race Champion
Queensland State Criterium Champion
Tell us about when you were diagnosed and how you found out? What was your initial reaction?
In August 2009, I travelled to Victoria, Australia, for the Tour of Geelong, a National Road Series race. In the lead up to the event, I was in pretty good form and I performed well in earlier races, so I had high expectations for myself.
When we arrived in Geelong, I began having crazy cravings for juice and sports drink. In one visit to the supermarket, I drank an entire two-liter bottle of orange juice before we had even left the store.
My teammate’s sister was there to help out, and she just happened to be a nurse. She joked that I probably had type 1 diabetes, and we all had a good laugh about it at the time.
The next day, the tour started with a criterium in the morning followed by a road race in the afternoon. I lasted about 5 laps in the criterium. I felt like I had no power and was going through about twice as many water bottles as anyone else. I just assumed I was dehydrated and would make up for it in the afternoon’s race.
However, the road race began in a similar fashion. After about 30km, I couldn’t hang on to the bunch, and I was dropped. I was left to struggle to the end where there was a climb up to the finish line. My legs cramped in every muscle I have, and when I crossed the line, I collapsed off my bike as if I had just completed the hardest mountain stage at the Tour de France.
At this point, I was still assuming that it was dehydration and decided to go to the hospital to see if I could get a drip in order to get things back on track. I explained my situation and ‘symptoms’ to the nurses, and after a few tests, the doctors told me that I was living with type 1 diabetes.
Of course, I told them that they must be wrong and my blood sugar is only high because I had a can of coke just before coming in. I also told the doctor that I had to leave because I had to race the next day, but he laughed and told me it was absolutely out of the question.
Did you think your days as an athlete were over? Did others? What did your doctor say?
Initially, the doctors at the hospital said that I should not ride for at least three months, and that endurance cycling and diabetes was a very difficult combination.
I was ready to quit the sport and in my mind, I had already sold my bike. If I had a laptop with me in the hospital, I’m pretty sure my bike would have been on eBay within the hour.
The doctors and nurses at the hospital seemed to have very little sympathy or understanding for my passion for cycling. It was as if the complexities of diabetes and endurance sport were too much to try to explain at that moment when they were just trying to give me the basics. It was brushed off as something that I might be able to do again sometime in the future.
At that moment, I was pretty down. My entire life revolved around cycling, and now I was being told that I couldn’t do it anymore.
I was released from hospital and spent the day waiting in my hotel room for my teammates to finish racing. I was already thinking about all the things that I believed I couldn’t do or eat anymore. I have a very strong sweet tooth, and the nurses told me to steer away from the lollies and desserts. That was devastating enough!
How did your family/friends/fellow athletes react?
Fortunately for me, I have some very supportive friends. They were not going to let me mope around. Within two days of being diagnosed, they had convinced me to find a way to get back on my bike, and with their support, and the support of my health care team, I completed my first ride.
We rode down to the local coffee shop where they all ate waffles and ice-cream in front of me because, apparently, I would have done the same thing to them!
About a month later, I completed my first race with diabetes and placed 3rd in the state time trial championships. That was now just over 5 years ago, and I have not looked back since.
What was it like riding with diabetes and how did you adjust?
I had to learn how to do a lot of things all over again because I couldn’t do the same as I used to without diabetes.
One of the big things I had to learn was to always be prepared with food and insulin, just in case I needed them. I also had to learn what food worked best for me and when to eat them. I tried many different kinds of gels, bars, slices and even fruitcake until I found what worked best on the bike. I also had to work out the best time to have breakfast, what kind of food I should eat and how long after eating I could start training.
Before I was diagnosed with diabetes, riding my bike allowed me to pretty much eat whatever I wanted. I would quite often stop at a bakery and ‘refuel’ halfway through a ride. However, after I was diagnosed, I had to learn how to manage my food intake while riding and figure out what I should and shouldn’t eat. I could no longer stop at the bakery and eat my usual apple turnover, cream donut and chocolate milk.
Riding still allows me to consume a few more calories than the average person, however, I have had to learn what works best for me so that my blood glucose levels are stable while I’m riding.
Another skill I had to learn is to give myself insulin while riding. Some races we do are over 200km in distance, and I can consume a lot of food during this time. Consequently, I have to carry insulin with me while racing, and I have mastered the art of riding and injecting myself while eating.
At first, I pretty much kept the fact that I had diabetes to myself and looked after it without anyone else knowing. I was always the first one to breakfast at races, and I would make sure to inject insulin discretely. Unfortunately, injecting insulin at a bike race can also raise questions from other riders- despite the fact that I need insulin to live!
Tell us about how you got started in your sport.
When I finished high school, which seems like an eon ago now, I let myself go physically and picked up some bad habits. I did very little exercise, I had been smoking for a few years and I was over-weight.
I grew up in small country towns in Queensland, and exercise often took a back seat to driving my ute (an Australian utility vehicle) around and going to the pub with my mates.
I had never seen a bike race before, and the closest thing I had ever done to it was ride my bike to school. There is a period in most people’s life when riding a bike becomes uncool, and for me, it coincided with getting my driver’s license and turning 18.
In 2001, I relocated to Brisbane to attend university and moved into a share house. There was a big mix of people living in the house and one of them just happened to be a triathlete. For the first few weeks, I barely even knew he was there, as we kept very different hours. We would run into each other sometimes in the early hours of the morning- me coming home from a night out and him leaving to go out training. I was never really interested in where he was going with his bike but I used to joke that I would never be caught dead in some of the Lycra outfits that he wore.
That all changed one Saturday morning, while sitting on the couch with my girlfriend (now my wife) watching a triathlon on television. An Australian triathlete ran out of the water in his “budgie smugglers” and my wife made a remark about his physique. Being highly competitive and slightly insulted, I scoffed at her and said, ‘I could do that’. And that is how it all began.
I’m not the kind of person to do things half-heartedly, so within a couple of weeks I had sold my beloved ute, quit smoking cold-turkey and purchased my first ever road bike.
I had only 3 rules: no lycra, no speedos and no shaving my legs. Those rules obviously did not last long. Three months later, and after a lot of learning and suffering, I completed my first triathlon in one of those Lycra outfits that I swore I would never wear.
When did you start competing?
I always enjoyed the bike a lot more than anything else, and I found that I spent most of my time riding, so I soon gave up swimming and what I consider to be the violent act of running to focus solely on cycling. And in 2005, I gave up triathlons for cycling.
How/when did you know cycling was something you wanted to do professionally?
For me, it wasn’t about doing it professionally. Cycling is one of those sports where you are always looking to take it to that next level- whether that means setting a personal best on your favorite climb or making the selection for a team. I just wanted to keep improving, and eventually, the next step was to earn a spot and race professionally.
What do you think is your biggest achievement in your athletic career?
I have won several state medals in Australia, but for me, my most memorable moment came at the 2014 Tour of Denmark.
Unfortunately, it is a little bittersweet. I was in a breakaway that came extremely close to denying the peloton. We were away for the entire stage only to be caught in the final meters before the line. The atmosphere was fantastic in the final circuit as the crowd screamed for us to make it. Although I missed out on winning, I was awarded the Most Aggressive Rider jersey, not a bad consolidation prize.
What is your favorite memory from a race/competition?
In the early days, I was part of a small, domestic team that raced the Australian National series races. Everyone on the team was good friends, and we would all travel to races together.
Every race was like an adventure holiday. We didn’t have any team staff, so we did everything ourselves, including hiring a bus and driving around. I enjoyed the times away, both on and off the bike.
Being part of Team Novo Nordisk
How did you come to join Team Novo Nordisk?
In 2011, I raced for a Continental Team in many races in Asia. During this time, I competed against many of the riders from Team Novo Nordisk and talked to a few of the riders about racing with diabetes. So they were all aware that I have type 1 diabetes, and in 2012, I was contacted by the team and given the opportunity to join.
How has your life changed since you joined the team (both as an athlete and as a person)?
On my old team, I kept the fact that I had diabetes to myself. With Team Novo Nordisk, having diabetes is celebrated, and we aim to inspire, educate and empower others around the world who are affected by diabetes.
I never considered what I do to be an inspiration or anything special, so it is a big change for me to talk to other people with diabetes about what I have done and give them inspiration to achieve their goals.
Diabetes is usually seen as a negative thing that makes life harder but I want to break these misconceptions and show people what is really possible with diabetes.
Off the bike (Other Interests)
How do you spend your time when you’re not training or racing? Any other passions?
When I’m not training or racing, I try to spend as much time as I can with my wife, who stays at home while I am away.
We enjoy staying active and getting outdoors, so we spend our time bush walking, travelling or at the beach.
I also enjoy putting my feet up when I can and watching a movie or two.
What do you want to do when you retire?
Food and coffee are other passions of mine, and I would love to open my own café one day.
What are the three most important things in your life?
My health and happiness
Married? Kids? Pets?
I am married, but no kids and no pets.
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