Review: Ride for your L1fe Documentary – Behind the scenes of Team Novo Nordisk

A film crew followed Team Novo Nordisk for the entire 2021 racing season. Nick Busca explains why the resulting documentary is a must-watch, not only for cycling fans.

It was late at night when I found myself halfway through Ride for your L1fe, a documentary following Team Novo Nordisk's 2021 race season. I had an early ride planned for the following day and I needed to get some sleep, so I decided to turn my tablet off and watch the rest another time.

But when I paused it and went to brush my teeth, I realised I couldn't just go to bed. I had to watch it until the end. The story was so compelling and well put together that stopping would have been uncivilised.

Cycling documentaries and series are getting more popular by the day and they're getting better and better. Movistar's series on Netflix, "The Least Expected Day", was nothing short of a binge-watch, and I can't wait to set my eyes on the much-anticipated upcoming series about the Tour de France.

But Ride for your L1fe was something different.

Related: What is Supersapiens? The story behind the next frontier in performance

We have watched endless team videos providing exclusive insight on how they work behind the scenes or reporting the lesser known stories within the pro peloton. Ride for your L1fe certainly includes all that level of narrative, but it adds value to it.

In 2021, a film crew followed Team Novo Nordisk, the only all-diabetic cycling team, for the entire season. The goal was undoubtedly to show what the team does and share their core values to inspire, educate, and empower people affected by diabetes (among other things). But the result of the project, and the way it was produced, transcended the original intent.First, to run a team of type 1 diabetic cyclists is a whole different ballgame to running a team of non-diabetic athletes. You have to take all the pressures and requirements a typical team has and add an extra layer of demands. And that is an enormous level of complexity.

Monitoring the blood glucose concentrations of its riders constantly – on and off the bike – is a titanic task. There's no other way to describe it. Before the advent of Supersapiens, the first real-time glucose monitoring system – intertwined with Novo Nordisk as their CEO and Founder is the same person, Phil Southerland – the team had to finger prick their riders non-stop, even from the team's cars during races. 

Relates: Supersapiens Energy Band. The world's first wearable to monitor glucose concentrations in real time

Now things are more manageable because they don't need to finger-prick the athletes as much, but the amount of data analysis has gone through the roof. So while things have gotten easier; they're not simple. To stay on top of athletes' health and glucose levels is an extra task other teams don't even have to think of. 

Ride for your L1fe's extra value also included a couple of scenes that some people may find distressing, and that speaks highly of Novo Nordisk's goal to be as open as possible about their work.

For example, it was hard to watch when Italian rider Andrea Peron's glucose levels dropped so much that he almost lost consciousness and the staff had to call an ambulance. But it needed to be watched. Otherwise, you don't understand how complicated Novo Nordisk's task really is.

Related: Rouleur podcast with Phil Southerland

And then, when you hear Phil Southerland shouting from the team car, repeatedly urging the riders to get in a breakaway to get that sought-after TV time, you may feel a bit awkward at first. So why include such hardship in a promo video?

"When it comes to type 1, I believe it's key to talk/show the ups as well as the downs," says the film director Peter Alsted. "They complement each other, they are part of what living with type 1 implies, they make the characters much more relatable, and real."

"I think it's also important to remember that pro cycling is a lot of hard work and dedication," he explains further. "These riders are heroes because of the hardship that comes with their quest, but they are humans too, and their humanity is shown in those moments of vulnerability portrayed in the film. Filmmaking is about capturing those moments where you feel both the ups and the downs. Life itself is not a 24hr joy-ride."

Once again, applaud Novo Nordisk for not sugar-coating what they do (no pun intended!). To run a professional cycling team is no joke. Sponsors are backing the project, paying salaries, and – ultimately – requiring results.

Related: Phil Southerland. Changing diabetes, one pedal stroke at the time

And Novo Nordisk is not just a gimmick or a PR construct trying to deliver a vital message and inspire people. Of course, it's all of that, and they must be credited highly for what they do. 

But they're also a serious, professional cycling team like all others. Therefore they want, need, and should be taken seriously like all others.

Through Ride for your L1fe, they displayed the incredible challenges they face because of their unique setup. But they also delivered another critical message. 

They're here to play the game hard, and they're here to stay.

Ride for your L1fe was filmed and edited by Empty Chairs and V&L Productions.