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Cycling Against the Odds
Graduate student with Type 1 diabetes competes as part of top cycling squad

Ioana Patringenaru | March 22, 2010

James Stout is part of an elite racing team that promotes Type 1 diabetes education and is made up of riders that all suffer from that condition.

James Stout, a UC San Diego graduate student in history, is only 22. But he already has ridden his bike on four continents and in about half a dozen countries. All the while, he has been battling Type 1 diabetes, a chronic disease that is more severe than Type 2 diabetes and disproportionately strikes children and the young.

Last year, Stout joined Team Type 1, a top cycling squad whose members all have the disease. The team has won the grueling cross-country relay Race Across America twice—in record-breaking time. Team members now hope to take part in the Tour de France by 2012. They not only race, but also take part in public outreach events, including visits to schools and conferences.

Type 1 diabetes is a particularly challenging condition for top athletes, because exercise can cause their blood sugar levels to drop dramatically. Asked why he keeps biking, Stout cites inspiration from his teammates.

“I used to use diabetes as an excuse for doing badly,” he said. “Now, it’s a motivation for doing well.”

Being part of a team where everyone struggles with the condition helps, he added. Teammates watch out for each other. If one says their blood sugar level is dropping, they’re quick to offer that person sports drinks and snacks, and invite them to rest in the team’s car.

Stout during the Tour of Dorset, riding with the pack.

Stout joined the team last year after a chance meeting at the Tour of California. He was helping out during the race, when he noticed Type 1’s tent. Because his diabetes was considered a pre-existing condition, getting medical coverage—and care— here in the United States was a struggle. Team Type 1 members immediately took him in, offering advice about managing his diabetes while competing.

He now knows that to keep his blood sugar under control during a race, he needs to take in about 400 calories an hour. So he makes sure he has plenty of sports drinks and snacks when he sets out. And he can always count on his teammates for additional help, he said.

In addition to joining Team Type 1, Stout also is a member of UCSD Cycling, a collegiate team that includes undergraduate and graduate students. “It’s a good way to meet people and make friends,” he said. 

Stout went to a cycling trade show and came back with sponsorship for the team's gear, including clothing, wheels and saddles, said Tammy Wildgoose, the team's president and a senior majoring in neuroscience. He now acts as the team's coordinator of sponsorships.

Stout also has done a great job taking new riders under his wing and talking to them about training and good nutrition, Wildgoose said.

"He's supercool because he really cares about getting new people into the sport," she said.

Stout during a short, closed-circuit race known as a criterium.

UCSD Cycling competes in the Western Collegiate Cycling Conference against other University of California campuses, including UC Berkeley, as well as Stanford and California State University campuses. UCSD's team ranks sixth in the conference.

Stout is one of about 25 riders on the team who take part in races. He figures he trains about 20 to 30 hours a week. He also works as a teaching assistant, which takes up another 20 hours. “There’s not much time for messing around,” he laughs.

Cycling appears to always have been a part of Stout’s life. He first rode a bike as a little boy in his native England, more precisely in the small village of Murcot, in the country’s Midlands. He started riding on the road around age 16 or 17. But at age 18, he was diagnosed with diabetes. His condition, called MODY diabetes, is more complex than typical Type 1 diabetes. His body produces insulin on and off, which means his blood sugar levels, and his condition, vary widely. He jokingly calls the disease “Type 1 ½ diabetes.”

Treatment includes diet, exercise and fast-acting insulin. He was recently fitted with a continuous blood sugar monitor that rests on the skin and eliminates the need to draw blood. Exercise, including riding, can be tricky, Stout said. It can lower blood sugar levels. But stress related to competing can also make sugar levels spike, the UCSD student said.

“You’re never really in control of it,” he said. “You manage it. It’s a beast.”

Stout during his stay in Kenya .

Asked what he loves about cycling, Stout, who studied modern history and politics at Oxford as an undergraduate, cites the sport’s intellectual nature.  It’s not about brute force, but about strategy, he said. “It’s like chess at 50 miles per hour,” he said. Cycling also has other appeals. “I like going fast,” Stout admitted.

Stout has taken his bike all over the world. After high school, he lived in Kenya, where he helped build a house on a sanctuary for the endangered Rothschild giraffe. He didn’t have electricity and water was heated by the sun. Adventures in that country including water-skiing while hippos and crocodiles looked on.  “It was fantastic,” Stout said.

In summer 2006, he lived in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, where he taught children English, math and physical education. He also took part in races, with his students cheering him on. He came in third in the country’s championships. “So many kids were excited for me to get there,” he recalls.

While at Oxford, Stout also raced all over Europe, including in the United Kingdom, Belgium and France. One of his favorite spots is the Catalonia region of Spain. That area also has become the focus of his academic work.

He is investigating how members of the working class were expressing their Catalan identity through street art, food and, of course, cycling during Spain’s civil war and the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Spain is home to one of cycling’s best-known races, the Tour of Spain, also known as “la Vuelta.”  The race has become an arena for political struggles between Castilians, Catalans and Basques. One of the first terrorist acts perpetrated by the Basque separatist movement ETA took place during la Vuelta. Today, the competition avoids Basque country, Stout said.

Stout started biking on the road around age 17.

He wrote his first academic paper at UCSD on la Vuelta for a first-year graduate seminar taught by Robert Edelman, himself an expert in the history of sports and author of “Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State.”

Stout is smart and lively and knows how to tell a good story, Edelman said, but he needs to hone his writing skills. “He can be a great teacher, no question about that,” the professor said. “He knows where the bodies are buried in terms of sources in Spain. He can do innovative research.”

Stout was admitted to Stanford and the London School of Economics. But he chose to come to UCSD. He said he was looking for an area different from England and was attracted by the university’s top-notch history department, the structure of UCSD’s doctoral program, which allows for research, and by funding. He also is committed to teaching at a publically funded university. But there was more to it than that.

“It’s a great place to ride your bike,” Stouts said of San Diego. “And I like the beach.”

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