When Cory Greenberg was lying in a hospital bed battling a destructive disease that he was told made his dream of becoming a professional cyclist all but impossible, he had two choices. Let his world be dictated by a chronic illness or find a way back to the sport he loves.
“I’m not going to let this stop me,” he promised himself.
With an American Gastroenterological Association finding that 40% of American’s daily lives are disrupted by some form of digestive trouble, it’s a story that resonates country-wide.
Greenberg’s story starts out like many other young cycling fanatics. Growing up in Thousand Oaks, California, Greenberg was inspired by the Tour de France as a child, so he bought a mountain bike and began competing in local events. Immediate success followed with both a state championship victory and Kenda Cup win.
He then discovered his true calling was on the road. When he crossed the line in the lead at the first race he ever entered, Greenberg realized that he might just have what it takes to emulate his heroes that he had grown up watching muscle their bikes around La Grande Boucle, 6,000 miles away.
“I was hit with ulcerative colitis,” the 34-year-old explains, a long-term condition resulting in the inflammation and ulcers of the colon and rectum. The disease that causes regular abdominal pain and diarrhea, for a young cyclist growing up in the world of semi-professional sport, having to use enemas and suppositories at a team camp was incredibly challenging.
“You’re surrounded by individuals in the team that might not understand that or find that to be funny,” he says. As a result, Greenberg was ashamed and his management of the condition waned, resulting in hospitalization.
“I wasn’t able to do anything anymore. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep and when I could it was on the bathroom floor because I couldn’t leave the restroom,” he explains. “It’s a part of the condition which is incredibly embarrassing because you’re dealing with something that revolves around a restroom and there’s a reason we have a lock because that’s a part of society we try to keep away from public view.”
The doctors gave Greenberg two options, either they remove his colon or they find a way to manage the condition.
Greenberg looked at his situation as if it were a bike race. Managing his nutrition, mental health and preparation to hit a state of remission where the disease would not affect his life on a daily basis before getting back on the bike.
“It was a time in my life where I was laying in that hospital and thought, I’m not going to let this dictate my life,” he says. “Cycling has given me the knowledge of how to tackle a goal, how to get to a finish line.”
“Within six months I was racing the under-23 nationals and I actually finished,” he beams. “I was basically a ghost of my former self but it gave me the motivation to really figure out what was going on in my body and to never give up, to always move forward,” he adds.
Greenberg was able to get back to better health as he began fine-tuning his personal plan. In 2015 Greenberg’s discipline in managing the illness was rewarded with a spot on the continental IRT Racing team and a year later he won the Tulsa Tough criterium and began competing overseas.
Having managed to get the disease in remission, he decided to take a sabbatical from the continental levels, dominating the amateur ranks before making his way onto a team in Germany, where he now lives with his wife.
At the height of the pandemic, Greenberg realized how his journey was inspiring others with auto-immune diseases and knew that as an athlete he had a real platform to spread awareness and change.
“That was the genesis for Ride4IBD,” he explains. “I don’t want people to be laying in that hospital bed like I was and thinking what just happened and what do I do now?”
In the United States, ulcerative colitis affects between 40 and 240 people per 100,000 but with millions of people around the world living with some sort of gut disorder, Greenberg’s mission is to illuminate the condition so it is no longer – as he puts it – “a social stigma-based hindrance.”
In 2022, Greenberg made it count, and joined Human Powered Health to race road and gravel as a professional.
“For me, the team represents a message that is based around the empowerment of health and wellness for the individual,” he says. “There’s no other team in the world that captures the importance for not only people living with a chronic illness such as mine but individuals that are seeking to better themselves and are representing this greater health movement through cycling.”
Greenberg hopes his standing as an athlete with IBD to show the power of the bike.
“To inspire the next person who is living with a chronic illness who might not think something is possible, that is my dream.”
Since joining Human Powered Health, Greenberg has been working closely with Thorne and always praises their at-home health tests as a more dignified way of diagnosing issues and then providing a pathway for people to seek better health and wellness.
“When you’re in your lowest moments, things don’t seem to be possible, but never forget who you are as a person and what you are because the condition, the diagnosis does not define you. You define yourself. I’m just Cory.”