Interviews: Ellen Noble
(2017) We continue our interviews with twenty-year-old professional cyclocross racer Ellen Noble. She took time out of her busy race and school schedule to answer a few questions about her recent turn pro, life as a college student, and how American cyclocross looks currently as well as in the future. Our interview happened over email, which she told us was picked off a bit at an airport.
creakybottombracket.com: Among mountain, ‘cross, and road experience, when did you decide cyclocross was in the way to go?
Ellen Noble: I decided on cyclocross after my first CX race. My Mom and Dad raced cyclocross back in the day, and when the mountain bike season came to an end they decide to take me to a race in Northampton, MA, in November. I didn’t race very well — I knew nothing about cyclocross, as I had only raced mountain, but I loved it. The energy, the fast pace racing, the full women's field. The whole thing was just so captivating and I have been racing ever since.
I loved it so much, when we got home after Saturday's race, I asked my parents if we could drive back again on Sunday! So we got up at 4 AM, drove all the way back to Northampton (3 hours!!!) just to do another 40-minute race. I think my parents were so happy to see me so excited about something, they didn’t even care about the long drive.
cbb: Out of those cycling realms, who do you look up to and perhaps emulate?
EN: That’s a tough question because I really look up to all the women I race against. I actually got to meet Marianne Vos yesterday at the Zolder podium presentation and it was so amazing, because I have looked up to her for so long, and to finally be at a race where she won was really very special.
However, I look up to a lot of the women that I race against. There’s something to learn from and admire in all of them. I love the women who have a smile on the start line, but when we have 30 second to start they’re fierce as hell, the women who ride ridiculously well and impress the spectators with their skills; and the women who are ambassadors for the sport — that make people want to spectate or try cyclocross. It would be impossible to make a list of the women I look up to, because it’s never ending!!!
cbb: With the amount of running in cyclocross, were you a track runner previously or was it something you picked up?
EN: Yes, I was. I ran cross-country and track (middle distance) in middle school and freshman and sophomore year of high school. Unfortunately, I had to quit running when I started training full time for cyclocross. My coach and I still laugh about this to this day, because at the time I was doing 3 sports (cycling, running, hockey) with 3 different coaches, and none of them knew I was doing another sport. So I was training full out at all 3 practices. I was so overtrained that I had to go to the hospital. Subsequently, I had to let running go. But it’s always been something I love doing, and definitely helps me in cyclocross a lot. I don’t usually get gaps on the running sections, but I can run the same pace as other races and not be as tired at the end.
cbb: What was it like to have Rapha come along to outfit you for the 2016 ‘cross season?
EN: It’s been so amazing. Aspire Racing has, according to my opinion, the best partners in the world. Getting to work with a company such as Rapha has really been an honor. They put so much thought into their gear and the designs, I always feel proud and pro when I put their kit on. Not to mention, they have some of the most advanced technical gear in the world but it’s extremely simple. My personal favorites right now are their merino base layers — it keeps you warm even when it's wet and it makes a world of difference. And their Pro Team Softshell. Warm, breathable, lightweight and waterproof.
cbb: How did you become paired up with Jeremy Powers?
EN: I got to know Jeremy at a MTB stage race in Pennsylvania in 2014. I had just found out I would need to find a team for the upcoming cross season, and I met with my coach, Al, to talk about it. Jeremy and Al run the JAM Fund development team together, and they invited me to join that night. I was really awestruck to have met him at the time. And the funny thing is, I had no idea that that evening would be the catalyst for a lot of huge changes in my life. Three months later, I moved to Western Massachusetts, joined JAM, made a ton of life-long friends and started studying at an amazing college. Jeremy and I would link up every now and then, jam about racing and do skills work together. It was amazing to have that resource, to be able to learn from someone like him. I even got to travel to a few C1 events with Aspire in 2015, to see how I fit with the team, and the opportunity helped me so much! When Jeremy approached me about racing professionally for Aspire I couldn’t help but think back to the night I was crying about not having a cyclocross team just a few short years ago. It’s been such an amazing journey.
cbb: Naturally ‘cross thrives in conditions where other disciplines may not. What’s your favorite race condition?
EN: My favorite condition is probably mud or snow. I love racing in bad weather, whatever it may be. Just about all of my favorite races had been in either snow, mud, or ice. It just adds an element of challenge that I adore. It can be tough when it’s just a grass field, because it’s strictly all power all the time. But when it starts to get slippery, it’s about finding the fine line between power and traction, and modulating your effort. Plus, it’s unpredictable — which adds an element of surprise.
cbb: What’s your secret to getting mud out of white kits?
EN: You would be amazed how many times I have been asked this question this year! Everyone wants to know how I get mud out of the World Cup Leader skinsuit. Everyone is always disappointed to know that I actually get a new skin suit for every race. The dirt is gone, but its still stained. I plan to give them to my support team at the end of the year as a thank you.
However, I do have a little tip that’s helped me out before, but haven't had to try with the WCL SS just yet. I rinse the kit in tepid water, and put Dr. Bronners Castille soap right on the kit. I rub it with my thumb, stretching it pretty thin and rinse it out. It can be a bit of work, and I would say its sustainable if you're trying to clean an entire wardrobe of white kit, but its worth it if you have a few white items you're trying to salvage.
cbb: Regarding racing the elite division in 2016, what was it like to finish Koksijde, where you finished 16th, and what bits did you learn from the elite races this year?
EN: Unfortunately, Koksidje was cancelled this year (poor research by us at cbb) due to high wind. However, I finished 16th at Namur and it was a good feeling. Racing those races as an American is unique. It may be my perception of it, but I always feel as though the European spectators are looking at you because you’re American! I think the biggest thing I learn in the elite races is confidence. I realized yesterday that when I am confident, I can be racing in the top 10 of these world cups. However, it's taking a lot of time to feel confident enough to fight for position, rather than tell myself that the person that’s trying to get by me is better and I should just let them go. So most importantly, I need to realize that I have done the work and I’m capable of it. However, that’s easier said than done.
cbb: Recently you posted on social media frustration with some reactions to your kit being unzipped at a race. Where did you get the most criticism from and how was the reaction after your posting?
EN: The criticism was mixed. A lot of racers made snide comments, but also a lot of people I don’t know. Maybe anticipated that it was exclusively men making the comments, but surprisingly a lot of women made comments as well. The reaction after my post, however, was overwhelmingly positive! It meant so much to see women and men taking to social on their own and post about it, starting #UnzipForEllen and #UnzipForEquality! Moreover, the amount of people that said things to the effect of, “I had never thought of it this way, thanks for opening my eyes” etc. was really amazing. I was happy that a somewhat negative situation had turned into a positive learning experience for many. There was only one negative comment that I came across, effectively saying that my previous posts were ‘inappropriate’ and justified any criticism I got. I commented back saying that I would happily tell him why I respectfully disagree with his logic if he were to contact me privately. I’m still waiting for his response.
cbb: Are you satisfied with the growth of women’s cycling both on and off the road? If not, what needs to be heavily looked at in the coming years?
EN: I am. I think the progress thats been made is extremely significant. However, we’re actually arriving at a very critical point in the process because it’s so close to equality it's possible to become complacent and stop before it's truly reached. The addition of a World category for u23 women (and the WCL category as well) should not go unnoticed. I know many still see the inequality compared to the men, as they have Junior and U23. However, I think the fact that it exists at all is something that should be applauded, and I’m positive in due time a junior women's category will be added. I think very, very recently the participation numbers have grown enough to support a thriving U23 and junior category! Which is amazing.
cbb: What are some of the up-and-coming girls in cycling saying to you?
EN: I love talking to the up and coming girls! It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling to the big race weekends around the country. This year in Cincinnati, I got to meet a group of junior girls who were so excited to talk about bikes! It’s amazing. Unfortunately, at races or events I don’t always have the time to talk at length, especially when it’s a big event, but I really try to keep an open line of communication with any up and comer that wants to talk. I know how valuable it was for me when I was growing up, and want to do anything I can do help other girls in the sport in the same way.
cbb: Since we are also from the east coast, and feel the need to ask, do you notice a difference in styles among east, central and western racers?
EN: I can’t say I notice a difference in style so much as ability or skills. I absolutely HATE riding on loose dirt trails like they have in California. I’ve never felt so slow in my life! But when I’m riding in my element — rocks and roots — I feel fearless! And some people are super confident on the loose dirt stuff, but they’re more cautious on the rocky stuff. I think a lot of style comes from who the riders looks up to and wants to emulate! Especially with social media and so many riding edits now, a lot of style can come from mimicking your favorite riders on Pinkbike.
cbb: What was the biggest shock you received in your first UCI elite race?
EN: It feels so long ago! Actually, my first UCI elite race was a total shock. I was racing in Vermont in a field, and there were a lot of allergens in the air. I ended up having what we later found out was an asthma attack, but I was complaining of chest pains so they thought I was going to have a heart attack!! Not my finest moment, as I was totally freaked out, but it made the next few feel much smoother since I could at least breathe properly!
cbb: One professional road rider said something along the lines of the Tour de France looks beautiful on television, but within the peloton it’s a lot of jostling. Cyclocross looks like a lot of jostling on television. Is the elite field even more chaotic at track level?
EN: Yes, for sure! I think you can see the jostling in cyclocross more than you can in road. Typically, the field is strung out, so you can see when a rider moves up, and if there is a big bunch up you know there’s some drama going on! It can be frustrating at times. Sometimes racers are so desperate to move up, but we’re all still riding in a group, so they only moved up one positive and used a lot of energy to do so. It doesn’t always make sense to me, but yes there’s a lot of action going on in the group that you probably don't see on camera.
cbb: How do you make life balanced between your U-23 schedule and school?
EN: For this season, I’m actually going to school online. I made the decision after last year’s experience. I felt like my racing was suffering because of school, because I couldn’t do the events I wanted, or at least on the timeline I wanted, but I was still missing school to do some races and not studying as much as I wanted because of training. So I figured I would get the best of both worlds and go to school online! It allows me to study, train, race and still have a little time left over to enjoy a lot of other things that I love! It’s really such an amazing program and I think it’s the best fit for me.
cbb: Focusing on school, where are you hoping a public health major takes you?
EN: I’m still working on this piece of the puzzle. I know that entering the work force is still a long ways off for me, so it was really about finding something that I was passionate about, and wanted to study. I already have a job, and that is cycling. So I think expecting any to know exactly what I want to be doing in fifteen years down to a tee is a little crazy! Who knows where I’ll be. But ultimately, I know I want to work with people and help them make their lives better. I want to do that in cycling, too. Whether it’s speaking for bike advocacy, empowering women on the bikes, or teaching people about environmental toxins after I retire, I know I’ll find happiness in helping people better their lives through education. And that’s all I really know right now :)
cbb: On your personal page you list dogs and adventures as likes. What does a day during your winter break look like for you?
EN: A day during my off-season this year is going to look vastly different than last year. During last year’s off-season, I had to take 6 weeks off the bike. Partially because I was so tired from so much European travel, but mostly because the first 3-4 weeks of my off season were spent pulling all-nighters in the library to catch up on 2 weeks of missed school work. So, by the end of my off season I was even more tired, so I had to take a little longer break than we planned. This season, I’ll be in Spain for my offseason, as my boyfriend and I (along with a handful of our friends) will be spending the spring there. So, that means I’ll be able to adventure around southern Spain, hopefully go hiking and swimming a lot. Definitely learn some Spanish and lounge at the cafés, read a million books and admire as many of the Spanish dogs that I can. On a less exciting note, I will be sleeping a lot. And maybe indulging in a few glasses of wine. It’s really all about doing the things that recharge you and make you feel mentally ready to buckle down for a few hard months of training. Once the summer rolls around, we find time to have fun because the days are so long and the weather is nice, but it's important to take a mental break (enjoy the things you skip in-season) before your life becomes all about cycling again!
cbb: What’s your major goal for 2017?
EN: It’s really hard to say, because I have no idea where I’ll be. I’ve had some pretty rapid progression over the past few years, but I know eventually that progression will slow. When that will happen, I have no idea. I still feel like I have so much left to give; so many pieces to perfect, that I hope I’m not nearing the ‘slow-down’ point just yet. However, I also understand the limitations of the human body. If you never get tired, you’re either an alien or lit. I am definitely getting a little tired. I’m confident that my off season and a change of scenery (Malaga, rather than Western, MA) will refresh me, but that doesn’t mean I wont be a little more tired next year — it’s something people talk about a lot. So, what I’m trying to say is that all I can ask for is to have the best season I’m capable of! Whether that means I get a World Cup Podium (a girl can dream, right?), or consistently place in the top-15, I can’t say just yet. But I’m focused on controlling the controllables, and at the end of my career, I’d like to see a constant upward slope of improvement. I know that answer may seem like a cop-out, but it’s really all I can ask for. I feel like I’m a little too young to realistically say anything else!
cbb: Will you continue to race through until the next ‘cross season or will you take any time off?
EN: I’m actually taking a rather big block off. I will be completely OTB for all of February, then doing a big build for March and April, that will lay the foundation for the rest of the year. In May, I’ll start racing for the Colavita-Bianchi women's pro team, and do 3 months of road racing with them. Then I’ll take another month off, and it’s CX season again! It’s a really nice balance. Sometimes it can drive me a little crazy, because I want to race, race, race when it’s sunny and nice, but by the end of the CX season I always understand why my coach tells me to hold back and not over-race. More than anything, taking a break now means in 10 years I can still be doing this and not completely cracked and living off the grid somewhere! I am really devoted to laying the foundation for the rest of my career, not just for the rest of this week, or even season.
As Tim Ferris said “We overestimate what we can do in a week, and underestimate what we can do in a year.” And I try to remember that, in a positive and negative way, every day!
We wish her the best of luck in 2017 and offer our thanks for taking the time out of her schedule to do this interview.