23 year old Ellen Noble grew up in the Kennebunkport area of Southern Maine, and simply put, just loves riding bikes. She's best-known for her cyclocross results, including a silver medal at the World Championships, four national championships, two Pan Am championships, and World Cup podiums, but for 2018 she signed with Trek Factory Racing and lined up on the World Cup XC start line for the first time with her eyes already set on the Olympics. We caught up with her earlier this year to find out why she made the decision to race XC, and what the transition to Trek Factory Racing and XC World Cups has been like.
When did you start racing?Ellen
: I started racing around age 5 with my parents. They were both really good local elite mountain bike racers. They were super old school - just racing to train and going hard all the time. There was no "training," really, it was all just about enjoying the ride. So I started going to races with them because I'd rather be at the races than stay home. I was really competitive, even as a kid, so it was a great outlet for me. This was in the days before kids' racing was cool. Now it's fun, but back then, it was just these little grass circles and basically glorified daycare.
I remember when I was seven, I was winning the boys' races, and my parents would always just "Frankenstein" me together these bikes with leftover parts, so I'd have super nice, crazy good stuff on my kid's bikes just because there would be stuff left over from my parents' bike shop.
Where is your parents' bike shop?Ellen
: They had a couple. One of them was in Wells, Maine. We used to live down there. It was a surf and bike shop, and then they also had a skate shop, as well. My parents did everything and so I also did everything growing up. By the time I was seven I had kind of outgrown the kids' races, so I started doing the novice category races. So it would just be one lap of the course, but they were really long courses. Someone actually recently sent me a video of my dad riding behind me in my first novice race, and I was so small. I was like, "How was I riding this stuff?"
Was the racing you were doing as a kid mostly cross-country?Ellen
: This is cross-country, yeah. I grew up racing mountain bikes, but if you were to see the courses that we did and the races that we were doing, you wouldn't think it was the same sport as it is today. It was so completely different. My races would be three hours by the time I finished. It was like doing marathon races back then. They were super technical. We didn't eat right, there was no training to be done, really. It was just get out there and do it.
Even when I was younger, I would go on the men's rides. My dad was such a feminist, as was my mom, and it would be like the men's only ride and my dad would say, "If you can't drop my wife and you can't drop my daughter, then it's not gonna be men's only."
Did you ever get dropped?Ellen
: No, not really. I wasn't the strongest person there physically because I was only 11, but I could definitely hold my own technically.
When did all of this riding transition into something more serious?Ellen
: I've had a couple of pivotal moments in my career. I think a big one for me was when I won the New England Elite Title at age 15. That was really big for me because I loved focusing on a series - it kept me motivated throughout the season. It really gave me a focus on consistency even at a young age. But it's funny to look back now and see what 15-year-olds are doing now because I thought I was so serious back then and I'm like, "I still didn't know anything." It took me so long to figure it out.
But yeah, right around then the sport started changing and the seasons were becoming shorter. I didn't want to stop racing in August because we just rode to race. I just loved racing. I've loved it my whole life. So we went to a cross race that fall, in 2011.
Is this when cyclocross was really exploding in the US?Ellen
: It was, yeah. I think the thing that sold me on the event was when I showed up to a cross race at 8:00 am and it was 20 degrees out and there were 98 women on the start line. I was like, "Oh, I think I found something." It held something for me that mountain biking never had.
I mean, even in the World Cup fields now, we're seeing like 79 to 81 racers. I know because I've been 79th to 81st in a lot of the starts. So it just held something very different for me. The thing with loving cross was that it allowed me to love all the disciplines of cycling and it just gave me a new perspective on riding bikes.
At that point did you focus solely on cross?Ellen
: I started focusing pretty heavily on cross, but then it was a very busy time in my life. I was on the state team for hockey and racing competitively for cyclocross and trying all these disciplines. My dad also became sick around that time. He was pushing me to do road, but I was also still trying to do mountain so I think I didn't even really have a say in the direction, I think my life took control and I started doing whatever I had an opportunity to do. If there was a way to get out of the house on the weekend and go do a race, my dad encouraged me to do it.
So I started a lot more road because I found a team that wanted to support me through that. But yeah, during that high school age of my life, I was just doing everything, even track. I just wanted to race a bike and it was really my outlet during my dad's sickness. I think it helped me a lot.
Where did things progress from there?Ellen
: I graduated college this past year and that's really when things took a big turn for me. When I moved out, I moved to Massachusetts from Maine and I joined the JAM fund, which is a non-profit development team based out of East Hampton, Massachusetts. And they helped me so much, they gave me daily guidance rather than just support to go to races. They worked on the process with me and it helped me a lot. That's really when I started taking cross and racing seriously and really, really, made a concerted effort on going pro.
Was there a pivotal moment where you were like, "Okay, this is something that I can do or this is something that I'd like to do- racing bikes as a career after college?"Ellen
: It's funny, I don't know exactly when that happened, but here's a good story. I was Facebook messaging with Emily Batty recently and I noticed there was a message above what she had just sent me. When I was 16 I wrote her on Facebook and I was like, "You're so young and so amazing, I want to be just like you. It's my dream to race professionally, especially for Trek."
I guess at like 15, 16, that was already my goal. So I don't know how long it was before then. There weren't the same opportunities in the sport back then, but I think I still was like, "Oh, yeah, I'd really like to be a pro athlete."
So back up a little bit. In college, that's when things really took off in your career?Ellen
: Yeah. I joined JAM and it helped me so much and the first weekend with the team, I got my first UCI podium and I was like, "Oh."
I had raced UCI for two seasons and just hadn't had the same amount of luck... or not luck, but I was just really struggling to put the pieces together. The program had already helped me so much just with preparation leading into the race, I think I was able to put it together.
So yeah, joining the program helped so much and I would ride for JAM in the fall, but then in the summers between it was kind of like I would intern with other teams, basically. I signed my first pro contract with a mountain bike team the first summer after I was with JAM, and yeah, it started to show. I was like, "Okay, it's not much, but it's a start." It was just one big step towards that ultimate goal.
Was the goal always to mountain bike professionally or was it whatever discipline works out?Ellen
: It's so funny, when I was 16 and harassing Emily Batty on Facebook, it was mountain bikes. That's what I wanted. But as I got older and I started racing cross, my dad really saw my potential in cyclocross, and that meant a lot to me. And so I won cyclocross nationals at 17, and that was a huge moment. I think that kind of changed my focus.
I've just always loved racing bikes and I think it's always been like, "I want to go pro and I want this to be my career," and it didn't matter what discipline because I have just always wanted to do it all.
What are a few of the highlights in your cyclocross career?Ellen
: I have a couple. Probably silver medal at the World Championships in Under 23, that's probably the career highlight. But I'm four-time national champion, two-time Pan Am champion, and I was on the podium at the Waterloo World Cup in the Elite Women. That was a big moment because last season was quite challenging for me, so to put it all together in this one amazing race was huge.
Those who follow cyclocross have heard your name a lot in that discipline, but now you're racing mountain bike World Cups too?Ellen
: Yeah. I've definitely bounced around a lot in the last couple years, I was on the Ridebiker Alliance team the year that they had like 21 athletes or something like that. And then that team went away and I was given an opportunity to race pro road with Team Colavita-Bianchi. So I did that, and it just wasn't really where my heart was, unfortunately. So when it came time to decide what I was doing this season, I really decided to make a big run at the Olympics. I just knew all season last year when I was racing on the road, I knew I just wanted to be doing XC. I just missed it.
I was so lucky to find a home with Trek Factory this year and be given this crazy opportunity. I really, really, really want to go to the Olympics. My coach is on board and said it's a win-win because you either train your butt off and you get to go to the Olympics or you train your butt off and you don't go and you just became the best athlete that you can be. So it's like either way you get to become really good and push yourself. That's kind of where I'm at - just starting at the bottom and having to work really hard to earn the respect of the team and earn my place in the sport and stuff like that. It's been really rewarding.
What's the hardest thing with doing that, with finding your place in the sport? What's the process going from one discipline to another like?Ellen
: It's actually been really challenging. Anyone that you say that to would be like, "Yeah, obviously it's going to be challenging." But I'm a pretty established racer in cyclocross. In most of the races that I'm going to do in any given season, I'm starting first or second row, I'm ranked in the top 20 in UCI. I'm kind of known.
I'm coming to this new sport and no one knows who I am or what the heck I'm doing here. And they're like, "Why is she in the way?" Or like, "Why is she always riding on Emily's wheel?" I think it's just been trying to earn that respect has been super challenging, but it's been so rewarding. I think the biggest thing has been starting at the back is so damn hard. I've started last at all of these races, and I'll move through the field and I'm stoked at my progress and then I'll look at my number plate the next weekend and I still haven't moved up because I started the season with 0 UCI points.
So it's like I'm jumping 200 places in the UCI ranking every week, but only the top 150 UCI racers are even bothering to come to races, so I'm jumping a bunch of people in UCI but it's not helped my World Cup start. I didn't make a big jump until Val di Sole because I finally passed a lot of people. So then I started 56th instead of 76th. Still at the back.
What was your goal for the 2018 season?Ellen
: Oh, I don't know, it's kind of hard because I want to set these goals, but then it's always... I'm a pretty goal-oriented person, but it's really hard because it's like... my secret goal for this year was top 25 at a World Cup, and then I was able to have a really good and smooth ride in Italy so I was able to go past that. So it's like I set goals and then sometimes I'm like, "Oh, god, I just did that, wow."
Is cross-country pretty much your number one priority even over cyclocross at this point? Ellen
: I'm gonna race the full cross season this year. I don't know, I'm still playing it by ear. I've never tried to go to the Olympics before, so I have to figure it out. But yeah, I'm just kind of going with it. Yeah, I definitely will adjust my cyclocross schedule as things go forward, but right now I feel like racing and learning and training hard is always good for me, so yeah I think 2019 will be kind of a trial for how I'll go into the first half of 2020.
Are you doing any special training that's specific to cross country? Ellen
: Yeah, I feel it's been amazing because it's finally the excuse I need to go to the downhill park by my house. Before it was like, "Well, you don't need to go to a downhill park, you're a road racer, you're a cross racer," but now I'm like, "I race XC so I need to go..."
I always just want to do the jump trail, but one of my friends that's pretty good with skills, he's always been super helpful to me, is like, "You don't need to work on jumps. That's the last thing you need." He's like, "You need to go shred these wet, rooted, washed-out turns."
We have a loop by my house that I'll do- it's maybe 10 minutes up. I'll really hit it, do an interval, and then descend down while I'm still cross-eyed. And that's been really hard - to not come unglued. That's been the biggest thing is focusing on just keeping a cool head because my season's been really hard. I've been crashing a lot and it's been super challenging. I used to be a really good technical rider and then I took a year off and I basically didn't touch my mountain bike for a year between cross and road, I hardly rode my mountain bike.
So then to come back and be like, "Okay, I'm gonna do the hardest races in the world..." I've been crashing a ton, and it's kind of psyched me out a little bit so I've just had to keep being like, "We're gonna do it again today."
Coming in and doing the full cross-country schedule, is that something that you approached Trek about wanting to do?Ellen
: It was a little bit of both. I think Trek's interest in me came from the cross perspective. And then it was like, "Well, what are you gonna do for the rest of the year?" And I was like, "I really want to go back to XC." And they were like, "All right, cool."
It was as simple as that?Ellen
: Yeah, it was actually a pretty harmonious situation. It really just worked out super well. It's such a great fit, I think, for a brand and an athlete that have very similar values of they have a history of supporting female athletes super, super well, and I have a history of really wanting brands to support women really, really well. So it was like, "Oh, you guys have been at the forefront of pushing the sport," and for me to partner with a brand that actually cares is as good as it could get for me, yeah. And then to go full factory has always been the dream, so yeah, it worked out really well.
For kids, what's one of the biggest pieces of advice you could give them?Ellen
: That's such a hard question... One of the best pieces of advice that's always stuck with me was from Katie Compton. We have the same birthday so we had a birthday dinner together last year and I was asking her all these questions like, "Ah, what do I do about this? Katie, what do I do about that?" And she's like, "Here's the biggest thing to know. You can always do it differently next year."
And that was like... it's so basic, but to realize that, "Oh, I signed a pro road contract, but I don't know if I really like racing road. I'm gonna do something different." It's not gonna be easy to go from cyclocross racing to mountain bikes, but I'm gonna do it.
And the biggest thing is that when you're young, you feel like every single race matters so much. But people don't realize that they have their entire career ahead of them still. One of the few times I've ever raced at altitude I did a Talent ID Camp at USA Cycling. And I was third of three girls at the camp, and I was heartbroken. Oh my god, I was devastated because I wanted to do the World Cups or a European trip with them as a junior, and I obviously wasn't going to go.
But I was really lucky to have people that kept me focused that were like, "This isn't the biggest thing that you're gonna do, I promise. It's gonna get better and you're gonna get older and it's going to be easier." I look back now, and unfortunately, none of the girls from that camp are racing anymore. Most of the girls from my junior years aren't racing anymore.
And it's like, "You have your whole career ahead of you, so if you can't see the forest through the trees and you only care about this, about Junior Nationals 13-14, then you're not gonna love bikes when you're 25." And so it's enjoying it when you're young so that you can take it seriously and still love it when you're old like me, then I think that that's the most important ... it's a joke, but yeah. I think that maybe that's my advice: don't beat yourself up over it.
God, when I was like 18, I didn't eat a cookie for an entire season. I was so strict. I'm racing better now, I'm so much happier, and I'll eat a cookie every now and then if I want to. I think I used to sweat those little things so much before it actually mattered. I was focusing on the 2% when I was so far away from the 98.