Swapping knobbies for slicks: Cyclocrosser Ellen Noble’s first pro road season

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Some of the best road racers in America contested the five-day North Star Grand Prix in Minnesota last week, but it was the young cyclocross racers who shined. Nineteen-year-old Emma White won the overall win for her Rally Cycling road team, and U23 national cyclocross champion Ellen Noble made a few podium appearances as well.

For Noble, the North Star Grand Prix is where she made her breakthrough on the road last year, with a top-five result on stage five before winning the infamous Stillwater criterium on the final day. Her performance there ultimately led to her being picked up by the Colavita-Bianchi road team for 2017. While short, this marks Noble’s first season on the road with a professional team.

We caught up with the young cyclocross star to talk about swapping knobbies for slicks and 45-minute events for 4-hour ones.

At just 21 years old, Noble may be the most exciting racer in American cyclocross right now. She’s a four-time cyclocross national champion, the reigning U23 Pan-American Continental Cyclocross Champion, last season’s U23 UCI World Cup Series winner, and was the silver medalist in the U23 race at the 2017 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Luxembourg this past January.

And she’s only just getting started. This coming season, Noble will be racing as an elite, taking on big stars like Sanne Cant, Marianne Vos, Katerina Nash and Katie Compton. To prepare for the season ahead, Noble decided to fit in a few months of road racing, appearing in the celeste green of Colavita-Bianchi at some of America’s biggest races.

Noble caught the attention of Colavita’s team manager Mary Zider at the 2016 North Star Grand Prix, who was keen to add the youngster to her roster.

“I keep my eye out all season long for recruiting purposes, and there are a few races I like to circle back to at the end of the season,” she said. “Tulsa Tough is one, Stillwater at North Star is another. I happened to be there last year when Ellen won that race. I was like, ‘Holy smokes who is this kid who was in a break and crushing it?'”

“I know it’s hard to go from ’cross to road and back to ’cross without burning out, but I thought it was worth a shot and decided to reach out to her. She’s the type of kid that has the right amount of confidence while being respectful and so hardworking. She’s not entitled at all despite her accolades, and just someone I wanted to be part of our program.”

Ellen Noble on the U23 podium at the 2017 UCI Cyclocross World Championships.

Season of learning

Noble made her Colavita-Bianchi debut at the Redlands Bicycle Classic in May, but had a tough go at it.

“It’s been a bit of a rough start for her,” Zider said. “It’s very different from ’cross racing with so many people around her, and the races she’s been in have been super technical and intense with some of the best teams around her. I think it would have been easy for anyone to get discouraged but her attitude of ‘I’m going to take away what I can from this’ is, to me, what sets her apart and makes her a good athlete.

“She didn’t come in to be a result-getter, per se. She just wants to learn about road racing and be in more of a support role, but she’ll have her moments to shine.”

Those moments came at Tulsa Tough and North Star this month. Starting to find her speedy legs, Noble netted two top-five finishes at the three-day Tulsa event, and another two podium finishes at North Star, putting an end to some of her early season frustrations.

“Every time I line up for a race, whether it’s the world championships or a local mountain bike race, I take it seriously,” Noble told Ella CyclingTips, admitting that she is “disgustingly competitive.”

“Whether or not it’s possible, I always try to win. My racing is still not quite where I want it to be. It’s a work in progress, but I’m enjoying it. I’m trying to not be too hard on myself and have to have a slightly different mentality about it, understanding that even my teammates and all the girls that I’ve been racing against this year were already racing this year in the Tour Down Under while I wasn’t even done with offseason yet. I had just gotten off the bike and they were already gearing up and racing. So I do have to adjust my expectations accordingly.

“I am so new to this still, so I was looking for a team to grow on. Mary guaranteed me that there would be a good group of girls to learn from, with experience and willingness to mentor me through it.

“I can’t lie, I was definitely worried about the whole team-dynamic thing. I have hardly ever had teammates before, let alone a team of all women. But it’s been an amazing experience. They have been so supportive and really look out for me when things aren’t going well. I’m laughing at myself that I was even worried about it.”

Of course, Noble isn’t all new to road racing. New England’s poster child of racing, Noble has been pedalling a bike since she was just five years old. Her parents were “wicked into cycling” and owned a bike shop.

“I was in Lycra and clipless pedals by the age of six,” shared Noble. “I had this red Pearl Izumi jersey with Hawaiian flower print and that was my favourite. It was so cool. And I was wearing men’s medium bib shorts that were super baggy but I didn’t care, I just wanted to look like my parents so badly.”

At seven, she was already riding with the local mountain-bike shop ride, clearing rock gardens and holding her own. So naturally, she was introduced to all disciplines of racing, but only cyclocross truly captured her heart.

Since then, everything has been for the love of ’cross.

Ellen Noble racing at the North Star Grand Prix. Photo by Jonathan Devich.

All for ’cross

“I definitely prefer cyclocross the most. It’s the discipline that really made me fall in love with cycling. I just love the atmosphere I love the style of racing, I love the length. I just love everything about it,” she said. “So yes, my real priority is cyclocross, and [racing road] is just another amazing experience to learn and help me with cyclocross.”

As multi-discipline racers like Vos, Christine Majerus and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot have all demonstrated before, racing road benefits cyclocross performances, and vice versa.

“Cross is great for bike-handling skills,” said Noble. “And I think road racing helps ’cross a tonne because even though everyone thinks that ’cross all skill-focussed, there are still those long straightaways and power sections to muscle up.”

“I think that has been where I am lacking. You can see women just motoring away on those sections and it’s my biggest weakness. That is part of the reason I want to focus on road for a couple of years – to really invest in my career and become stronger.”

Noble will continue to race with Colavita until the end of July, making appearances at road nationals, the Boise Twilight criterium and the Cascade Cycling Classic. After that, her focus will return to cyclocross full time.

“I’m always working on my skills. Right now, after intervals or motorpacing sessions, I will fit in skills work like bunny hopping and wheelie-ing,” said Noble. “Once late July comes around, we’ll start building up the ’cross bikes again and start running.”

Ellen Noble in the U23 World Cup leader’s jersey

Looking ahead

Continuing to race for Aspire Racing, Noble has a big cyclocross season ahead. Despite being only 21, her December birthday pushes her racing age up and out of the U23 category. Since the world championships aren’t held until January 2018, Noble’s race age — the age she’ll be at the end of 2018 — is 23, making her an elite.

“I would have loved another year as a U23,” said Noble. “But I have been blessed to have so much support as a U23 racer. It has made my transition into the elites a lot easier.”

Still, it’s a big jump and so Noble is setting her goals accordingly.

“I am very goal oriented so I want to set goals that are encouraging, but not crippling,” she explained. “It would be amazing to get on the podium at the Pan-American and national championships. I do think it’s possible. But mostly, I think the biggest thing is knowing that I have made progress from year to year consistently. If I am racing better and smarter, and I am getting faster then I’m going to be happy with that.”

5 questions with Ellen Noble

Ella: When it comes to road, a lot of dirt riders only race crits and other short but high-intensity racing. Is that something you’re looking to specialise in as well? What are your goals for the remainder of the road season?

Noble: I could see myself do something like that in years to come, but for now I want to stay open to it all because I don’t want to close myself off to any experience that could make me better. It would be exciting for me to start specialising in the sport and see where things go. I really want to figure out how to be a good teammate during the races so I can be a big help to the team and help some of my teammates get some wins.

Ella: You’re racing road and cyclocross while also going to school. How do you stay balanced?

Noble: I’m really fortunate in that most of my friends are cyclists as well, so every now and then we treat ourselves to some lift access trails and just shred mountain bikes. It’s not too tiring on the legs and I get to spend time with my friends. It really makes me happy. I have been working with a sports psychologist for a couple years now and she has always pushed me to find that balance. She’s taught me that taking that time to go downhilling with my friends, visiting my family or even studying for school all makes me a better cyclist because it makes me happy.

Ella: What did you do with your silver medal from worlds?

Noble: Embarrassingly enough, it might be in my closet. For a while I had it hung up. I had a Nationals jersey, a Pan-American jersey, a World Cup Leader’s jersey and my skinsuit from Worlds with the medal all hung up on the wall. Every day, I would get dressed for my ride, I would see that and I felt like it was very inspiring, but I moved and I am still not fully set up and don’t have my décor yet. It’s definitely the proudest moment of my career so I do think the medal will come out of the closet.

Ella: With your parents so into cycling, was there ever any question of you not growing up to be cyclist?

Noble: I tried really hard in elementary school to not be a cyclist, but I have also always been disgustingly competitive and so it was hard for my parents – these big time cyclists – to drive me to hockey and tennis and wrestling and such when they knew I was good at biking. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I tried cyclocross and knew that this was something I wanted to do. Before then I did cycling and I liked it but it never felt like a true passion. Once I found cyclocross, it really opened my eyes to how fun racing can be. It took a little while, but I am definitely glad that my parents kept me in it. It changed the course of my life and who I am.

Ella: What is one thing you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started cycling?

Noble: I wish I had known not to rush to grow up in the sport. When I was 16, all I wanted was to be pro and get sponsored and be one of those girls that I looked up to. As someone who was a full-fledged professional now, I know that I was so not ready for it then. I rode for a devo team until last year – not a pro team –and that was really good for me. I wish I had known not to stress so much about where I was in terms of sponsors and support and professionalism. As long as you love the sport and you keep trying, it will happen. Ask yourself, ‘How can I give more of myself. How can I be a good teammate?’ instead of ‘What can this team give me?’

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