Bunny hopping the patriarchy: Ellen Noble on making strides in cyclocross

It’s a weekend morning in North America’s Pacific Northwest at the end of November. A handful of women are standing ankle-deep in mud, examining three barriers that they’ll tackle in a cyclocross race later that day.

Shivering in their rain jackets, they watch a race in progress. One by one, racers traverse the triple barriers. The run-in is slow. It’s been raining on and off all day and the mud is thick and sticky.

Some racers dismount and carry their dirty bikes across the wooden obstacles, but most stay on and try clearing their front wheel before letting their rear wheel run into the barrier. Clang, clang, clang.

It’s not clean. It may not even be faster. But bunny hopping the barriers is a statement. They’re part of a movement.

“Bunny hop the patriarchy,” one spectator shouts in encouragement.

“Ellen Noble would hop them,” someone else adds.

Halfway across the world, Ellen Noble (Aspire Racing) is plowing through the mud herself, well on her way to a second place finish at DVV verzekeringen Trofee Flandriencross in Belgium. Ending up in between world champion Sanne Cant and American cyclocross legend Katie Compton, it’s a good sign that Noble is turning her rollercoaster season around. Just in time for the season’s biggest events.

At just 21 years old, Noble may be the most exciting racer in American cyclocross right now. She’s a four-time cyclocross junior national champion, an 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.

This season, Noble has joined the elite category, going head to head with big names like Sanne Cant, Sophie de Boer, Katerina Nash and Katie Compton.

But it’s not her results that are gaining her fans far and wide.

Noble made headlines at Jingle Cross this fall when she hopped the barriers — a skill and race tactic that was rare in women’s cyclocross before this season.

It was Noble’s latest act in conquering the figurative barriers that women face in our sport, sticking it to ‘the man’ or anyone who says that she, that women, can’t do something.

With an audience of tens of thousands at her fingertips, an always smiling and welcoming demeanour and unapologetically feminist voice, Noble is emerging as a poster child for the plight of women’s racing.

We caught up with the young trailblazer to talk about finding her voice and the hops that started a movement.

Ellen Noble hopping the barriers at Jingle Cross. Photo: Molly Hurford

#bunnyhopthepatriarchy

For those of you who have never tried hopping your bike over 40 centimetres of solid wood, you may not understand why it’s a big deal. For one, it’s not an easy thing to do. Noble said it took her years to master it.

“For a long time, I thought it wasn’t going to happen for me. I just wasn’t very good at it. I couldn’t get over two barriers in a row. I didn’t feel confident doing it,” she told Ella CyclingTips from her temporary home in Belgium.

But then, just weeks before the start of the 2017-18 season, Noble cleared the barriers while filming a Behind the Barriers episode with her fellow Aspire Racing teammates.

“Jeremy [Powers] had set out a set of double barriers and I was like, ‘Well, I’ve never done this before but even if I crash, we’ll at least get some good content.’ So I decided to kind of just send it and go over them, and I made it! I was kind of surprised by it but decided that [bunny hopping in races] would be my new goal for the year.”

In addition to being a neat party trick, it can actually be a time and energy saving tactic to hop the barriers. It eliminates the need to unclip, dismount, carry the bike over the barriers, remount and get back up to speed. And while it’s pretty commonplace in men’s racing, in the women’s side of the sport, we hadn’t seen women hop the barriers since Pauline Ferrand-Prevot did it to great effect in 2015.

Whether it was due to a lack of visibility, a lack of practice and confidence or because women were told they couldn’t do it, we’re not sure, but women bunny hopping barriers just simply wasn’t done.

Leading up to the 2018 season, Noble had struggled with several concussions and dietary issues, leaving her fitness far from where she had wanted it to be.

“I was really behind, but work on my skills was something that was still within my grasp. It’s something I could control,” Noble explained.

“I knew that I was going to [start hopping barriers in races] at some point, but I also knew it could be something that would be really easy for me to put off. So I just decided that once I get to a race where the barriers aren’t 40 centimetres, come hell or high water. I’m doing it.”

Enter Jingle Cross 2017, a double weekend of racing and the World Cup series opener.

“I crashed on the first lap of the C1 race on Friday night. It was maybe a hundred metres from the barriers but I got up, I got back on and I bunny hopped over the barriers,” Noble recalled. “I had mentally committed to doing it so even crashing I was like ‘nope, I am set on this. I am not going to give myself an excuse not do it.’ I knew that I could and otherwise it was just me letting my head get in the way.”

The internet loved it and Noble would go on to net her first elite World Cup top-10 that weekend.

“A lot of people said I was the first woman to do it but it’s not accurate. It wasn’t about being the first. I want to continue to be consistent and push more people to hop,” explained Noble.

“[It got attention because] the precedent hadn’t been set of women bunny hopping in races but for me it’s actually faster and easier. While others are walking or running, I’m recovering because it is really no effort for me to bunny hop.”

A play off the popular #shredthepatriarchy hashtag, Noble then started the #bunnyhopthepatriarchy hashtag. Initially it was jovial, but she quickly realised its powerful message.

“I started #bunnyhopthepatriarchy kind of as a joke and I never in a million years expected it to catch on to the degree that it has. But there is definitely some truth to it in the fact that people always assumed that women can’t bunny hop. And I wanted to show that it’s not a gendered skill,” said Noble.

“Anytime people think there’s something women can’t do in a patriarchal society, I want to show them, ‘No, we’re going to do it and we’re going to kick ass while doing it’.”

Learning about women across the country practicing bunny hopping and pushing their own limits put a giant smile on Noble’s face.

“It makes me really happy that it’s resonating with people and looking at the [hash] tag and seeing how much love there is on it, is awesome for me. All these people are pushing themselves to be better bike racers and everything that goes along with it. It’s not just about learning the skill, there’s so much positivity as people are being supportive and loving of each other and that’s amazing.”

Zipper-gate at the 2016 Jingle Cross World Cup race in Iowa City. Photo: Cor Vos

From Zipper-gate to bunny hopping heroine

In 2016, the post-Jingle Cross headlines also featured Noble heavily, but that time she found herself at the centre of controversy.

Lining up for the World Cup race had been a proud moment for the then 20-year-old. As the U23 World Cup series leader, she had the honour of wearing the white leader’s skinsuit at a race on home soil.

But the skinsuit was made of a thicker material than her usual skinsuits, and as temperatures rose into the high 20s, Noble partially unzipped her top to stay cool. This innocent and performance-oriented act turned into controversy as photos of her exposed sports bra started circulating the internet almost immediately.

For weeks afterwards, Noble was bombarded with criticism and harassment. She was flaunting her body, sexualising the sport and perpetuating the objectification of women, they said.

None of it had been true and all of it was very hurtful, Noble said. So re-appearing in the Jingle Cross coverage this year for her brawn and not her breasts was more than a little vindicating.

“It felt really good to replace the stir of the zipper at the same race and be like, ‘Hey, last year you guys were body shaming women at a bike race and this year women are bunny hopping’,” Noble said.

All smiles in Belgium. Photo: Molly Hurford

Finding her voice

Hurtful as it had been, zipper-gate ended up being the spark in Noble’s online advocacy. Things had been mounting in the lead-up to the bra controversy, Noble said, and the weeks of harassment that followed sent her over the edge.

“My frustrations had been building. I was started to see the lack of equality in the sport so when the sports bra thing happened, I kind of snapped. I wrote about it because I felt like I had to say something. I had to get it off my chest,” Noble recalled.

She took to Facebook and laid into the critics.

“When someone tells me to zip up or get a bigger sports bra, that’s sending the message that I should worry more about how I look, and how people will perceive me, than doing my job and racing my ass off…My body is a machine, made for work not for viewing pleasure or hate. My body, my rules,” Noble wrote at the time.

Noble took a risk with that initial post but the feedback was incredible, laying the foundation for her continued outspokenness.

“It got so much bigger than I ever imagined. And that’s the beauty of social media: you write something because you want your friends to see it, and then next thing you know, you’re getting like a hundred thousand responses. It absolutely opened my eyes to the fact that I have a platform and that there’s so much happening that resonates with a lot of people but isn’t being said,” Noble said.

With newfound confidence, Noble has spent the past year finding her voice and shedding some light on the continued sexism in our sport.

“I’m definitely a feminist, there’s no secret about that. I think that I would be hiding a big part of my life if I didn’t portray my beliefs on social,” Noble said. “But for me, I don’t think what I am saying is all that debatable or controversial. Pushing for equality isn’t a bad thing.”

More than anything, Noble wants to be an ambassador for positivity — removing the barriers that keep people from enjoying the sport and encouraging people to keep challenging themselves.

“It really matters to me a lot to push other women to be better or to push people in general — it’s always been my passion. I’m studying public health for a reason; I want to help people live a better life. And so right now I’m not in the workforce outside of cycling so I want to use that little bit of influence that I do have to do my bit,” Noble explained.

“It’s also a really dark time right now where a lot of people — people of different races, of different religions, of different gender identities, of different sexual identities —are being hated on. So even in this super, super, super small microcosm of our sport, I just want people to know that they’re doing great and that they’re loved. Positivity has to be louder than the hate. I need the positivity in my life and I know a lot of other people do, too.”

Ellen Noble on the U23 podium at the 2017 UCI Cyclocross World Championships. Photo: Cor Vos

Nats, Worlds and Olympic dream

But Noble is a racer first, and while her fan base is rising, her season has been a bit of a rollercoaster.

Making her elite debut, last year’s U23 series champ netted a World Cup podium early on, at the Trek CXC Cup, but has struggled with consistency.

“It’s been a pretty hot and cold year for me,” Noble said. “I had some really good results but I also had a lot of bad results that I am really disappointed with. Going into the season, I wanted it to be my season. I wanted it to be kind of like my breakout season. Instead, I had to adjust it to, ‘let’s get through this. Do the best you can but never give up.'”

It’s that attitude that got her back on the podium at DVV Flandrien Cross at the end of November, a promising sign that she’s turning the tide around.

“Racing at the front of these races has been a really big step for me. And to get on a podium is really, really cool and something I’ve never done in Europe before aside from [the 2017 U23] Worlds,” said Noble.

“But I’m also here just to experience what it’s like to race these European races because they have a very different dynamic than in the U.S. so just trying to learn and figure out how it works and how to navigate that is going to be huge for me, and good intel for future seasons.”

When talking about future goals, Noble has no problem talking about far away dates like the 2032 Olympics, but talking about the 2018 USA Cycling National Cyclocross Championships coming up in January makes her nervous.

Will this be the year that Katie Compton, the 13-time consecutive champion, will finally be unseated?

“I don’t know. I feel like people say that every year,” Noble said. “Of course, anything is possible but I still think she’s on another level. She’s still this killer beast who can’t be beaten. She is so talented and races with this calm that I simply don’t possess.

“I think the next couple of months are going to be very telling. As its stands right now, I look to Katie (Keough) and Katie (Compton) and I think they are going to have a great battle that I would personally really like to watch, but unfortunately will be racing.”

And where does she stack up?

“That’s still to be determined. I am not where I want to be but I also think the next weeks could help me make some ground up. But if I have my best race, whatever result I get, if I race well, I’ll be happy,” she said.

Back to the 2032 Olympics. If things go Noble’s way, she hopes to be there, representing Team USA in the cross-country mountain bike race.

While her life is built around cyclocross, Noble’s first love is mountain biking.

She was in lycra and clipless pedals at the age of six, and within a year she was riding with the local mountain-bike shop ride, clearing rock gardens, holding her own and dreaming of Olympic medals.

Today, that dream is still very much alive, even if that would be scaling back the cyclocross racing in an Olympic year.

“That’s my goal for 2020 or 2024 or 2032 — to just try to make the Olympics. And I don’t feel any panic or shame or awkwardness about saying that because even if I never become good enough for the Olympics, I’ll become the best athlete I can be in the process. It’s a win-win,” she said.

That is not to say that she’s giving up cyclocross anytime soon, however.

“I think it will always be a 75-25 percent ratio cyclocross- to- mountain bike,” she said. “They complement each other well.”

Plus, there are plenty more hurdles Noble would like to conquer in the sport. Hurdles like equal prize money, better TV coverage, and treating women in a manner that welcomes new racers and enables growth.

“People are just starting to find their place and their passion in the sport. The amount of women’s cycling groups that are popping up and the amount of juniors that just want to talk to you about bike racing, it’s amazing to see,” said Noble.

“Everyone is saying that road is dying and I can’t speak to that but I can say that cyclocross…cyclocross, I think, it’s going to be big. The energy that I felt this year at every race has been insane. So I’m really excited about where things are going to go. But I think the sport is doing great, it’s only going to keep getting better.”