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Interview: Ellen Noble

From issue 80 • Words by Clive Pursehouse w/images from Chris Milliman/Red Bull Content Pool

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At 22, Trek Factory Racing mountain bike and cyclocross professional Ellen Noble is poised for a great future. Twice national under-23 ’cross champion, she placed second to multi-time champ Katie Compton at the elite level last February. The New England racer spoke to PELOTON before she prepared for the new ’cross season.

You just wrapped up your CX Quest, which is a multi-day ’cross camp for young women aged 15 to 18. How did that go, and what inspired you to do a camp like this? I did it last year and my hope was to make it bigger and better this year…and it was. We had 12 women last year, and 18 athletes this year. They were from as far away as Washington State; we had one Canadian rider and a small group from North Carolina. I saw a need for something that I didn’t have growing up. I grew up racing, but I always went to a boys’ mountain bike camp. Every now and then there were other young women but it was really rare. I wanted something to focus on women athletes and model it after the Montana Cyclocross Camp, and have the focus be on skills and technique. We don’t often push young women on skills like jumping and bunny hopping; the focus is usually just on building strength as a rider. It was nice, because while I was planning my original camp last year, Jeff Proctor rolled out his women’s camp so now there are two of them, and both of them fill, which is a really great sign.

Speaking of bunny hopping, last year it seemed like a lot of people were talking about “bunny hopping the patriarchy”—a fight for equality in cycling. Is there more, or anything new in store for this season? People have embraced it and it took on a life of its own. I’m just rolling with it and trying to build on it. I’m certainly going to keep bunny hopping on the course. I’ve handed over a lot of the logistics to a friend, so I don’t have to manage the website or the T-shirts, filling orders and so on. We’re doing a huge pre-order before the season starts, and hopefully we’ll see lots of  “Bunny hopping the Patriarchy: Ellen Noble supporter” tees out there.

I think it maybe was a bit misunderstood by some people unfortunately. People saw the word patriarchy and thought it was anti-men. I wouldn’t change that though, if I could do it over again. It was really just a way to bring people’s attention to issues of equality. It’s meant to push people a bit, in terms of their understanding and comfort. Cycling is so neutral so much of the time, and I think getting people to think through the words they use, or we use, and the way things are a bit, people don’t engage on these topics and if I can do some of that, raise awareness, I am excited about that possibility.

I’m trying to get beyond what I guess you would call “white feminism.” I’d love to engage people around issues of difference and equality, and if that can turn cycling into a more inclusive place where people of color, people across a spectrum of gender identity, feel like they can be themselves. I’d love it if my sport, cycling, became the model where everyone felt welcome. So my hope is to just raise awareness and start conversations.

Right now, it seems like we’re in a transitional period for American cyclocross. Katie Compton continues to ride at the highest level and Jeremy Powers is still racing, but a lot of the known names like Ryan Trebon, Tim Johnson, Zach McDonald are no longer there. How would you describe the current American cyclocross scene? We’re in an interesting spot right now. You look at Gage Hecht, who just won the opening stage at the Colorado Classic; he’s such an exciting rider to look at. He won multiple races at nationals. There are so many up-and-coming riders. Emma White is going to the track—I’m very happy for her—but it’s hard to see when these talented riders leave cyclocross and move to other disciplines.

There hasn’t been a changing of the guard though, Katie is still there, and Jeremy, and we’re seeing Stephen [Hyde] becoming the strongest rider pretty consistently. Katie somehow just seems to get stronger year after year and she is, I think, the best in the sport as an all-arounder, or one of the best. So, I just hope to see some of our younger riders make a push. It is a universal issue, and the same thing is happening in Belgium, and of course everyone knows there is more money on the road; but it would be nice to see people commit to cyclocross even when they have success in other disciplines.

You’re riding a lot of MTB and obviously gearing up for the ’cross season—I saw you race in Belgium last year. What are your plans for going back to Belgium this season and what is the balance for you in terms of racing here and racing in Europe? I try to stick to the same structure each year and then make tweaks that will make me faster or perform better. It’s tough; the better you do, the less ability you have to fit things in. Everything right now for the season is just so programmed, so scheduled. It’s not a lot of fun to tell people no, but with the schedule already laid out, if I get a request, unfortunately right now, I don’t have the flexibility, the spontaneity to squeeze things in.

The change in the U.S. nationals means I can spend a much bigger block in Europe, and I can stay there after nationals, all the way through worlds. It’s a big benefit. It’s still hard, because we have to go there and the Europeans really only need to—and if they want—come here for the first two rounds of the World Cup. Less travel certainly makes it easier and I hope it shows up in the results for me. Two trips [to Europe] instead of four should be a big benefit.

It’s harder to say your goals out loud because you don’t want to come across as arrogant, and I’m focused on the process. I want to put it all together, and I’m still chasing that feeling of a World Cup podium. My [third-place] ride at the Waterloo World Cup last year made me really hungry and I’d like to put together more rides like that. I’m focused on the Pan-American and national championships. If I can have another ride like I did at nationals, the battle we had, that was one of my best performances.

From a national perspective, it seems like the most relevant American cyclists right now, in terms of wins on the international stage and in terms of engaging folks in conversation, are women: Coryn Rivera, Katie Compton, Kate Courtney, you, Ruth Winder. What, if anything, does that say about the successes of the sport right now and where we should be paying more attention? It’s an amazing point, one that I maybe hadn’t even considered. There are a lot of divided opinions and I’ve read some things on the internet recently that would say otherwise, but I think you’re right. Most of the conversations right now are about the excitement on the women’s side. I think it shows we’re going in a good direction.

I’ve always said that equal payouts and more teams are great, but it doesn’t mean anything to me if it’s done begrudgingly or as a sideshow. I really care more about how people view women’s racing and that they legitimately view it as engaging and exciting, and ultimately important. Those other things really matter, don’t get me wrong, but I think most important is not the formal ways of measuring equality but how people really are viewing the women’s side of the sport.

As a student, how do you balance a sport that has an inherently inconvenient season in terms of an academic calendar, as compared to say road racing and your pursuit of a degree? I just graduated [with a bachelor’s in public health]; I took classes year round, which was really challenging, but that allowed me to take a lighter load in the fall. It was very challenging and it’s nice to be done. I didn’t have a break for three years, which you’d never do in cycling, but I did it and I’m glad it’s over. I really want to focus on racing professionally for a long time. I didn’t give my academics my undivided attention. I’d love to get my master’s degree eventually, but I don’t want to balance it anymore. I would like to focus on racing professionally for a long time.

From issue 80. Buy it here.