Story by Vicky Sama
What does it feel like to be at the top of a nationals podium? Ask Ellen Noble (JAM/NCC/Vittoria), who was crowned the U23 National Cyclocross Champion in Austin, Tx. She was the first U23 rider, yes, but the even more impressive story is how she finished 6th among 46 women in the pro field-- less than two minutes behind winner Katie Compton (Trek).
At 19-years old, Noble's future is looking very bright. She joined the JAM Fund Cycling Team in 2014. In her first major race in her JAM kit, she finished 2nd on both days at Nittany Lion Cross-- out of 50 elite racers.
Noble is not new to cycling. She started riding a bike when she was 5 years old living in Kennebunkport, Maine. Her parents were elite cyclists and took her to races even before she was born.
“My mom would ride while she was pregnant with me. It’s really good for the baby, releasing endorphins and oxygen,” Noble said. “And even when I was really young, they couldn’t leave me at home, so they brought me to races.”
Noble’s dad was instrumental in her early, unusual training techniques.
“I was nervous to ride without training wheels, so I made him attach a surf leash from my bike to his ankle, and that somehow made me more comfortable,” she said.
By the time she was 7, Noble was entering races with the big girls.
“Back then, the kids races were a circle in a grass field. I’d outgrown that,” Noble said. “I was serious about mountain biking. When I was 7, I entered an adult Cat 3 beginner mountain bike race. It was the Clifford Park Assault in Biddeford, Maine. My dad rode with me the entire time. It went well until the last hill and I endoed, but I rolled across the finish line. I very well could have beat somebody. I have no idea.”
Despite some falls, Noble always got back on the bike.
“In other sports like snowboarding, I got injured and chipped all my teeth, so I didn’t want to do it anymore. Cycling, whatever happens my response is ‘yea, I’ll do it again tomorrow,’” she said.
She slowly moved her way up the ranks in mountain biking and took a season off to race mass start dirt bike events called “hair scrambles.”
“Why do they call it that? Maybe because it’s so stressful and terrifying and makes your hair stand up? After getting back to mountain biking, I appreciated how light my bike was," she said. "When I fell over on a dirt bike, I couldn’t get back up because the bike was so heavy.”
Noble says dirt biking helped her technical skills when she returned to mountain biking still as a young teen.
“That experience on the trails furthered my knack for technical riding. I consider that my strongest point as a cyclist.”
By the time she was 15, Noble was racing mountain bikes in the elite women’s field, winning the overall in the New England MTB series. It was at that time she discovered cyclocross and starting working with Al Donahue of Cycle-Smart coaching and JAM Cycling Team.
“He was like well, if you want, you’d be a great fit for JAM,” she said.
Noble started training with JAM in August 2014, as she was entering her freshman year at UMass/Amherst. Noble says she noticed instant improvement.
“I don’t make any secret in that all my success last year is because of JAM, and it wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” Noble said. “Living near my coach, having a mentor like Jeremy Powers who is so helpful, my teammates who are willing to share, all those things came together and helped me grow leaps and bounds as a racer.”
In the year since she joined JAM, Noble has garnered 13 UCI podiums, 4 UCI wins, a 6th at nationals in the elite race and the U23 championship title.
“In terms of history, the year before I didn’t get on the podium at a UCI race,” she said.
Her secret to being fast?
“Listen to Al. And sleeping. If there was a sleeping contest, I would crush it,” Noble said. “I could sleep 11 hours a night and not have trouble getting to sleep again. Al says I can sprint well because I’m rested. Oh, and I eat a lot of beets. But that might not work for someone else. If Taylor Swift said putting a hot pan on her tongue makes her a good singer, it would not help me be a good singer.”
Noble made drastic changes in her training.
“I didn’t train hard and think like an elite level athlete until I joined JAM,” Noble said. “I always thought I was doing things right and my parents were local riders and riding hard… and told me to just go out and ride hard. Now I have structured training and that’s really important, as is nutrition and recovery.”
Her recent success came after a difficult and somewhat embarrassing moment during last November's Supercross Cup in Stony Point, N.Y. Noble was having one of the best races of her life. She put in enough digs to drop the rest of the field and she appeared almost certain the victory. But in the last 100 meters, Noble zipped up her jersey and put her arms in the air to celebrate, unaware that Arley Kemmerer (Charm City Cycling) was close enough behind and sprinting like a diesel engine. Kemmerer threw her bike across the line and beat Noble by inches.
“I balled my eyes out I was so ashamed,” she said. “I will never make that mistake again. So glad I was able to do something dumb like that at 18 rather then when I’m 30 and don’t have a chance to make up for it.”
Noble got over that rather quickly and the following weeks, won three UCI races.
“If it wasn’t for that awful moment, I wouldn’t have come back like that. I went from embarrassed to be able to win a bunch of races. It was a low and a high moment.”
A month later, Noble was crowned the U23 national champion.
“It’s amazing. I won the 17/18 nationals two years prior to winning U23 this year. And it’s an amazing feeling and it changes very time I win,” she said. “The year I won 17/18 was the year my dad passed away. It meant a lot to me because my dad was such a fighter who pushed me to be good at cycling. It’s what I loved about him so much. It was really special.”
Noble’s father died suddenly of colon cancer when he was 46 years old. She said her victory in Austin was for him.
“When I won the U23 national title, my grandmother who was my dad’s mom and my mom were there to watch me win,” she said. “I remember hugging them and they said, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ instead of ‘your dad would be so proud of you.’ And that was the first time I heard them say it that way. We were feeling joy for ourselves instead of feeling joy in grief. It really hit me when I thought about it more. My wins are all for my dad because he pushed me to be who I am. But to feel joy-- being happy-- is something that is important. Having that moment is really special and hard to put into words.”
As with all the challenges she seems to face, Noble becomes stronger because of them. Following her father’s death, Noble is studying public health and hopes to work at a foundation to help families cope with cancer. She returns to school in September.
In the meantime, Noble has a contract to race mountain bikes with Competitive Cyclist this summer.
“This is like an internship,” she said. “I’m going through the motions, seeing what it’s like, testing the waters before I jump in head first and join a big team next cross season.”
And you can bet that other teams will be eyeing Noble for their program.
“I think I’ll stick around here while I’m in school,” she said. “New England is such a hotspot for cross, so it actually works well to live here. If I were asked to move to Europe, I would definitely do it. That would be fun and help me progress.”
She has big plans for the upcoming cross season.
“I don’t think I qualify for World Cups, which is kind of a bummer. But it will allow me to focus at doing well at bigger, domestic races. So that’s a big goal—to perform well at the C1s and C2s.”
When she’s not riding, Noble works for the Mass Bike Coalition visiting elementary schools and teaching kids about bike safety. She loves dogs, likes to bake vanilla-frosted cup cakes and listens to audio books.
“So this is my grandmother confession: I listen to audio books while I’m walking, on campus or lying in bed or driving in the car,” Noble said. “My all-time favorite book is Jacob’s Ladder. I like it because it’s a story about second chances.”
Follow Ellen Noble's race season here or on her Instagram.