One of the biggest stories of the 2016-2017 cyclocross season thus far has been the depth of the Women’s U.S. and European fields and the utterly captivating racing week after week. Although fans and riders did not know it at the time, the enthralling battle between Sophie de Boer, Katerina Nash, and Katie Compton at CrossVegas in September was an omen of the great racing that was to follow this season. With some fans perhaps getting bored by the dominance of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert and missing Sven Nys after his retirement, the women have stepped in to provide fans with the suspense and entertainment they have been missing.
It is no coincidence that the emergence of the Women’s races as must-see TV corresponds with Ellen Noble of Aspire Racing and Emma White of Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld getting comfortable racing at the Elite level in the U.S. and in Europe. White and Noble have been dominant at Junior and U23 Nationals over the past half decade, splitting seven Stars-and-Stripes jerseys between them, and in 2016 both have had breakout years at the Elite level.
Fans got their first glimpse of what the duo could do on the big stage last season during the Christmas block of Euro Cross Camp that includes Namur and Heusden-Zolder, where both placed in the top 20. During the 2016 season they have built on their success abroad, wasting little time in announcing their presence as Elite members of the Women’s cyclocross peloton. White reached the podium on Day 1 of both Rochester and Jingle Cross in September, and Noble took second at both days of the Trek CXC Cup and finished fifth at the Jingle Cross World Cup.
Both women relish the opportunity to be a part of the mesmerizing Women’s Elite racing this season. “It’s not the same results every time,” said White. “It’s definitely a strong group of women who are out there right now. I definitely think it’s become more exciting, at least for us.” She continued, “I think everybody realizes it, everybody sees it. Everybody goes into it wanting to win. Everybody thinks that they have a chance to win.”
Noble agreed with her fellow U23 racer, “It’s so crazy to see how many women are on really really great form right now and are racing above where they have been in the last few years. It’s been so good for the sport.”
The only downside to the great racing for Noble is she does not get to watch it from the perspective of a fan, “There’s this phenomenal racing going on. It’s kind of been tough because this year I have been racing in it, and I’m like ‘Darn it I want to see this race.’ It was exciting to go home and watch the replay from Zolder. I think it’s seasons like this with competition like we’ve had that’s going to push the sport very far.”
A Beautiful Rivalry
White grew up in New York and Noble in Maine, so the two women have been racing against each other regularly since 2010. Heading into the 2017 Nationals they have taken the start line against each other 54 times (h/t www.crossresults.com). White may or may not remember the first time they raced against each other, but Noble remembers it well:
“My first race ever against Emma I was like 16 in 2010, and she won and I was like 35th or something. Five minutes down. I remember saying ‘Who the heck is Emma White?’ She was like 13 or 14, she was younger than me. And I remember saying ‘She won this race and trounced a bunch of people,’ but I have been competitive with her ever since. There was definitely a very long period of time where she had no idea about the 15 year old getting 30th, but I’ve always had eyes on her because that next season we were competing for the win in the amateur field.”
[For the record, Noble’s attention to detail is impressive. The race she referred to is the 2010 Cycle-Smart International weekend in Northampton, Massachusetts where White finished 2nd and 1st and Noble finished in the 30s. By the next season, the two were consistently going 1-2 in the Verge Series’ amateur women’s races.]
The duo raced against each other regularly in New England for years, but it wasn’t until recently that they started to realize that their friendly rivalry could be something special for American cyclocross. For White, the revelation occurred during last season’s trips to the European World Cups:
“I think last year when we were both over in Europe for the World Cups. Koksijde was my first race, and I think it was hers as well,” White said. “I think that was big. We were over there and we were the only girls selected on the first trip, and that was kind of big. That was eye opening for us both, and we didn’t really realize what we had in front of us, the potential we had. It’s definitely set in this year, being up there in the World Cups and traveling with our teams.”
Noble agreed with White’s sentiments that their rivalry is one that is special for them and American cyclocross. Both women admit to being incredibly competitive, but away from the 40 minutes they race against each other, the two have forged a friendship despite their hectic school and racing schedules.
Said White about the rivalry, “I think that there’s a healthy rivalry with us. We’re both very competitive, and I am going to go out on a limb and say likeable. We’re definitely friends and friendly, but we definitely push each other, which is good.”
Noble also enjoys the competitive rivalry that pushes her to be a better rider. “It’s really good because it keeps me in line, especially having someone my age who I have been competing against for so long,” she said. “It’s always really kept me honest and make me work extra hard.”
The Aspire Racing rider said the two have also enjoyed the opportunity to get to know each other and push each other to be better during the Euro Cross Camp trips.
“We shared a van for Namur and Zolder and before Zolder I was like ‘What line are you taking on the drop?’ and she’s like ‘I’m going far right,’ and I was like ‘Oh, I am going far left.’ ‘What do you think about keeping it tight before the 180 off camber?’ and she said ‘I haven’t thought about that. That might work for you, but I don’t want to try it because X Y and Z.’ It was cool to have that dynamic to talk about our lines. Maybe that could be the line that helps her beat me at Zolder, but it also means that going forward just sharing stuff we’re hopefully both going to keep getting better. It’s awesome to have someone as competitive as her always keeping me honest. It’s great. I really like it.”
Perhaps it is a testament to the racing history the two women have and how evenly matched they are on the bike, but Noble said the only thing that bothers her about her rivalry with White is spectators often confuse Ellen with Emma.
“People always confuse the two of us, as if we are twins or something,” said Noble. “I get tagged in Instagram photos of her, and it’s so funny. It would be one thing if we had this rivalry but people knew the difference, but people think we’re the same. They just don’t differentiate between the two of us. I’m like, ‘Ok, she’s in all green, and I’m in all black or dark blue.’ We look very different, we ride different bikes, we have different everything. And yet it just persists.”
A New “Beautiful Duel” at Nationals in New England
White and Noble have taken the starting line against each other 13 times during the 2016-2017 cyclocross season. The new “beautiful duel” between the two stands at 7-6 in Noble’s favor. The two are separated by two racing years, so last year’s U23 Nationals in Asheville was the first time the two raced head-to-head at the age group level. Noble won that race and White finished third, and more recently, Noble emerged victorious at the Pan-American Championship in Cincinnati at the end of October.
One exciting aspect of the American “beautiful duel” is the two bring different backgrounds to the cyclocross circuit. Said White about their respective strengths, “I am also a road rider in the off-season, the off-season of cyclocross, and she’s a big mountain bike rider. I think she’s a good technical rider, and I think I am strong, I bring my road skills over. So that’s big for us.”
Noble agreed, adding “Without a doubt she does very well on the super powerful courses. It’s so hard, if I am ever riding her wheel on a straight section I am like ‘Ugh, when it is over?'”
When Cyclocross Magazine spoke with White and Noble shortly after their return from the Namur/Zolder block of Euro Cross Camp, early reports about the U.S. Nationals course at Riverside Park in Hartford were trickling in: a preview video, some vague tweets, weather forecasts. Each women said these reports are just noise and their experience racing in Europe and against each other gives them the confidence to tune out speculation about the course.
More important for each is the mental aspect of preparing to race at an event they have been waiting for since September. Noble said her strong performance at the Zolder World Cup was a big race for her:
“This past weekend when I was in Zolder I really felt like I had finally, finally, fallen into a good head space after many months of this cognitive struggle or not really being able to go as hard as I want to be. So because of that I’m disappointed with my results, and it’s this whole vicious cycle. Finally at Zolder I said ‘Everything’s great. You’ve done your very best to prepare. You’re starting front row, that’s super cool.’ I was so ultra-positive. No negative thoughts. I got on the front row and when the camera went by I was like, ‘This is the time.'”
Noble got off to her best start of the year at Zolder, and she is bringing those positive vibes to Hartford, “I feel super calm about Nationals because I feel good about where things are right now. It probably sounds a little hippie, but I can’t help it. But I’m happy where everything is. I have nothing to worry about with Nationals. When I get there I’ll be able to see the course, and I’ll get there when I feel like I need to be there. Everything will be good. I know I will do my very best, and whatever result I get I will be happy with.”
White has also been dealing with a stressor many young cyclocross riders are familiar with: college. She is currently a sophomore at Union College in Schenecady, New York studying Science, Technology, Medicine, and Culture. Being a student is challenging enough, but the challenge goes to 11 for students such as White who are traveling across the U.S. and Europe every weekend during the Fall.
“Honestly, a lot of [the stress] has to do with school. I think most of my stress these days comes from missing school, and so I won’t have to miss any school for [Nationals], which is really nice,” said White.
She also said her brother Curtis White, who will be racing in the Men’s U23 race on Sunday as a heavy favorite, has played a huge role in helping her handle the pressures of school and racing, “It really makes traveling on the weekends for racing, it makes it so much smoother. And the training is really nice at home. It’s only about a 20 minutes drive, but driving to our school in Schenectady, it would be a difficult place to ride. I think doing it with Curtis and living at home are really helping me out a lot.” She added, “He’s made things easier for me.”
Hartford is the first U.S. Cyclocross Nationals held in New England since Providence, Rhode Island in 2005 and 2006. One might think the race has extra meaning to White and Noble because they are New Englanders. However, as White mentioned, they are both more excited about the event being close to home and being able to relax before the big race instead of facing another grueling weekend on the road.
Admittedly, they both are a little stoked about the New England weather, “I just saw Adam Myerson tweeted ‘Better be practicing frozen rut riding,’ so that will be interesting,” said White. “I think that will be a good thing that will play to both our strengths from living in New England. People come from the South and they might have a hard time with [the ruts], but we’ve both been lucky enough to have been handed lots of conditions, that’s one of our big similarities. I think that helps both of us. It’s good, I think it might make it really slow, which will just be draining, or if it’s frozen enough it could be fast.”
Given all these factors – the course, the conditions, the travel, each rider’s respective strengths – White expects the ultimate decision of who takes home the Stars-and-Stripes jersey to come down to which of the duo is the more cerebral rider on Sunday:
“Given what happened at the Continental Championships in Cincinnati, I think it will be a big race for the smarter person. I think the smarter person will win. That’s what happened at the Continental Championships. I think…she out smarted me and I didn’t have what it took to stay with her. I think that will be the big thing in Hartford. Really being smart, smart about our efforts and not making mistakes.”
Racing on the Big Stage
Fans who have watched White and Noble race this season would be forgiven for thinking the two women are experienced beyond their years. Each has won an Elite UCI race and the two have combined for 13 Elite podiums during the 2016-2017 campaign. However, both have grown up as fans of Women’s cycling and are still going through an adjustment from seeing riders such as Katie Compton and Marianne Vos as idols to seeing them as the Elite cyclocross peers they now are. Noble put it well, “Obviously I was a teenage girl in the sport…completely in love with Vos.”
Both women said that one of the biggest challenges racing against Vos, Compton, Katerina Nash, and others is learning to assert themselves and not altering their riding styles. Said Noble, “At the beginning of the season when we were doing these huge races like Trek, Vegas, Iowa both days. I’m racing and I’m literally thinking, excuse my language, ‘Holy shit, I am behind Katie Compton or Eva Lechner or Katerina Nash.’ Or ‘Oh, I am going into the final sprint at Vegas against Sanne Cant.’ It was so insane because I have idolized these women my entire life. I grew up watching them racing and it’s so crazy racing with them that I know for a fact I limited myself this year because of it. I lacked the confidence to really just kind of go for it. To flap my wings or whatever. My brain was like ‘Do not attack right now, do not attack them, absolutely not, do not pass them. Do not chop them.’ I was like ‘No, these people deserve a lot of respect, don’t be an idiot.'”
White echoed similar sentiments, “It’s not easy because these have been people I turn on the TV to watch. Marianne Vos started last row last weekend and won the race. It’s unbelievable what these women can accomplish. First of all, I feel really fortunate to be on the start line with them. It’s been a dream, so now my goals have progressed and my goals keep getting bigger. It’s really cool.”
She continued, “You also have to find the balance of, I was talking about technically riding, you see these people and you’re like ‘Oh, I need to make room for Sanne Cant, she’s Sanne Cant, I have to let her by.’ That’s also something you have to be mentally strong about. It’s like ‘No I deserve this line as much as they do and I have to fight for it.’ That was an issue for me at the start of Zolder. I saw these big people and thought ‘I should make some room.’ It was a really bad idea. It’s different, it’s something to get used to.”
The confidence both women have been gaining has not gone unnoticed. Noble related a funny story from the podium after Zolder, “I was on the U23 World Cup podium after Zolder and Vos had just won. She was standing in the tent, it was just the two of us, and I was so uncomfortable and I was like ‘Hi, I’m Ellen, it’s really nice to meet you. I’m a huge fan.’ I just said it really quickly. And she goes, ‘Oh yeah, I know who you are,’ and I was like ‘Ok. I’m going to pass out, don’t worry about me.’ I was so star struck.”
Having Fun Where the Blacktop Ends
This publication is called Cyclocross Magazine and we will be blunt, we want Emma White and Ellen Noble to race cyclocross forever. Until they are Masters 70+ racers. However, for such talented young riders, there are always competing options.
In addition to her three U.S. Cyclocross Nationals Junior titles, White has also won four U.S. Road Nationals Junior titles, and she took second in both the time trial and road race at the 2015 UCI Junior World Championships in Richmond, Virginia. Fans could be forgiven if they are afraid the young star might end up following the lead of Lars Boom, Zdenek Stybar and even Logan Owen and choose to focus on road over the skinny knobbies. Fortunately for ‘cross fans, she said she loves both disciplines and hopes to continue racing both.
“I think of them as two separate things. They really balance each other out. If I were just training for road all year long, I think it would be super difficult, mentally and physically. And the same with ‘cross. If I were to do racing all year, I’d get pretty cracked. I think splitting them up, mentally, it’s the perfect break. I see them as two different, two different, they’re different sports almost. They take different skills. I like the balance and I hope to keep that balance for a while. I would like to continue on this path for as long as I can.”
While White continues to stay the course, some change is coming to Noble’s racing future. The Maine native grew up racing mountain bikes and has been racing mountain bike UCI U23 World Cup races for several years, but she said she has gotten a little burnt out on the mountain bike scene and is looking for a new challenge in 2017.
Noble got the opportunity to do a solid schedule of U.S. criteriums and road races for Aspire Racing in 2016, and in 2017 she is looking forward to hitting the road scene with her trademark energy. The outgoing and gregarious rider said she loves the energy she has found on the road, “I did a couple of road races and immediately clicked with a lot of the women I was racing against. People come out and watch, and there’s always a really fun event after the big stage races, so it’s just a sport that has a lot of great energy.”
Lest cyclocross fans be afraid, she has found the most energy on the cyclocross scene. “It doesn’t matter if you’re racing at 8am or at 3pm whatever category you’re in, there are people who care about what race you’re doing. Part of the reason the pro road races are so fun is people care about professional road racing. But the cyclocross spectators just care because you’re racing cyclocross. You can be DFL in the Cat 5 men’s race and you’re still going to get someone heckling you and giving you a hard time and cheering for you and supporting you. I think that’s really what I like, kind of the unconditional support and energy.”
White also stressed the fun she has on her Cannondale cyclocross bike. “I think it’s fun. You know, the light mood, the spectators. It’s such a different feel. I think for everybody there it’s a party. For the racers and the spectators. In different ways, of course. You can’t help but to really smile when you’re racing. I don’t know if you’ve seen my rider card this year, there’s a picture going around where I’m laughing on my bike. I started laughing during a race because I almost crashed or something, and that doesn’t happen in road. It’s more stressful, it’s more focused I’d say. Of course you’re focused in ‘cross too, but it’s more of a light-hearted thing. We’ve having fun with it.”
Cyclocross is a sport, even for professional racers, that seems to attract people who value community and camaraderie once the bell lap is over. For Noble, cyclcross community has been a rock to help support her after the loss of her father:
“I love the people of cyclocross. They’ve absolutely become a family to me. I lost my dad my first year racing Elite, and it was really really hard for me, but I think part of the reason I was able to actually survive it, and I don’t say that lightly, the reason I was able to get through and keep going and keep racing was because I had this other family that was looking out for me and taking care of me and pushing me to keep going. I am so thankful for that. I don’t know what I would have done without that love and support of cyclocross. It’s always super hard, but I am really thankful for the family that made it easier.”
Time to Go Crazy
Emma White and Ellen Noble will join their U23 colleagues at the start line in Hartford at 10am on Sunday. Fans may have focused on the “beautiful duel” between White and Noble, but as Noble said, nothing is guaranteed, and both riders spoke about the depth of the field they are expecting. Hannah Finchamp of Washington finished second at Nationals in Austin in 2015, Hannah Arensman of North Carolina won Junior Nationals in Asheville in 2016, and 2016 U.S Worlds Team member Emma Swartz of Wisconsin is returning to form after a rough start to the season, so the two women will have their hands full in Hartford.
Despite the challenge, the two women are ready to rock. Said Noble, “I am itching, I am dying to race. I am so excited to keep racing right now. And really feeling a newfound competitiveness that I’ve been looking for. I’m looking forward to a fight at Nationals, which is going to be really fun.”
White agreed, “I will head down to Nationals on Friday to check out the course and get a feel for it. And then go crazy on Sunday.”
Go crazy with them and watch Sunday’s races live on Cyclocross Magazine.