When Ellen Noble announced her signing with Trek Factory Racing early this year, it signaled a return to her singletrack roots after a 2017 summer spent on the road.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Noble chartered out a challenging path for herself by focusing on the UCI XCO World Cup races. Although she is (unofficially) the most popular cyclocross racer in the world and has been starting at the front of domestic and international racers for several years, Noble faced a mountain bike World Cup circuit where few people knew her ’cross success and she started on the last row with literally the last call-up.
“Going from being an athlete who’s starting front row and contending—or at least always in the top 10 being in the fight at the front—to go from that to being off the back and just hoping to be able to cut your start spot in half, it’s been kind of crazy,” Noble said about the task she faced during the 2018 mountain bike campaign.
Signing with Trek Factory Racing proved to be a good fit for Noble because the team allowed her to race a mountain bike season and then transition to being a part of its UCI cyclocross team. The partnership has also proven beneficial because the team has allowed her to use her first year as a chance to find her place on the mountain bike circuit.
“I was super-fortunate to go into this season knowing that I had two years,” Noble said. “I think that was really really beneficial for me. My contract with Trek is for two seasons. It gave me the room to grow, and it didn’t feel like quite as much of a rush. It felt like this season was for learning and recon and knowing that everything I was doing and the team was doing was investing in a better 2019.”
Noble’s mountain bike teammates on Trek Factory racing are Emily Batty and Evie Richards. Cyclocross fans are well-acquainted with Richards’ success, and Batty has been tearing it up on the World Cup scene this year. Having two other elite-level women to train with and learn from has proven invaluable for Noble this year.
Noble said she has looked up to Batty for a number of years, and two became close while training together in Tucson earlier this year. Richards has been a frequent roommate of hers while on the road, and the two know each other well from their cyclocross battles at the U23 and Elite levels.
“Having two women, two of the athletes I respect the most in the sport across the board, be my teammates so amazing for me,” Noble said about her teammates. “I have so much respect for both of them as athletes to be privy to what they do and be a part of their behind the scenes was such an amazing experience for me.”
Noble’s mountain bike season kicked off at home with the Bonelli and Sea Otter Classic US Cup races in April before she headed to Europe for the Albstadt, Germany and Nove Mesto, Czech Republic races. The World Cups brought fields loaded with talent and a tough last-row call-up.
Noble admitted the first race was a rough one. “Albstadt was my first World Cup race, and it was really frustrating. It did not go well. I tried telling myself, you did as you could, but I didn’t race like myself. I was totally out of control. The bike was driving me, I wasn’t driving the bike sort of thing.”
However, by the next week in the Czech Republic, she bounced back and passed nearly half the field en route to a finish inside the top 40.
With a baptism by fire at the World Cup level under her belt, Noble’s breakout ride came in early July at the Val di Sole World Cup in Italy. Despite again starting at the back of the field, Noble raced her way to a 16th-place finish. It was a big moment and a sign that perhaps there would be some extra gravy on her “learning” year with Trek Factory Racing.
“The first time I felt like really showed up at a race like a mountain biker and not just as this ’cross rider who was doing a fun project was at Vale di Sole,” Noble said about her ride. “I started last, again. I thought that I would have moved up a lot because I had gotten some more UCI points, but I was still last at the start. I just kept moving up and moved up through the whole field and finished 16th. That was kind of like a light bulb moment for me. Oh my gosh, I did that.”
“Oh my gosh, I did that.”
One of the last big tests of Noble’s first mountain bike campaign with Trek Factory Racing was U.S. Mountain Bike Nationals in Snowshoe, West Virginia in late July. With Kate Courtney tearing it up on the World Cup stage and other riders such as Erin Huck, Chloe Woodruff, Kaysee Armstrong and Lea Davison turning in solid international results, it was a chance for Noble to demonstrate her quick study of the mountain bike discipline. “I was super-excited because American racing is so strong right now,” she said about the race. “It’s astonishing.”
Noble started strong and then found herself in sixth place midway through the race. Sixth place, however, is not what she traveled to West Virginia for.
“I was riding in sixth, and I was like, Oh wow, all the women in front of me are really really good. But then I said, ‘I didn’t come here to get sixth. I really need to fight for this. I need to be like throwing up by the end of this, and then I’ll be happy.’ Then I just rode out of my mind for a couple of laps and started picking people off. I went full Danny Hart on the descents, totally out of control and was super-happy with it.”
Noble came home with a podium finish and a bronze medal in her first Elite Mountain Bike Nationals. Her afternoon at Snowshoe was one of those where everything comes together perfectly. “It was one of those results that I felt like was the result of everything clicking and coming together really well,” Noble said. “I always try to balance results-based goals with process-focused goals. I prioritize the process over the result, but when you have a really good process and it produces a good result, it’s the best of everything.”
“I didn’t come here to get sixth. I really need to fight for this.”
With the calendar turning to September and Noble’s cyclocross season starting this Saturday in Rochester, she also reflected on how she thinks a summer of racing singletrack will pay off for her in the mud and ruts this fall. Moving up from sixth to third was a product of learning how to race from the whistle to the finish line.
“It’s given me mountain biking experience, but also, I feel like I’ve been getting an amazing experience that’s going to transfer really well for ’cross as well,” Noble said. “I feel like I now know how to race the whole race. Whereas before, I was really struggling with staying motivated and be able to rip it on the last lap. I think I have a really good idea of how to play my cards now and continue to suffer for a lot longer than I did before.”
Earlier this year, we made the argument that mountain biking is probably the best way to improve your cyclocross handling skills. Noble agreed that ripping singletrack has been a boon for her bike driving. “I’ve raced mountain bikes before, but I feel like I’m as good as I’ve ever been technically, but I did not start the season that way.”
The reason? “I’m not scared as much,” she said.
Noble’s successful mountain bike campaign culminated with an invite to join Team USA at Mountain Bike Worlds this weekend in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Noble declined the invitation because #crossishere in Rochester, but it still marked the first-time accomplishment that cyclocross fans are pretty sure will happen again in the future.
“To have that recognition from USA Cycling that says, ‘Hey we see you’re working really hard and we think you can be a valuable asset to us at the World Championships’ was really exciting, and it’s something I’ve never done before,” she said. “Even in my years racing mountain prior to the year I took off to race road. I had always petitioned for the Worlds team and never made it. That was a really big step for me.”
Interview with Ellen Noble About Mountain Biking and More
For much more about Ellen Noble’s first season of mountain bike racing with Trek Factory Racing, you can listen to our full conversation via the embed above, our Soundcloud page or iTunes. We also chatted about bunny hopping the patriarchy, graduating from college and even *gasp* the coming cyclocross season.
For more interview podcasts, see our audio file archives.