This cyclocross season, Ellen Noble (Trek Factory Racing CX) has put an emphasis on embracing an aggressive style of racing.
At Sunday’s World Cup Waterloo on the grounds of the company that now sponsors her, Noble’s aggressive approach gave her an early lead against an impressive international field.
When Noble turned around at the end of the first lap, sitting right on her wheel was seven-time world champion Marianne Vos (WaowDeals Pro Cycling Team).
What transpired over the next five laps of racing was a memorable battle between one of the greatest athletes in cyclocross history and young star poised to break through to the top level of the sport.
Noble and Vos spent the next four laps trading leads, with hardly more than a bike length ever separating the two women. At times they attacked and at times they sized each other up, but when the bell rang, they were still together.
Noble went all-in for the win, knowing that her approach could cost her the race. The Trek rider lead much of the last lap, and after clearing the barriers, only the steep down and up of Trek Factory Hill stood between her and the biggest win of her cyclocross career.
Vos, however, still had one last move up her sleeve. The Dutch rider grabbed the lead shortly before Trek Factory Hill and rode the switchback descent and steep climb up a little cleaner to take a small lead exiting the feature.
She accelerated away and held her gap to take the World Cup Waterloo win to kick off her early start to the cyclocross season in style.
"Actually I was just trying to keep up," Vos said about the race. "I knew there was a chance for me in that last little uphill. It’s a tricky descent and a little kicker. I went in there first and took a couple meter advantage, and it was enough to take the line first. It was a hard race and a great battle with Ellen."
Noble headed home with a silver and the knowledge she can go toe-to-toe with one of her personal heroes and one of the sport's all-time greats.
"This is a really exciting result for me, and to do it at such a significant race at the factory of the brand that supports me is really important," Noble said. "To balance that 'Okay, you have to try to beat her, but this is Marianne Vos,' was difficult."
Noble Grabs Control Early
After the race, Ellen Noble said that last season, she often raced conservatively against international fields. With a year of experience and confidence from her successful mountain biking season, Noble said her new plan is to be aggressive from the gun.
On Sunday, she did just that. Ellen Van Loy (Telenet Fidea Lions) took the holeshot, as she often does, but Noble quickly seized the lead spot and drove a fast pace at the front.
Noble used the technical descents and power straights to open up a gap halfway into the first lap. As the first of six trips around the course drew to a close, only Marianne Vos was able to follow her fast start. Behind them, Maud Kaptheijns (Crelan-Charles), Katerina Nash (Clif Pro Team) and Evie Richards (Trek Factory Racing CX) did their best to keep the pace.
"I kind of threw caution to the win a little bit today," Noble said. "I spent a lot of last season trying to force myself into being a different racer than I am. Last year, I tried to play it super-conservatively, and I paid the price because I would get swarmed at the start. I’ve been feeling so motivated and so hungry to fight, and today I feel like I finally found that thing I need to be a competitive racer, so I think I kind of unleashed that today."
Early into the second lap, it became clear that Noble was determined to make the race between her and Vos and not allow any of the chasers to stop their early break. Noble’s work paid off, and midway through the second lap, the duo’s lead grew to nearly 15 seconds.
Another half lap and the lead was now 20 seconds. The time for the chasers to bring Vos and Noble back appeared to be gone.
Disaster Narrowly Averted and a Thrilling Finish
If Noble and Vos seemed gone, their lead almost came crashing to the ground at the barriers.
On the third trip through the planks, Noble missed the timing on her bunnyhop and endoed after the first barrier. Fortunately for her, her tumble took her right into Vos' running line, and the two riders got tangled up.
"I think I was in more trouble than Ellen during the race," Vos said. "We had a good advantage on the group behind us, so we were pretty sure until the crash between us. But then you have to stay focused and concentrated and do the right thing at the right time."
Noble's crash cost them time, but they recovered quickly and midway through the race, the two still had 13 seconds on Richards, Nash and Katie Compton (KFC Racing p/b Trek Knight).
If Vos was the aggressor in the Noble-Vos battle at any point in the race, it was the fourth lap. Vos took lead duties on the climb to the barn flyover, and then after Noble took the lead, Vos again took the lead position past Pit 2. After four laps, Vos led through the start/finish straight, but there was still no separation between the two.
Lap 5 featured more of the same, with Noble and Vos trading leads. Fans across the Trek grounds watching on the jumbotrons let out a roar when Noble made a smooth pass of Vos in the woods, but when all was said and done, the two crossed the line together for one last lap.
One could excuse Ellen Noble for being star-struck for making it to a final lap with Marianne Vos, but if you know Noble, you know she came to the line on Sunday to win the bike race.
Noble took the lead spot heading into the last lap and pulled through the early turns and up to the barn flyover at the top of the ridge on the Trek property.
As she descended toward the pavement at the bottom of the Segafredo Run-Up, it appeared that Noble's efforts might have started to break Vos on the warm September afternoon. She carried a small gap into the Run-Up and exited with a several-bike-length lead. Vos, however, recovered, and by the mid point of the bell lap, Vos was back on Noble's wheel.
At times it appeared Vos was sitting on Noble's wheel, and at times it looked like the Dutch rider was on the verge of being broken. One could argue the pain faces were in the eyes of the beholder for those in Waterloo on Sunday.
As the riders neared Pit 2, Noble and Vos both slowed up to game out the situation. Unfortunately for them, a hard-charging Nash was closing the gap, and with a third of a lap left, Noble and Vos' lead was only the length of pit row. The two upped the pace, and when they crossed the barriers, Noble held the lead heading up the hill toward the barn flyover under crossing.
The last technical feature of the World Cup Waterloo course was Trek Factory Hill. Riders make a sidehill right, sidehill left and then climb up a steep, dusty incline into the long pre-finishing-stretch.
With time running out to take control from Noble, Vos put in a dig and took the lead right before Trek Factory Hill. Perhaps calling on her years of experience, Vos rode the descent and climb cleaner and came out onto the pavement with a clear lead.
Vos rolled around the last turn and headed to the finish with a U.S. World Cup victory in hand.
"Experience] probably helped in the last lap," Vos said. "She had a fantastic race, and it was not easy for me to beat her today."
Noble followed close behind with a second-place finish and an incredible experience giving a living legend everything she could handle.
"On the last lap, I really decided to just say eff it, and I really went all-in," Noble said. "I knew that I had to be willing to lose the race to win it, but obviously I came up short."
In the battle for third, Compton dropped out of a chase that included Nash and Richards after rolling a tire in Lap 5. With Compton out of the group, Nash got a gap on Richards and as mentioned above, came within eyesight of joining the lead duo.
Nash did not have quite enough to pull off a win for the ages and settled for a World Cup bronze in Wisconsin.
Sofia Gomez Villfañe (Pivot Cycles/Maxxis p/b Stan's/DNA Cycling) finished 8th, Crystal Anthony (Liv Cycling) 13th, Clara Honsinger (Team S&M CX) 14th and Sunny Gilbert (Van Dessel Factory Racing) 15th to round out U.S.-based riders in the top 15.
See below for a photo gallery and results.