In the series: Real Cyclocross, we’ll be sharing interviews with promoters and team directors, tips and tricks for racing and training, case studies detailing specific events, and a lot of other cyclocross-specific content.
We decided that as a follow up to our first Real Cyclocross series interview with Alec Donahue (one of the JAM Fund founders), we would sit down with JAM alum, current Trek Factory Racing athlete, and cyclocross superstar—Ellen Noble. We hope you enjoy this wide-ranging conversation with one of our favorite athletes.
Where do you currently live?
EN: Downtown Easthampton [Massachusetts].
You’re from Maine. How did you end up in Easthampton?
EN: I decided to move out here for college. I knew about the community and the great riding resources out here after having worked with Al [Donahue] for a few years prior. Shortly after I committed to going to UMass, I joined the JAM Fund.
Is Easthampton similar to where you’re from in Maine?
EN: In some ways, yes. It still has that home vibe that I was used to growing up in Maine. And it’s still a very beautiful, natural, outdoorsy area. But western Mass has a lot more going on that interests me. It has a bigger focus on the the community aspect of things. And I relate more strongly to the people here than the tourist community we interact with in southern Maine.
This is a big question, but what or who is your greatest motivation?
EN: I would say that my biggest motivator has and continues to be my dad and the life and legacy that he left behind when he passed away. The second component of my motivation is how passionate my dad was in supporting the causes he cared about. So another motivator is being a role model for women, and trying to do things differently. Showing women in the sport that there are multiple viable ways to be a professional female athlete.
What is your life ethos? Meaning, what is your moral code?
Probably my biggest thing is that I want to spread love and spread positivity in everything I do.
I want to have a positive impact, big or small, wherever I go. The ability to be out and about with different people, even just on the bike path — smiling, saying hi, or having a short conversation.
The other thing is pushing the message of, “If I can do it, we can all do it.” I’m not an alien specimen that was designed for bike racing or achieving big goals. Through a lot of humble resources, amazing people, and hard work, I’ve been able to do it. So it’s about spreading that message. If you want it badly enough, this is something you can do.
You’ve been around the world racing your bike. What’s your favorite place on earth, so far?
EN: It’s hard to choose just one. I think a lot of places I’ve looked back on fondly have a lot to do with where I was in my life. I loved living in Spain because of where I was at that time. I was reading a lot of books and eating amazing food while riding a ton. Val Di Sole, Italy is another place. It’s in a valley between the mountains and it’s very sunny, as the name suggests. I also, for different reasons, really liked the village I was living in outside of Antwerp, Belgium. The bike infrastructure there was incredible. Endless single-track and bike paths, all day everyday.
You graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst earlier this year. Tell us about your degree and what you plan to do with it later in life.
EN: My degree is in public health. As of right now, I don’t have a definitive answer, but I want to make good use of it. I haven’t stressed myself out about making a plan for that yet. I plan on getting my master’s degree after I retire. I hope that the more concentrated effort toward continuing my education will lead me to where I want to go.
You’ve been very supportive of the young women riders coming up in the sport. What was your inspiration to start your Quest?
EN: I have been super inspired by the emotional support given to me by the mentors on the JAM Fund. Namely, my coach, Al Donahue. I have realized how important positive mentorship is for an athlete.
I’ve also just seen a lack of support among women racers. Instead of dwelling on it, I decided to try and contribute to a change. I wanted to create a positive support network among women, particularly around competition. I’m teaching them my tricks, but it’s focused on growth. If they beat me one day, it’s positive for everyone.
It’s easy to support someone when they’re non-threatening. This camp is about celebrating that we can support each other, even when we’re in competition with each other.
How was the Quest this summer? Can you share the highlights?
Coaches and athletes of 2018 Quest
EN: It was really interesting. For all intents and purposes, it operated in a similar way to last year, but ended up being a very different experience.
Last year it was just me pouring my heart and soul into this week-long program. At certain points it felt like me screaming into the void, doing things and hoping that they would work.
I was fortunate to have two volunteers that were lending a hand throughout the week, but for the most part, it was just me kind of functioning on my own.
This year, I was really lucky to have two staff dedicated to helping me get ready, leading up to the arrival of the athletes. Then during the Quest, three staff were on site helping with operations and coaching. I had more time to work one-on-one with the girls. We expanded to 18 athletes, so having additional staff meant that everyone got the attention that they needed. Regardless of ability or level, no one was left out.
A highlight for me was the fact that I had made a pretty big profit off of selling the [Bunny Hop the Patriarchy] t-shirts, and every penny went to providing scholarships for athletes going to the Quest. One of the scholarships that I offered was for a young woman of color to come. For me, this matters because I’ve read a lot about the importance of increasing representation in the sport, and women of color that I know that are in the sport— I’m trying to show that there’s a place for women like them. Someone else was inspired by that and offered another scholarship for a young Latina woman. That was a huge moment for me.
We also had one young rider on my wheel during one of my own training rides.
To see someone almost able to beat me in my own training was amazing. It scared the crap out of me in the best way possible.
It’s crazy to see someone at 16 almost able to go pedal stroke for pedal stroke with me. And it shows that there are absolutely young women in the sport that are going to come up and make the sport better in a few years.
Is this something you plan to continue? What are your goals for the Quest in 2019?
EN: Yes, I have plans for operating at least on a similar plane for 2019. Then going into 2020, I’m still targeting the Olympics, so I’m planning on making some pretty big changes to how I operate. Regardless of whether this remains a cyclocross camp in August, or becomes a training camp in April… however it’s broken down, I plan to do a dedicated week of my season every year to a high level, performance-focused and nurturing training program for young women. I plan to do it for as long as I can.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
EN: I check my phone. Everyone has the thing they say they do first thing, but if we’re being honest, I think a lot of us do this. I check my email and get an idea of where things are. When I do this for a few minutes first thing, I’m less distracted and more productive once I get going. So every morning, I check my phone. Then I hit the kettle, turn on the waffle iron, and get a pan going, so everything is heating at once.
You obviously have a lot going on, and a lot to check off the list before you can go to bed at night. And how do you measure success in a day?
EN: I’ve recently made big changes to how I structure my day. For me, every day, the first half of my day goes exactly the same. So no matter what happens later, I can always say I have checked off the key objectives.
I wake up, make breakfast, and go for a ride. When I get home, I drink a protein shake, clear my inbox, and update my training log. On Mondays, I fill out a to-do list, create an agenda, look at [Training] Peaks, and take a macro look at what I’m doing. After I decompress a little, I’ll tackle some odd jobs. A little housework or something that’s nagging at me.
Also, creating a to-do list for the week, rather than for the day, has been really helpful for me. So if I have five things that I’m trying to accomplish for the week, instead of having to worry that I haven’t gotten them all done in one day, I can cross them off based on my energy level.
What are the non-negotiables in your life? What do you NEED to have in order to be Ellen Noble?
EN: Number one is sleep. 100%. I also need at least 30 minutes of quiet time at night. If I have a really full day, I can’t just fall asleep. I need time to be awake without any noise.
I also need love and physical contact. Hugs are the best thing in the world. Hanging out with people you can be really positive and loving around is like high octane jet fuel. Even just with friends.
Finally (and I touched on this before) I need structure, though it’s the first thing to go for me. It makes me so inexplicably happy when I’m operating well on my schedule. But it’s the first thing I lose when things go sideways.
What’s your perfect pre-race meal?
EN: Two and a half hours before I start a race, I have two waffles with butter, maple syrup, and strawberry; one egg; and a Red Bull.
Here’s the million dollar question. Do you actually like Red Bull?
EN: I genuinely do. I drank it before I was sponsored. My favorite is the Yellow Edition.
How do you recover after a long day on the bike?
EN: No matter what, I drink a protein shake first. I don’t think most athletes have enough protein. This summer I’ve been going home and clearing out my inbox, then I go in my room and turn the air conditioner on. I do nothing for 30 minutes. I don’t nap well, but I rest. I feel like if I do that, I can be full speed for the rest of the day.
What kind of off-the-bike training do you do?
EN: I run and I go to the gym. At the gym I do weight training, range of motion exercises, and stability work. My goal is to engage the muscles we use in cycling and to work out the imbalances in muscles we don’t use as much.
Sleep has become the new nutrition in terms of importance for training and racing. What’s your sleep routine?
EN: I sleep at least eight hours every night. If I’m setting an alarm I aim for eight and a half. With under seven, if I can avoid it, I won’t train. Some days you have to, but if it’s negotiable, I’ll move my days around to target good sleep.
Also, I’m a really light sleeper. My mom always got up around 4am and started working around the house, so the house would be loud from 4:00 on. Because I’ve always been anxious, just having earplugs wasn’t enough, because if I heard people moving around, I’d feel like I needed to be up and doing things as well. I ended up discovering that if I had something else to listen to, I could ignore the background noise. So I started listening to rain noises in headphones. People are so quick to say, “yeah, that doesn’t work for me.” And yeah, it wasn’t natural for me to start sleeping with headphones in, but it also isn’t natural to be awake at 4am. So I trained myself to sleep like that. And it’s pretty dialed.
I can sleep anywhere with the rain noises. It’s like hypnosis now.
It must be hard to keep up with your routines when on the road. How do you stay happy and healthy while traveling?
EN: This comes back to one of my biggest matras— “Control the controllables.” I try to have as much consistency as possible. To races in the U.S., I bring a waffle iron so I can make my regular breakfast. In Europe, I eat the same rice porridge for breakfast everyday. Doing as much as I can to replicate my schedule has been really big for me.
The other thing is recognizing that you’re traveling, and doing things to help you enjoy the area. Eating at a local food spot or finding the cool road that no one I’m with has found yet. Those are the things that keep me happy when I’m traveling and training, because it’s always a new adventure.
How do you stay connected to friends, family, and loved ones when you’re away from home?
EN: I text a lot. When I’m away, I don’t like to talk on the phone, so I communicate mostly through text and FaceTime. I’ve spent more holidays away from family than I have with them in the last four years, being able to see their faces (and the dogs) is nice.
What have you purchased in the last year that has helped you dial in one of your daily routines? It could be a favorite notebook, an app, a piece of clothing, etc.
EN: One thing that I love is my JBL over-ear headphones. They sent a pair for me this year. I never realized how loud airplanes were until I had the ability to zone the sound out.
What’s your favorite podcast, and why?
EN: I don’t listen to podcasts. If you know me that’s actually really weird. I’m the target audience. I love audiobooks, and I love reading articles, but I can’t get into podcasts. I’ve listened to the Tim Ferriss podcast a few times, but that’s about it. I don’t even listen to podcasts I’ve been on.
So what’s new with you this season?
EN: Everything. I’m starting with a new team, Trek Factory Racing. That program started for me this March, and I started racing mountain bikes in April. Now I’m rolling into my first ‘cross season with them, which is exciting. Red Bull is also a new personal sponsorship. And this isn’t new, but I just realized I’m in my seventh season with Al Donahue as my coach.
You raced an entire mountain biking season. Did you rest, or go straight into ‘cross training?
EN: I’ve rested a bit. I took a full week off after the Mountain Bike National Championships this year. The last race of the season was Mont-Sainte-Anne, which I integrated into my cyclocross build. It’s been a tricky balance this year, trying to figure out how to balance both and be ready for both and be good at both. Not just one or the other. But I think overall the mountain bike season went pretty well, and I’m feeling pretty good about cyclocross. We did the best with what we had. I took seven days off of riding and two weeks off of racing, which is always really important for me.
Rochester is coming up fast. What’s your strategy for that race?
EN: I want to play conservative. It’s the first race of the season. It can be easy to over or underestimate where you are. The main goal is to shake the cobwebs out and to do a race before I go to the world cups. The strategy is to take stock of where I’m at, and then I’ll have two weeks to figure out what I need to change or dial in.
Who’s the rider to watch this year in the women’s pro races (aside from you of course)?
EN: There are a lot of riders but Maghalie Rochette just announced she’s switching teams and will be focusing on cyclocross. I think making that switch will be an exciting change for her and I’m excited to watch. She’s the rider to watch this year in the U.S.
What are you most excited about going into the 2018 cyclocross season?
EN: I’m really excited to be back racing cyclocross. My mountain bike season was super positive and enjoyable, but it was also very trying because I was starting at the back. I’m really excited to be back, racing in a discipline that I know and have experienced before.
I’m also really excited because this season I’ll be spending more time with my teammate, Evie Richards. Having a super positive and crazy accomplished woman to travel with is very meaningful for me. So continuing to develop that friendship and support system with someone I look up to so much is something I’m really looking forward to.
I’ve also seen a few pro’ riders bunny hopping on Instagram. I’m excited to see who brings that out this year.
What are your top 3 tips for racers gearing up for the first races?
EN: Be gentle with yourself.
Understand that there is a lot of time to make changes.
And racing the first race in a season (and in life), remember that winning the hole shot doesn’t always translate to winning the race.