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“Are you the next Katie Compton?”
It’s an asinine question, really. But just because the question is asinine doesn’t mean the answer will be.
“What is that, though? What does that mean?” Ellen Noble asks. “I would love to become whatever that is in people’s minds. But I have no idea what that’s going to be.”
Ellen Noble is 21, a national champion three times over. She won the U23 World Cup overall and was second at cyclocross worlds last month. She’s a student, too, eloquent and introspective beyond her years, and a vocal advocate for female athletes. She’s signed for Aspire Racing and Rapha, along with Jeremy Powers. She races mountain bikes sometimes, and will race road bikes for Colavita – Bianchi this year. She is one of the best young cyclocross racers in the world. Maybe she is the next Katie Compton. Whatever that is.
Noble was the kid in kindergarten making Olympic medals out of Play-Doh. She brought them home to her parents — who built skate parks for a living, how rad is that? — and told them she was going to get a real one someday. Their support was unconditional, she says.
I can confirm that, actually. I have a slight advantage in writing about Noble’s early years, because I was loosely part of them. When Noble was 12, her father, Tom, emailed a Vermont-based junior development team that I had just finished racing for, college-bound, and asked about a team slot for his daughter. “She is very strong willed, confident, tough, intelligent,” he said, making his pitch. “The kid has lungs the size of Lance, I’m sure of it!!!”
He spoke of her commitment, even then. His 12-year-old wanted a training plan. She wanted structure. She wanted to race. Who were we to stop her? I recall handing the smallest Bliss Racing jersey we could find to a tiny blonde girl at the NORBA Nationals at the Mount Snow ski resort in Vermont, one of the toughest courses on the old NORBA calendar. We watched her line up against the 13- and 14-year-olds, watched her come in last with a big smile.
Noble filled the next few years with mountain bike racing, and then began dabbling in cyclocross. Her first big USA Cycling-sanctioned win came at the first day of GP Gloucester in 2011, a keystone of New England ’cross. There she topped a 103-woman-strong Cat. 3 and 4 field, as a 15-year-old, and finished just ahead of none other than Emma White. White is now a pro with Cannondale and was second behind Noble at U23 nationals this year.
An athlete’s early life features frequent divergences. “Two roads diverge in a yellow wood … I took the one less traveled by,” that sort of thing. Choices are made, lots of them, that end up pointing inherent athleticism down one path or another. That breakthrough season, 2011, sent Noble towards cyclocross. It’s a path that led to national championships and international success, and questions about what she could be one day.
If you don’t know Ellen Noble from her results, you might know her from a Facebook post about a zipper.
Jingle Cross, in late September, was Noble’s first race in the UCI World Cup leader’s skinsuit, rather than her usual Rapha skinsuit. It was an honor she earned at Cross Vegas and would hold all the way through the season. The leader’s suit is white, and thus double thick so as not to be translucent. That’s generally fine as the sport plumbs the depths of northern European winter. But the high in Iowa City that day was 81-degrees Fahrenheit, and the double-thick skinsuit was roasting. “I was starting to overheat, I don’t thermo-regulate very well, and I unzipped,” Noble recalls. “I was also wearing a lightweight sports bra. A lot of the photos, because I was unzipped, showed my chest a lot.”
As a sport, we spend quite a lot of time discussing the plight of women’s racing, how its athletes are underpaid and undervalued, how it can’t get good TV time. And these things are important to discuss; the first steps toward equality include identifying underlying problems. But it sometimes feels like we’re missing the forest for the trees.
Noble’s competitors — and the Internet — didn’t know about the double-thick suit, and assumed this young woman was simply flaunting. “I read a lot of comments after the race, a lot online, but I also received a lot of comments from other racers, about how I need to zip up, I need to get a bigger sports bra. That the photos were obscene. ‘What message are you trying to push here?’ That I’m trying to seek attention; I’m trying to be sexy. A lot of stuff like that,” she says.
The comments were hurtful, Noble says, but she tried to ignore them. She was just doing her job. They didn’t know the whole story.
But two weeks later she was still receiving abuse, mostly online. “I snapped,” she says. “It’s 2017. We don’t shame women for their bodies anymore. It’s not my fault that I have breasts. That’s not the issue here,” she says. She wrote a post on Facebook explaining the double-thick suit, the weather, and that her only two options were unzip the jersey or drop out from the heat. That explanation was important, simply to shut up the Internet, but not as significant as the second part of the post.
“When someone tells me to zip up, or get a bigger sports bra, that’s sending the message that I should worry more about how I look, and how people will perceive me, than doing my job and racing my ass off,” Noble wrote. Both Tom Meeusen and Stephen Hyde had unzipped their own jerseys, she pointed out. Neither had received abuse as a result.
“The hate really emphasized the double standard set against women in the sport,” she continued in the post. “So, next time you’re tempted to make a comment about me or another female athlete’s chest, or body in general, think again. It’s not your job to sexualize my body. Only I can do that. And I’m choosing not to because my body is a machine, made for work. Not viewing pleasure or hate. My body, my rules.”
The post turned her into a beacon for positive body image and the right of female athletes to be treated as just that: athletes. Other women, who had suffered similar unjustified outrage, reached out and told their stories. “I had a lot of people tell me that, men and women both, that they would never, ever have thought of it that way,” Noble says.
“A lot of the amateur women I spoke with had dealt with this sort of thing on group rides, and we really connected over that,” she says. “It was something that was really negative at first, but it’s become a pretty positive thing. I’ve seen a lot of people using the hashtag #unzipforequality, which always makes me smile.”
Noble’s skinsuit brought up a frequently ignored side of the discussion: the double standard placed on the athletes themselves. Not problems with logistics, or pay, or a lack of professionalism in management and among race directors, but how the athletes themselves are treated while at work.
“Everyone says, “Oh we need equal prize money, we need this and that,” but for me, it’s not always about the money,” Noble says. “Yeah, it would be nice to make even close to what the guys are making at the world cups, which I know they’re trying for, but it’s not just about the money here. It’s about how you feel at a race.
“When I go to an event, when I go to my job, and I feel uncomfortable, this is an issue. We need to fix it somehow. You can pay us the same, and we can race for the same distance, but until the mentality around the sport changes and until the stigma of being female is erased we’re not going to have equality. Honestly, I speak for myself and many women when I say: If we were treated equally, even if there weren’t equal pay out and equal distances, I think people would be a lot happier.”
A lot happier. Perhaps that says it all.
Turning that Play-Doh Olympic medal into a real one is still a dream. Noble is 21; that’s three shots at the Games, maybe four. But her chosen path, that divergence from way back in 2011, isn’t conducive to this particular dream. There is no cyclocross in the Olympics.
Noble will race for Colavita – Bianchi on the road this season, but her true focus remains on ’cross. At some point, if the Olympics continue to beckon, she’ll have to move to another discipline more permanently. The road is daunting; she was never a roadie, not really, and isn’t sure she ever will be. Mountain bikes look more promising. Stretching back to that NORBA at Mount Snow, and before, fat tires have always been the passion.
“I think mountain is more attainable for me,” she says of her Olympic dreams. “With the road it’s… I feel like it’s harder to shine on the road, if that makes any sense. I have such a strong background in mountain bike racing, I’ve raced it for so long, I think it’s easier to visualize.”
There are other dreams, too. She’s studying at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is now in her first online semester after a few years on campus. She’s studying public health, continuing the legacy of her parents. “My dad devoted his life to building skateboard parks in towns,” she says. “He thought he could give kids a place to go and keep them off drugs. He’d come back and be exhausted from fighting for these parks, and now we hear that having a skate park in town has helped so much. My parents wanted to help people live lives through sport, and that was instilled in me.” She has considered pivoting after her racing career to a life in medicine, perhaps oncology. That’s a motivation born of her father’s death in 2013, to colon cancer. “But I’m hoping that by the time I get there that field doesn’t exist anymore,” she says.
The span between today and that eventual tomorrow could be a decade or more. At 21, she’s one of the best young bike racers in the world. Where will she be at 25? At 30? She has Olympic dreams to realize, multiple disciplines to attempt to conquer. She has college to finish. Equality to fight for.
Is Ellen Noble the next Katie Compton? No, of course not. What does that even mean?
Who knows what she’ll be. The man who emailed about his strong-willed, confident, tough, intelligent daughter back in 2008 was right then, and he would be right now. “I think you will find her wit and charm an asset as time goes on,” Tom Noble said. “She has not even begun to tap her potential.”