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Q&A: Ellen Noble on college, Olympics, and zipper controversy

Few Americans show more potential than cyclocross racer Ellen Noble. She's also a vocal advocate for female racers.

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Few American cyclists show more potential for greatness than cyclocross racer Ellen Noble. At 21, Noble has already won three under-23 national titles, and last year she won the U23 World Cup overall title. Based on her early results, Noble stands to have a long and fruitful career in cycling’s muddy discipline.

Noble is also a public health major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She’s eloquent and introspective beyond her years and a vocal advocate for female athletes.

Yet in September 2016, Noble was at the center of controversy within the cyclocross scene not for her brains or brawn, but rather for her body. During Iowa’s Jingle Cross World Cup, she donned the white World Cup leader’s skinsuit, which is thicker than traditional skinsuits due to its see-through potential in wet weather. As temperatures soared into the 80s, Noble partially unzipped the skinsuit to stay cool, exposing her sports bra. Photos circulated the Internet.

For weeks Noble was pestered with criticism for appearing immodest. She eventually took to her Facebook page to battle the critics.

“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. “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.”

We caught up with Noble to talk ’cross, body shaming, and the importance of education.

VeloNews: You have grown up with social media at your fingertips for your entire life. How do you think that has impacted who you are and how you express yourself?

Ellen Noble: I love trying to use social media as a platform for things that I believe in. I don’t always want to be on the soapbox preaching stuff, but now that I’ve got a pretty big following I feel like the things I write about are actually reaching people. There’s nothing that makes me happier. I don’t really want to say that the things I’m writing are controversial; I dream of a world where the things I write are no longer controversial: ‘Hey, weird concept, we should treat female bike racers and women in general equally.’ And people are like, ‘Oh my god! This is revolutionary!’ Or, ‘Hey, let’s stop body-shaming women for what they do while they’re doing their job.’

What I’m writing now is still edgy enough that people are still taken aback by some of the things I write and are like, ‘Wow, that was super brave that you would say that.’ But I’m just speaking what’s the truth for me. I love that I have this platform that I can write this stuff. If you know the way to approach it, you can actually change someone’s perspective. And isn’t that we want: to learn from other people, hopefully, broaden our horizons, and expand our perspective, and, in turn, hopefully, change other people’s perspectives that could benefit them and the people around them.

VN: You’re referring to the controversy of the partially unzipped skinsuit. In retrospect, was the incident a positive thing? Was it the impetus for you to be more outwardly feminist?

EN: It was absolutely a positive thing. I don’t really see a negative about it because I have nothing to be ashamed of. It was eye-opening for me — to realize there’s a much bigger double standard in this sport than I ever could have imagined. I also realized that many people in cycling, and those in the public eye in general, want to take the path of least resistance. I absolutely do not blame them; I never wanted to be a shit-stirrer, poker of the bear, but I am exceptionally opinionated and very passionate about equality in general, not just when it comes to women.

I took a risk with that post. That was the first time I posted something where I was like, ‘I have no idea what people are going to say to this, but something needs to be said.’ The positive response was so much greater than I could have imagined, and it opened the door for me to feel more confident in voicing my opinions on the things that matter to me.

Ellen Noble
Ellen Noble won the 2017 under-23 World Cup cyclocross title. Photo: Tim De Waele |

VN: Who has influenced you the most, and what impact has this had on your worldview?

EN: The majority of it really did come from my parents. My worldview was shaped by them — but I can’t even really say ‘shaped,’ because that would imply they were actively pushing. But my parents were just … super chill.

When I was 16 I remember I Googled feminism because I had heard people saying it like it was a really bad thing. I was afraid to ask my parents what it was because I didn’t want to ask them what a bad word meant. And I was completely taken aback by the fact that being a feminist was how my parents raised me. There were no ‘men’s-only’ rides. I went with my dad to the men’s ride. Having my dad push my mom and I to be like, ‘You are equals; you guys are strong. If you can’t do something it’s not because you’re a woman, you just need to keep doing it.’ There were no gender issues; my parents just…loved.

VN: Why is it important to you to get a college degree?

EN: I just think higher education is really valuable. It’s just something I felt really passionate about doing early on in life. I’m really passionate about helping people, and that’s why I chose public health. I feel like the best way that I could help people and get the jobs that will allow me to help people live better and healthier lives, I needed to get this degree, and that was what I was willing to do.

I chose to do it right now because I’m still young and feel so far away from my physiological peak that I figured why not get it done while I’m still limited by my age — I know I’ll naturally improve simply as I get older. Then as an elite, I can really make a full run as a professional bike racer.

I could also still have that fun college experience. I got to live on campus for two years and I met a ton of amazing people, many with much broader opinions and perspectives than I have. And, really, the truth of it is I wanted to have one traditional experience in my life, and go to college at the time that most people go to college.

VN: Where do you see yourself in five years?

EN: In a perfect world I would love to have been to the Olympics for cross-country mountain bike. The big dream would be ’cross national champion. And then trying to find that balance between racing ’cross and cross-country, and finding that program that will allow me to race the mountain bike World Cups and the cyclocross World Cups together.

I feel like every day I love ’cross more and more, and as I grow older I’m finding more reasons to love it. But really, five years from now, who’s to say. I want to be doing my absolute best and have unlocked a new level of suffering. If I’m doing that and I’m training my butt off and I’m suffering so hard in every race — whether that makes me world champion or a podium finisher at nationals — would be good with me. I’ll be happy with it because I will have a healthy perspective on bike racing.