The top under-23 rider in the UCI women's cyclo-cross rankings as of the final week of 2016, 21-year-old Ellen Noble (Aspire Racing), is living up to expectations and then some as one of the most promising riders in the American women's field.
The defending US under-23 champion has made consistent progress in her development up to this point since she began focusing more squarely on cyclo-cross after getting her start on the mountain bike. In the middle of a solid (and busy) 'cross season, and with a road contract signed for next year, Noble is trying to balance her wide-ranging aspirations and with staying productive in her efforts to grow into a successful elite racer.
"I'm trying to make the most of it, really focusing on having a good result at nationals and Worlds, but what's super hard to balance is that yes, I want to have the best possible season that I can as an under-23, but I don't want it to take away from what I'm trying to do as an elite rider in the future," Noble told Cyclingnews.
"I want to be able to see the forest through the trees. Right now I'm just so focused on under-23, but more importantly I'm really trying to lay the foundation for a successful elite career for a very, very long time going forward. So if this season if I could repeat at nationals, if I could have an improved result – I was sixth last year – at Worlds, if I could improve on that by a place or two, that would be really, really exciting."
Noble heads into 2017 coming off a promising – if frustrating – showing at the Heusden-Zolder World Cup round, where she spent the first two laps near the front of the race before a mechanical set her back, leading to a 19th-place finish. She has raced every World Cup event so far this season, with top 10s at Cross Vegas, Jingle Cross and Zeven, making her the series' top-ranked under-23 racer. Before long, however, she'll drop the U23 designation and score results purely as an elite rider, while also figuring to expand her portfolio onto the road.
It's never easy to manage expectations in a sport that has seen riders dominate at a young age. Sanne Cant (IKO Enertherm-Beobank) was scoring big wins at age 21, and current world champ Thalita de Jong (Rabo-Liv) is just 23 years old after all – but Noble is careful not to lose sight of the long term.
"If there's anything I've learned, it's that putting a specific timetable on my racing is kind of impossible," she said. "A couple of years ago, before I joined the development team that I spent two years with, the Jam Fund, I was on a very different trajectory. I was racing and I was improving from year to year, moving up a couple of spots and enjoying it a lot, but once I joined Jam I started improving so much more every year. Just in this last year, by adding a lot more volume to what Im doing, I improved immensely.
"Every year, I love learning and I love the challenge of it and I think that mentality has helped me just sort of keep improving in kind of an abnormal way, in a way I never would have predicted for myself. I can't really put a timeline on anything because I have no idea if I will continue to improve at this rate, or it's entirely possible that after a season like this, racing every single World Cup, I might be a little tired next year and maybe the improvements kind of lay dormant for a year. But I know that I always want to feel that I'm getting better in the ways that I can control so if one year I'm tired then that's unfortunate, but I still want to know that I'm working on all the things that I can work on, controlling the controllables.
"There are some dates that mean a lot to me. The 2020 Olympics are something that as a 21-year-old is hard not to think about. But otherwise, I don't have an exact timeline. But I know that I want to be doing this for as long as I can, so I guess there's really no rush."
Moving forward as both a cyclo-cross and a road rider, Noble is looking to improve her power numbers while also staying sharp as a bike handler, an area in which she already excels.
"I think I've been able to get by for a long time – especially in road – on racing intelligently. I can be less powerful and still be able to keep up a bit with how I use my power. I try to be efficient and I also have pretty good handling skills even on the road bike, so that's helped me a lot even in criteriums, because I can stop pedaling sooner than other people and coast back onto wheels. So I definitely think just working on my power is going to be the biggest improvement I can make," she said.
"I think the biggest thing with improvement in any discipline, with any person, is to train your weaknesses until they become your strengths. Also, if you have something that's a strength, that doesn't mean you don't need to work on it. That's something you see with a lot of people, even if they're really good racers, and if that's how they want to do it that's totally fine, but for me my mentality is that if I have something that I'm good at, that means I'm more apt to pick up even harder parts of it."
While Noble notes that she puts more pressure on herself than anyone else possibly could, she also seems to be enjoying the ride for now. Her strong showings in big races this season pushed her briefly into the top 10 in the UCI's overall world cyclo-cross rankings this month (she now sits 11th behind compatriot Kaitlin Antonneau). Achievements like that are helping to keep morale high.
"I was obviously ecstatic to make it in to the top 10," she said. "I remember when I was 17, I made it into the top 100 and thought that that was the most amazing thing in the world. To have that accomplishment, I was like, 'OK, that's a pretty cool feeling!' It also feels good to be the under-23 World Cup leader and to be the top UCI-ranked because whatever happens at Worlds or nationals, I think it kind of speaks to being a consistent racer more than anything, and that's really my objective."
With solid performances in her most recent leg of European racing in the books, Noble will head to Hartford, Connecticut, for nationals in less than two weeks. She'll look to defend her under-23 title there before shifting her focus to the World Championships in Luxembourg during the last weekend of January.