Ellen Noble's cyclocross summer camp for girls taught on-bike and off-bike skills
When Ellen Noble had the idea of holding a summer-camp week-long event for young female cyclists, it seemed like a crazy idea for a lot of reasons. But that didn’t stop the then 21-year-old racer from bringing 12 preteens to Easthampton, Massachusetts, for five days of riding, jumping in swimming holes, practicing skills and—because this is summer camp, after all—eating ice cream. At the end of the week, she was exhausted, overworked, and frankly, her back hurt from sleeping on a couch every night.
And she couldn’t wait to do it again next year.
So this summer, she put out the call for riders to come to the Ellen Noble Cyclocross Quest (#ENCXQuest for short) and almost immediately filled the camp with 18 girls between the ages of 14 and 18. They would be coming in from all over the country: Mostly from New England, but as far-flung as Washington and Florida. The young women had one thing in common: A strong desire to push their limits on the cyclocross bike and—hopefully—one day make it in the elite ranks, right next to Ellen.
Throughout the week, the girls worked on honing skills and pedaling hard, a big chunk of the daily schedule, but they also got a chance to live like pros do on race weekends: sharing a house with other racers and learning the daily routines that included nutrition habits pro racers need to have dialed. Nightly discussions ranged from how to pack a bag for race day, how to handle anxiety and feeling overwhelmed when it comes to juggling school and cycling, how to deal with saddle sorer, and how much protein to put in a post-ride smoothie.
And then, there were the ice cream stops, playing in the river, and even a rainy afternoon spent making friendship bracelets.
By the end of the week, the girls headed home stronger and smarter, and ready to shred in the upcoming season. But what exactly did they learn? Here are a few of the best and most discussed tips and tricks that Ellen shared throughout the camp.
Practice Every Day
“Skills aren’t made in a day,” Ellen told the girls as she went through a quick progression on bunny-hopping. “I was working for years to be able to bunnyhop barriers, and I still practice every day,” she said as she demonstrated the different ways people opt to bunnyhop barriers.
Even remounting and dismounting, skills Ellen learned almost 10 years ago, are worth practicing daily. The regular practice pays off: by the end of the week, each girl had made huge strides in her ability to get on and off the bike with ease.
Fuel Your Training
Nutrition has been a huge part of Ellen’s journey through cyclocross, and she spoke candidly to the girls about where she’s been and where she is now when it comes to eating healthy. The key, she explained, isn’t in cutting out any specific food (unless you have an actual allergy!). Rather, it’s about eating enough to fuel the training that you’re putting your body through, eating enough before, during and after rides. No macronutrient—protein, fat, and carbohydrate—should ever be off-limits, primarily as a young racer. “The biggest nutrition mistake I ever made,” she told the girls, “was thinking I had to cut back on what I was eating when really, I needed more food.”
Relationships are Everything
That means relationships with your parents, with your coach and with your friends, Ellen reminded the girls. Telling your coach when you’re tired, or when you have a big test coming up in school—or even when you’re having period cramps!—can feel difficult, but those conversations are so important, she added. And racing cyclocross shouldn’t just mean showing up to the race, racing and heading home! Watching the races last season, Ellen says that the best part of the Quest for her is seeing girls who met at the 2017 Quest traveling to races together, hanging out after races, and communicating online if they don’t live in the same area.
Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Racing cyclocross demands discomfort. It’s not an easy sport. It’s fast-paced; so doing hard intervals in training is a must. It’s technically demanding, so practicing skills like hitting a corner going a little faster than feels comfortable, or bunnyhopping a barrier or a large root on a section of singletrack are imperative.
“You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Ellen warned the girls before starting the set of four three-minute hill repeats on her favorite local hill. The girls chased each other down, recovering on the descent back to the start, set on the goal of making it farther up the hill each interval.
Later that day, it was bunnyhop practice, and again, the girls had to get used to being uncomfortable tackling a new skill or, for a couple of mountain bikers, working on improving their hopping.
Know Your Priorities
On the last night, the floor was open for questions. Training, nutrition, bike skills—whatever topic the girls wanted—was up for discussion. Of the 18 girls, 14 asked questions about life and school and balancing cycling on top of busy teenage existences. The advice Ellen gave for high schoolers was advice that anyone could use: know what your priorities are and understand that they can ebb and flow at different times of your life.
Sometimes, you’re going to have to focus on that big exam instead of getting your full-ride for the day in, she told one girl. But quality training over adding more volume might help with that. Not letting things get out of hand—too many missed assignments and missed rides can lead to bad grades and bad results—was another key point. “And make a lot of lists,” she added as an afterthought.
Take Care of Your Stuff
The Quest doesn’t provide an on-site mechanic who’s cleaning bikes after every ride. Laundry is done daily, but each girl is responsible for getting her chamois and jersey into the washing machine. Sandwich ingredients are provided, but lunch isn’t made. The point of the camp isn’t just to provide a pro-style riding experience, it’s to teach the girls how to make it through a race weekend.
For the first part of a pro career, a mechanic is rarely handling all of your daily bike cleanings. (Even now, Ellen does most of her regular bike maintenance on her own.) So, a female mechanic—Andrea Smith—hosted a mini-clinic on bike maintenance, nutritionist Jordan Dube helped give tips on what to eat and when to eat it, and the camp staff didn’t clean up for the girls, but reminded them about drying shoes after a muddy ride and handed out towels and WD40 for bike cleaning after muddy sessions.
Make It Fun
Why do we race bikes? Because it’s fun, of course—or at least, that’s the way it should be. There’s plenty of seriousness involved, of course, but Ellen’s emphasis was that the important part is to love what you’re doing. With that in mind, she instituted bike games in the yard almost every day. “Playing bikes” in the backyard before dinner was mainly for fun, but the more you play games like foot-down or try to kick a soccer ball around using only your two wheels, your dexterity on the bike improves in leaps and bounds.
Competition Makes Us Better
There’s a popular saying that a rising tide lifts all boats, and especially in women’s cycling, this has never been truer. You might think it would be tough for Ellen to hand out an award that reads “Most Likely to Beat Ellen in a Race This Year,” but she felt only pride when she handed it to Skylar Bovine, who spent the morning giving everything she had to hang onto Ellen’s wheel for an extra interval.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
One of Ellen’s most significant pieces of advice for campers was to just try. “I’m never going to get mad if you try and don’t make it over something, or can’t stick on a wheel,” she told the girls. “It’s only disappointing if you don’t even try to do something.”
So next time an obstacle like a sandpit seems extra-tough, grit it out and give it your best shot. The best-case scenario, says Ellen, is that you surprise yourself and make it through. The worst case is that you realize how far you can actually get, not how far you think you can get.
Will the #ENCXQuest be back again next year?
So if you’re a young female racer hoping to turn pro or even just #bunnyhopthepatriarchy, stay tuned for 2019 camp dates and join the fun!