Ellen Noble couldn’t feel her hands gripping the handlebar of her racing bike. She could barely feel her feet pumping its pedals. So much of her body was numb from the cold.
But not her emotions.
She crossed the finish line and reached up to touch the mud-splattered locket hanging around her neck. The simple piece of jewelry, a gift from her grandmother, contained two miniature photos of her father and a one-word inscription: Always.
On Jan. 11 at the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross Nationals in Wisconsin, the 17-year-old racer from Kennebunkport won the race that made her a champion. Noble laughed as she cried, pulled in opposite directions by her joy and her sadness.
That she won this race for 17- and 18-year-old cyclists wasn’t unexpected. Noble is a comer in this sport far off the radar of most. She’s been racing in one form of cycling or another since she was 7.
That she was back on a bike within a week of her father’s death last May was the surprise. Her grief became her motivation.
“I didn’t want to waste one day. My dad didn’t. He would never look back and say, ‘I wish I had done that.’ I don’t tell people my dad died so I can hear them say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
“There’s life after loss.”
She’s so open with her emotions in a natural way. “I’ve always been talkative. Every new kid at the playground was my best friend.”
Which may be why she’s not too surprised at the messages that have come her way through social media. The video of her speaking and crying at the finish line has made its way to numerous websites and gotten thousands of views, and others who have lost a parent or close sibling have contacted her. They know her fears and her grief are their fears and their grief.
“We’ve been through hell,” said Sandy Noble, who worked alongside her husband. “Tom was such a strong man, such a positive person. I spent every day with him for 23 years. Ellen is (just like) her father. Her world changed (when Tom Noble died), but she didn’t.”
Tom Noble lived his life with uncommon passion. He grew up in Kennebunkport. He started his first company when he was 21, designing and building a skateboard park in Old Orchard Beach. He married Sandy and became a father to her three children from a previous marriage. Ellen was their child together.
Soon there were other skateboard parks in other places designed by Tom Noble, the small independent who was competing against large corporations with their big marketing budgets for contracts. Noble believed in himself and that became his marketing tool.
Sometime last year this vibrant and athletic man was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was 46 when he died.
With his family around him, Tom Noble told them his illness was not their fault. Ellen Noble won’t forget his words. “He said it’s the new normal. Don’t be ashamed. There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
Athletes have big or little chips on their shoulders. It helps them get through the grind of training and the intensity of competition. Her father’s death is Ellen Noble’s chip. “I want to make him proud. I’ve always thought people doubted me, but I’m not going to let someone stop me.”
Her parents also owned a bike shop and she was competing on a mountain bike at age 7. Over the years she tried other sports, from gymnastics to ice hockey to snowboarding. She kept coming back to cycling.
Cyclo-cross? Think motocross without the horsepower and the exhaust. Competitors race customized bikes off-road on courses of grass or dirt in events that can take 30 or 40 minutes to complete.
Two weeks ago in Wisconsin, races were held in freezing temperatures over muddy, rolling terrain. Barriers interrupt the laps. Cyclists must dismount and carry their bikes over the obstacles.
“My legs are so short,” said the 5-foot-3 Noble, smiling. “It’s hard to pick up your bike and get over the barriers sometimes.” She fell once, in the first turn of the first lap, but quickly got back on the bike, putting distance between herself and the others.
Her mother, who accompanies Ellen to races and sometimes competes herself, watched anxiously. “These races can turn so easily. A flat tire. One crash. The wrong tire pressure. Wrong clothing. Katie Compton (a multi-year national champ in the elite races) said the conditions were the worst she’s seen.”
Wearing insulated gloves impedes braking. Leggings get heavy when wet, so Noble rode barelegged to her victory. At the finish line, she was given a hot, moist towel to wipe the mud off her face. Her smile didn’t come off.
Quickly, videos and photos of her win were posted on various cycling websites and viewed by many throughout the country. She rides for Trek Cyclocross Collective, a national team. She wants to master the five disciplines of competitive cycling: cyclo-cross, mountain biking, road racing, track racing and BMX.
She sat in a Portland coffee shop on Tuesday afternoon. Clear, direct gaze. A grounded sense of who she is. Friends at Kennebunk High told her she should wear the stars-and-stripes jersey that goes to the national champion to classes. Wear the medal, too. Noble shook her head. “Like no, I’m not going to do that.”
She hears the skepticism that what she does is difficult. C’mon, it’s riding a bike. Anyone can do that.
“Yeah, and I can hit a baseball but I can’t hit a home run,” said Noble. “Not everyone will put in the work to ride a bike like I do. The training is brutal.”
For much of the summer, fall and early winter it seemed she was competing in two races every weekend from New England to the Southeast and to the Rocky Mountains. Her conditioning and her will kept pushing her forward.
“I’m not very spirtual. It’s not like I can feel my dad on my shoulder. I really don’t believe in luck. There’s a reason stuff happens. I do feel my dad is with me. When I’m going through the mud, it’s just like by dad taught me.”
On one hand, Ellen Noble is just a Maine girl who won a national race and became a champion. On the other hand, she’s become a champion to those who have suffered loss, a champion for those who must meet cancer head on.
She’s only 17 and already understands the power of example.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: