January 27, 2013

Cyclist harnesses her grief, wins U.S. race

A Kennebunkport teenager pours herself into the demanding sport of cyclo-cross after her father's death and inspires others coping with loss.

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com

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.

click image to enlarge

Ellen Noble, 17, of Kennebunkport recently won a national championship in cyclo-cross, a sport that sends cyclists racing through muddy terrain and requires them to carry their bikes over obstacles.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Ellen Noble carries her bike over an obstacle at the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross Nationals in Wisconsin on Jan. 11.

Photo courtesy cxmagazine.com

Additional Photos Below

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Ellen Noble races through the course on her way to victory at the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross Nationals in Wisconsin. Noble says that as she pushed through the mud, she felt her late father, Tom Noble, with her. “I want to make him proud. I’ve always thought people doubted me, but I’m not going to let someone stop me,” she said.

Photo courtesy cxmagazine.com

click image to enlarge

Noble at age 7, when she started competing in mountain bike races.

Submitted photo

Tom Noble

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