Rapha Roadside | Episode 09
This is why we hop
As the 2018 cyclocross season draws to a close, Rapha travelled to Hoogerheide to spend time with Ellen Noble and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, two professional cyclists who are jumping the barriers that face women in the sport.
One is a multiple world champion, the star draw in any bike race she enters, whether on the road, in cyclocross or mountain biking. The other is the most talented North American cyclocross racer of her generation, making her first steps at elite level and already achieving World Cup podiums.
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Ellen Noble are also the only two cyclists in the women’s cyclocross field who bunnyhop the barriers.
The sport is at a unique moment in time. The elite men’s races are dominated by Dutchman Mathieu Van der Poel and Belgian Wout van Aert, both supreme athletes far ahead of their current crop of rivals. Last year, these two clean-cut young men duelled thrillingly, swapping the top step week-by-week and bringing new coverage to the sport with their crossover appeal.
This year, Van der Poel has found another level and ridden away from Van Aert, who always seems to find himself in the purgatorial position of first loser. The Dutchman’s dominance has taken the spike out of a sport that relies on mano-a-mano battles at the front.
In the women’s field, however, things have never been more exciting. There are at least ten racers who could win. Sanne Cant is a worthy world champion, tough and talented but not unbeatable. Katie Compton, the remarkable 14-time US national champion, remains as strong as ever. Fellow American Kaitlin Keough is riding better than ever. Young British off-roader Evie Richards is putting in fastest laps quicker than most of the boys. Helen Wyman and Nikki Brammeier make up a trio of top level Brits. Marianne Vos, the greatest female cyclist of all time, is back racing cross and almost at her best. Lucinda Brand is one of a few road stars who race cross during the winter.
And then there is Pauline and Ellen. ‘PFP’ is a superstar, a natural-born-thriller from France who in 2014 simultaneously held world titles in mountain biking, cyclocross and road racing. After a terrible 2016 which culminated in a breakdown at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Pauline joined Canyon//SRAM who have patiently nurtured her return to form. She says she has fallen in love with racing again and returned to cyclocross mid-way through the season after two years away. She is winning already, despite starting races unseeded from the back of the grid.
Ellen won silver at the U23 world championships last year, and her first year at elite level has been one of ups and downs. She took an impressive 3rd place at the UCI World Cup race in Waterloo in September, but racing over in the badlands of Europe hasn’t been as kind to her, with illness affecting her form too. At Hoogerheide, the pre-world championships tune-up last weekend where Rapha shot the above film, she was dropped and pulled from the course before she could finish.
Many cross fans are now tuning into the women’s races rather than the men’s but this swing of interest hasn’t been the only thing that’s set tongues wagging this season. It has been the sight of PFP and Ellen bunnyhopping the barriers.
Cyclocross courses almost always feature a set of wooden barriers up to 40cm-high. Attempting to hop over them each lap is often faster but it is risky, especially with the deep fatigue of top-speed racing in your arms and legs. Most male and female racers dismount and carry their bikes over. Van der Poel and Van Aert make the barriers look inconsequential with their hops, but they aren’t. Crashes are common, shins are snapped, and the perceived wisdom has always been that women simply couldn’t do it.
Not so. In 2014, PFP was the first women to hop the barriers at an elite UCI race at Superprestige Diegem. “I trained a lot at home beforehand,” she told Rapha. “My coach’s sons used to hop over barriers so I joined them in trying. I really loved the challenge of doing it – of being the first woman to do it. I wanted to show that women can do it, that we don’t need smaller barriers than the men.”
Watching back home in the States was a then 18-year-old Ellen Noble. Inspired, she took to practicing every year until she was finally felt confident enough to do it this season. “She’s always been hugely inspirational to me, and when I was learning to bunnyhop she was my only point of reference and someone I looked up to a lot,” she told Rapha. “To be racing against her now is always amazing. It’s been really special to get to know her.”
The 25-year-old PFP is impressed with Ellen too. “Honestly, chapeau to her for trying and keeping at it. I’ve seen her fall quite a few times too. She is a great representative for women’s cyclocross, and she’s young – she’ll really help push things forward.”
Bunnyhopping is about more than overcoming physical barriers. The women’s side of the sport is severely underfunded, with even the best athletes struggling to find sponsors. The prize money is often a third of what the men earn. The media coverage is pitiful. The race lengths – the women compete for only 45 minutes (and often less) with the men one hour or more – are laughable. It goes on.
After she first hopped in a race in September 2017, Ellen started using a hashtag #bunnyhopthepatriarchy on Instagram. To her it was a small outcry at the inequality in the sport, and she never expected it to resonate with people the way it did. The phrase has been adopted as an empowerment movement for young female cyclists in an era of change, with Ellen as the unofficial spokesperson.
“One thing I’d say to female cyclists who sometimes feel the sport isn’t fair, or are painfully aware at the lack of equality that we still have in cycling, is that the sport is changing and growing every day,” Ellen said. “It feels more meaningful to be involved in something you have to fight for. Maybe that’s just a positive spin on things, but every time I get a fan, I feel like I had to fight a lot harder for it. I don’t think that any of the women in the sport have been given anything so I think that it does make it more worth it.”