I'm often asked, "What's the best part of being a professional athlete?" Throughout my life, I've had many different answers to this question. There is, of course, the novelty of making a living doing what I love; riding the best equipment and working with the most wonderful companies in the sport and beyond. But all those things aside, the most incredible part of my job is the fact that I get to travel the world and see so many beautiful places. Moreover, the places I get to explore aren't always on the beaten path. And with the opportunity to discover these special corners of the world comes the chance to share my experiences with others. In no particular order, these are my top five favorite places I have ever raced:
1. Val Di Sole, Italy
Val Di Sole is a small town nestled into a valley in Northern Italy. It also happens to be the host city of one of the stops on the Mountain Bike World Cup Tour, so for one week every year, this peaceful ski town is overrun by both cross-country and downhill racers alike. The town is huddled between mountains on both sides, and the bike path that runs along the river gradually takes you into the mountains north of the town. Val Di Sole captured my heart the moment I arrived and has stuck with me for a few reasons. The highlight of my visit to the "valley of the sun" was time spent exploring the gorgeous river that flows through the town. The river is a crystal clear blue-green color, and absolutely frigid and roaring. A few small off-chutes provide the public with mini river hot tubs to relax in while taking in the beauty of nature and the sound of the water flowing over the rocks. Another part of Vale Di Sole that is truly a sight to behold for any bike racer or outdoor fanatic is the bike path that runs through the town center and up into the mountains. It climbs gradually, winding through a couple of other small towns until you're a good way up the valley and have a stunning view of the green trees and rivers below. Eventually, the path connects with a main artery of roads that lead further up the valley and into the mountains. All told, Val Di Sole was truly breathtaking. The river, the green grass, and the sharp gray mountains in the distance made this little town in the Dolomites feel like a warm hug. Of course, the multiple servings of gelato I enjoyed post-race didn't hurt. Sweet memories all around.
2. Lille, Belgium
I spent the winter of 2017 in Lille, a small Belgian village about 45 minutes east of Antwerp. Belgium gets approximately 200 days of rain per year, and I'm convinced that all 200 of those days must have fallen during my time there. I can think of very few days during my winter in Belgium that involved uninterrupted sunshine. Despite that, I still look back at my time in the region fondly. The magic of Lille lies in its forests. If I hadn't seen it myself, I might not have believed the seemingly endless network of singletrack that runs through the surrounding villages. Doing a road ride in Lille and riding until my legs gave out without hopping on trails might've been one of the greatest feats of strength I've ever accomplished––no joke. These trails wound through the trees, around the canals and through the small towns outside of Antwerp. They were all smooth and flowy, perfect for a cyclocross bike. I was very isolated from the rest of the world in these forests, and spent most of my days reading or drawing in the small cabin I rented. There was something so grounding about spending the morning among the trees, then returning home and adding another log to the fireplace while I warmed up for the rest of the afternoon.
3. Flagstaff, AZ
Flagstaff is a small mountain town located in Arizona, just south of the Grand Canyon. At the base of Mount Elden, the downtown itself has ample cafes, shops, and even a guitar store that I frequented during my time there. In my experience, the most beautiful part of Flagstaff is Buffalo Park, a large park of desert forest with smooth multi-use trails for runners, bikers, and dogs. Flagstaff is a beautiful town to visit for the cycling opportunities and the outdoors because the town itself is dense and filled with energy, but turns quiet and serene just beyond the center, where mountains and beautiful forests surround the hustle and bustle.
4. Málaga, Spain
I have always joked that it doesn't take much to make me happy. As long as I'm near the mountains or close to an ocean, I have everything I need. Sometimes, I can still find beautiful in a city or town without either of those things (see: Lille, Belgium), but on the rare occasion that I'm surrounded by both, that destination will always hold a special place in my heart. Málaga, located on the southernmost tip of Spain and just a short boat ride to Morocco, is one of the most incredible places I have had the joy of riding in.
In Málaga, you can climb up and out of downtown by trekking for hours to the top of A-7000, popular mountain road. As you ascend into the humidity, you can refill your water bottle at a small hand pump fountain before descending the backside, which overlooks the ocean and winds through trees. It's incredible to live in another country for an extended period of time, which was my experience in Málaga. It can be easy to remain separate from the real culture when you're only visiting for a few days or always traveling in the most tourist-heavy areas. After several weeks in town, I was able to go off the beaten path and experience the city for what it was. It took time to adjust to some aspects of Spanish culture, like business siesta and late dinner. The only two parts of Spain that I never really adapted to are the population's spice level threshold and the fact that I could comfortably wear shorts every day, even during Málaga's winter.
5. Easthampton, MA
As the saying goes, there's no place like home. My hometown since 2014 is certainly unlike any other. While I don't technically travel "to" Easthampton, I travel "from" it frequently. It made the list because in my opinion, it's one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the riding here is unlike any other. While Easthampton is a great year-round destination (that is, if you like snow), the best time of year to be in town is at the height of the fall foliage season. If you've never experienced New England during peak foliage, my advice to you is to make it happen. Riding through the rolling hills of Western Massachusetts, surveying the falling leaves, and taking in the crisp air is an incomparable experience. And to sweeten the deal, you can make a quick pit stop at one of the ubiquitous small general stores or country stores and pick up a sweet treat like fudge or a wrapple (Massachusetts is famous for these apple-filled pastries) to fuel your ride home.
Ellen Noble is a professional cyclocross and mountain bike racer whose love for the sport has taken her all over the globe and garnered her numerous wins, podiums, and championships. Pete and Gerry's is proud to call Ellen an ambassador and to support her advocacy for gender equity and the empowerment of young generations in all sports.