The last of five interviews with top U.S. cyclocross course builders features the man behind Ruts N’ Guts, just outside Tulsa, Okla. — a race weekend which offers the last UCI Class 1 points in the United States this season. Tulsa resident Tanner Culbreath has learned that the key to parcours design is “letting the riders challenge themselves on the course.” He spoke with now Belgium-based professional cross racer Drew Juiliano for this feature, which first appeared in abridged form in ROAD Magazine.
All photos © 2016 Ethan Glading.
Currently Resides: Tulsa, Okla.
Day Job: High School Science Teacher
Ruts N’ Guts
Chisholm Trail Park
Broken Arrow, Okla.
What’s your background in cycling, ’cross and course design?
My background in cycling started as a mountain biker, and then I got a road bike to ride more miles and train. Eventually, I had to choose between mountain bikes and road bikes and kind of picked the road bike. I was then introduced to cyclocross.
Just riding ’cross a little bit and getting really hooked on it got me into course design. Every Tuesday in the summer months, there’s a crit practice [but it] ends in the fall. I was enjoying ’cross, and there was a void here where there could be a Tuesday night ’cross practice. When that crit series ended [each fall], I started every Tuesday night going out in this park and setting up a course. I’ve been doing that now for seven years. I guess that has been my tool for practicing course design and building courses. As I’ve gotten more into the big races, like Ruts N’ Guts and helping Jeff [Lucido] in Garland [Resolution Cross Cup] and Vegas [CrossVegas], I’ve looked at the aspects and features of how people design courses. [Jeff] will sit me down at my venue, and we’ll walk around and he’ll be like, “You should make a turn here.” It’s interesting because we build courses differently, but I’m not so stuck to my guns that I can’t change it a little bit.
How many courses do you think you’ve built since you started?
Oh man! Seven years of practice, times about eight or nine races a year and then another four races a year just promoting general races … I guess that would be close to about 80 maybe. Yeah, 80 to 100 courses, I guess.
What’s the nugget of wisdom you’ve learned after building that many courses?
I think what really came out this year at Ruts N’ Guts, is that the race could be hard enough as it is — you don’t have to make the race hard with the course. For example, making the turns too tight or not giving the racers enough room to turn makes it hard to race your bike versus making it hard physically or aerobically hard. I think the biggest thing was letting the riders challenge themselves on the course, rather than making the course so tight that it challenged the riders.
What do you think makes a good ‘cross course?
Well there are a lot of different things. This year  at Ruts N’ Guts, our race came down to a sprint both days — I was a little surprised about that thinking maybe the course wasn’t hard enough, but at the same time I see a lot of people making courses almost intimidating just to make [courses] harder. I don’t think that the riders necessarily appreciate that, especially in the U23 categories. I think that they like the challenge, but they don’t want it to be like a Tough Mudder or something where they are just totally destroyed. I think of this course as a nice mix of open segments where you can mash the pedals and then nice technical sections where you can slow down and catch your breath, and then you’re going hard again. Those harder sections can be straightaways, they can be uphill, they can be off the bike in the sand. There’s a nice mix of those I believe.
How does your racing influence course design?
I remember a few courses where it was so tight, you’re talking like six or seven feet in the middle of some chicanes and I thought, “this is so ridiculous” — this could be just as difficult if it was wider and we could go faster through it and you wouldn’t feel like your bars were going to clip the fence. Just riding the course and gaining those experiences and having some of the elite riders who have been to other venues give their feedback [is valuable]. Mostly though, it’s the experience from riding other courses and seeing how things flowed, the terrain, and you take an aspect that you like and you build on that, whether it’s a run-up or a set of stairs. Mostly, it’s just leaving it open and giving the opportunity to pass someone or ride my bike fast through a corner.
What were the defining features of Ruts N’ Guts this year?
The “choose your own adventure” lines. I was a little bit nervous about what the UCI was going to say or what everyone would say with trees in the middle of the course or you have a ditch that’s 20 feet wide and you let riders choose the lines.
What’s your process for building a course? What’s the foundation when you design it?
The first considerations are the solid features. For us at this venue — we did the same thing in Vegas — it’s where your flyover is, where your sandpits are, it’s where your pits are, where those unmovables are. Then you start adding the details of the course, like whether you want a wider start or where you have a ditch crossing and things like that. Then after that, it’s basically trying to balance your distance between your pits. Once you have your features built and kind of have an idea of which way you want to go and which way you want to go into the flyover, then you try to balance it.
I like the courses to flow and not be choppy. I want the terrain to lead where you ride your bike. There are some segments where you’ll make a rider turn against the terrain like an off-camber that makes them slow down, but at the same time they still have that flow and momentum of the natural landscape. Natural flow and riders being able to choose their own lines are important when you’re making a course.
What is your favorite course domestically and internationally? Is there a course that you look at and say, ‘That’s really sick,’ or that you just love to watch?
That’s another thing that’s really an inspiration to me, is European racing. I like to ride the trainer and watch those races. Koksijde is probably my favorite course. It has all the sand, and it’s just a skill race. There are not really any other venues like it. You have to actually go there to ride that type of venue.
Are there any unique considerations for the Ruts N’ Guts venue? Not just in Chisholm Park but in the region in general?
It’s not just this flat field that you think it’s going to be. I know early on that Kerry Werner in his blog was talking about all of the races he was going to go to and said “But I’m not going to Oklahoma because who would race in Oklahoma.”
I thought, “You know what dude, I am going to show you Oklahoma.” Last year, we had good response to the event, so this year I thought, “Let’s showcase all those positive qualities from last year but even in a better light.” We had done some more work in the woods and we added a staircase and few more creek crossings and it wasn’t so muddy this year so we were able to highlight a few of the features in the creek. Honestly the special consideration may sound cheesy, but we were trying to impress the people that came to Oklahoma to race their bikes.
Building on that, what would you say is the defining characteristic of ’cross in Tulsa and ’cross in Oklahoma?
I would say we’re grassroots. I say this not to toot my own horn, but ’cross was OK, ’cross was fun, and then when I started the Tuesday night ’cross practice, we started to see the fields double in size. That happens year after year and random people show up on brand new ’cross bikes.
A guy came to ’cross practice this year and it caught his interest. He said, “I don’t have much money, but can I try this?” I let him race, and he bought a license the next day and raced the whole series. His dad has an oil well site service company, so he now brings us free light towers to use during the night. He saved me probably $1,000 dollars this year on light expenses just because he loved to race ’cross, and I gave him a free ticket one day.
So I would say our scene is very grassroots. It’s not necessarily underground — the people just come out and race their bikes, and I think that’s what cyclocross is, for Tulsa specifically — it’s just grown in that aspect.
I have to interject and say that I think that the people in Tulsa are exceptionally friendly and not just in the ’cross community. When I went to the airport everyone was nice and had a conversation with me, the rental car attendant, the ticketing agent. Even the TSA guys patting me down were having a great time!
[Laughs] Southern hospitality!
What was your goal in designing the Ruts N’ Guts course?
The specific goal was to offer a bit of a challenge, which as we found out was not as much a challenge for the elite riders as we thought it would be. I wanted it to be fun for our youth and other category riders, and our main goal was to prove what Oklahoma and Tulsa have available. Surprisingly it worked, because we did receive a lot of compliments. To have that in the back of people’s minds, like, “Oh yeah I would go back there and race,” I believe that was our goal. [We wanted to make it] a worthwhile venue.
Was there any feedback this year that stood out, like one of the pros or someone coming in from out of state?
Katie Compton’s husband, Mark Legg, Tweeted that it was a Nationals-level venue and event, so that was really impressive. Katie raved about the course the first day. She was like, “I love the way it flows.” The funny thing is last year I built the course in the Saturday direction, but a lot of people preferred it the Sunday direction. Even as a course designer and builder you never know what you’re going to get.
Allen Krughoff on Friday rolled by and said, “Awesome course man! Best course I’ve ridden all year!” I just laughed and was like, “Allen dude, don’t blow smoke up my butt, man.” As the weekend progressed it became clear that people really liked the course.
It was cool and I’m just like, “Gee thanks guys! I’m just a dude that sticks stakes in the ground in a park!”
Well, anyone can stick stakes in the ground. It’s important to put them in the right spot. Last question: What do you think about pro-only sections, having something that appeals to amateurs, and then having another section for the elites be pro-only?
I am not necessarily for it. I think that it’s better to let everyone enjoy the same course and ride the same course that the elites are riding. It mostly stems from our juniors. One year, I tried to shortcut the course for the juniors, so that they could do fast laps or more laps. They didn’t like it. They wanted to ride the same course that everyone else was riding.
Part of me feels like I’m shortchanging the general-population rider if I don’t allow them to experience every feature. My only caveat would be if pro-only sections are challenging enough that it would be dangerous to the general population. Overall, though I like everyone to ride the same course.