Last weekend, UCI cyclocross convened for a rare Thanksgiving weekend of racing at Ruts n' Guts in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Located just outside Tulsa, the two days of UCI C2 racing gave U.S. riders the chance to hone their skills for Nationals and Canadians the chance to get ready for Europe or continue their domestic seasons.
A big x-factor for the weekend was the rain. Pre-race precipitation left the course thick and muddy, with puddles and mini-lakes covering part of the venue at the Broken Arrow Sports Complex.
Features on the course featured a mini-Koksijde sand pit with a climb and descent, in addition to some stairs and plenty of mud.
Even with the stairs and barriers, there was still plenty of running to be done with several sections of mud proving unrideable.
Probably the biggest story to come out of the Ruts n' Guts was the golden return of Ellen Noble (Trek Factory Racing CX). One of North America's top young stars, Noble has had an off year while dealing with chronic fatigue and other health issues. [You can read our full interview with Noble here]
On Saturday, Noble joined a group of several riders early on before pulling away and getting her first win of the season by over 40 seconds.
Sunny Gilbert (Pactimo / Colorado Proud) finished second and Crystal Anthony (Liv Cycling) third on Day 1.
Noble said she took a bit of a different approach heading into the weekend.
"One of my biggest things for Ruts n’ Guts specifically was pre-riding a little more than usual," she said. "I don’t normally think more equals more, but in the case of Ruts n’ Guts, riding the course more helped me find lines that weren’t as obvious, so that was a big help."
After Pan-Ams, Jenn Jackson (Easton - Giant p/b Transitions LifeCare) hinted she might be done with cyclocross for the season to get ready for next mountain bike season, but the mud, ruts and lakes proved too much of an allure for everyone's favorite cookie-baking, Hawaiian-shirt wearing Canadian.
Jackson got off to a fast start on Sunday along with Noble
Noble again eventually pulled away and took home the weekend sweep. Jackson took second and Raylyn Nuss (MAAP / MINI U.S. Cyclocross Program) third.
"I think going into the season with such a distinct lack of fitness compared to years past meant that my strategy has changed. I can’t start as hard as I used to, but I think that’s teaching me patience and that pays off on heavy courses," Noble said about getting the double wins on the tough course.
Most of the weekend's Elite Men's fireworks came from Michael van den Ham (Easton - Giant p/b Transitions LifeCare) and Lance Haidet (Donnelly / Aevolo). Haidet is obviously sharpening his skills for Lakewood Nationals next weekend, and Van den Ham was in Oklahoma because his team is based out of Stillwater.
Haidet and Van den Ham went into the last lap together on Saturday's Day 1, and Van den Ham used some skill to escape late in the race. "I didn't want to take it to a straight-up sprint, so when I managed to hop the drainage ditch a little bit more cleanly and get by him with something like 1 minute left in the race, I was all into the finish and, well, it worked out," Van den Ham said.
Getting the Day 1 win also proved to be a giant relief for the three-time defending Canadian National Champion.
"I felt like the win was a bit of a monkey off my back. I don't think I've been shy about the fact that I'm a half-step off where I wanted to be so far this season and I felt like I had something to prove to myself and everyone else," he said. "Saturday felt particularly good because, well, I don't win a lot of close races. Actually, you'd have to go back to 2015 the last time I won a race in a last-lap battle and it was a bit of a weakness, both psychologically and physiologically, that I've been working on addressing this season so yeah, it feels pretty good to check that box."
Haidet took second on Day 1 and Drew Dillman (SDG - Muscle Monster) third.
On Sunday, the early lead group featured three in Van den Ham, Haidet and Eric Brunner (Blue - Stages Racing). Brunner was the early aggressor, but Van den Ham and Haidet chased him down and eventually again made it a two-man battle.
Day 2 proved to be Haidet's day. With just over a lap to go, Van den Ham pitted and bobbled the pit exchange, allowing Haidet to attack. The Donnelly / Aevolo rider kept the gap for the final circuit to take the Day 2 win. Van den Ham took second and Brunner third.
Said Van den Ham about Haidet's win, "Direct quote from my nephew about Lance's hair, The dude on the left has sick lettuce.' ¯\
Patrick Means Photo Gallery
Photographer Patrick Means of Portland braved the mud and water to document both days of racing. For a closer look at the Ruts n ' Guts weekend, check out his photo gallery below.