FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – Ivan Babikov had no doubt this season would be tough. At 32 years old, the Canadian World Cup skier was coming in with high aspirations in a sort-of test year before the Sochi Olympics in his native Russia.
Not sure how much longer he’d stay in the game, Babikov planned to compete through Sochi and the year after in 2015. But he’d have to see how things went, Babikov told FasterSkier in early November.
As long as he was still competitive, he’d continue, he said. But with a wife, infant and 10-year-old at home in Canmore, Alberta, dedicating himself to full-time international racing wasn’t easy. Babikov prepared for the season ahead knowing the first half would be manageable. He’d be back for the Canadian World Cups in December and able to spend some time in Canmore with family. After that, it would be a bit of a grind from the Tour de Ski at the end of December through late March.
Babikov put his head down early and notched his best overall finish in the Tour in seventh, which appeared to be a good indicator of things to come.
The focus, however, remained on World Championships.
On Wednesday at the Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Babikov had one of the best races he could ask for, finishing fourth in the 15-kilometer freestyle individual start.
Ultimately ranking 32nd the 1.8 k checkpoint, the oldest member of the Canadian national team picked up the pace on the second lap to end up with the seventh-fastest time through 9.4 k. His 11.8 k time ranked sixth of more than 90 competitors, and when he finished in bib 69, he took the lead.
While extremely satisfying, the moment was short lived. Norway’s Tor Asle Gjerdalen was 31.3 seconds faster across the line, bumping Babikov to second less than a minute later. A couple minutes passed before Johan Olsson captured the lead, and Petter Northug later topped the Swede by 11.8 seconds to win in 34:37.1.
Babikov was 53.6 seconds back in fourth for Canada’s best men’s result in a World Championships distance event. Thirty-one years ago, Pierre Harvey (Canadian National Team member Alex Harvey’s dad) set the previous record of 16th in the 15 k freestyle event at the 1982 World Championships.
Three years ago at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Babikov was fifth in the 30 k mass start pursuit and helped the men’s 4 x 10 k relay place seventh. At the 2009 World Championships the year before, he captured fifth with Harvey, Devon Kershaw and George Grey in the relay.
With an individual start to tackle Wednesday, Babikov said he was encouraged by the splits he heard throughout the three-lap course. It also didn’t hurt that Russian favorite Alexander Legkov started 12 minutes behind him and the two skied together on Babikov’s second lap.
“When I heard he was starting behind me I thought, ‘OK, it could be a good ride, at least for a little bit,’ ” Babikov recalled. “But when I realized I could stay with him and maybe even a little bit faster, that was the plan. When I heard the splits going my way, I was getting more psyched and could push even harder.”
At the finish, Babikov soaked up the possibility of standing on the podium as he awaited his fate, but wasn’t disappointed when he came up short.
“Too bad I didn’t have enough time to sit in the chair,” Babikov joked. “Damn!”
But in all seriousness, he said this World Championships has finally shaped up into what he’d hoped after coming off an illness last week. He was 31st in Saturday’s 30 k skiathlon.
“It’s all turned around for me,” he said. “It feels so good to feel my body back, my legs. Today felt really good, much, much better than past races here and the skis felt amazing … So it’s a fourth place, a wooden medal, how do you say it? But still pretty happy.”
Historically, however, Val di Fiemme hasn’t been a bad place for Babikov. On Jan. 5, he was seventh in the Tour de Ski’s 15 k classic mass start there and went on to place second on the nearby hill climb up Alpe Cermis on Jan. 6, the last day of the Tour. Back in 2009, he won the final climb in Val di Fiemme and was fourth on the last stage of the Tour in 2010.
“I love those trails, they’re hard, and I love Italy,” Babikov said in November about the 2013 World Championships venue, predicting, “It’s gonna be awesome.”
He was right. The result was his best at World Championships and tied his top World Cup result of fourth in 2005 Canmore 15 k freestyle race.
“Then was a surprise for me,” Babikov said. “Today, maybe surprise, too, after feeling so bad. I’m still really happy.”
Head coach Justin Wadsworth said Babikov’s personal best was a long time coming, especially after the two worked hard on consistency in his training throughout the offseason.
“Consistent strength training, consistent easy on the easy days and stuff like that,” Wadsworth said. “And he’s finally started to do it.”
Before the race, Wadsworth thought Babikov was capable of the top five.
“He’s been leading our team almost all season in the distance events … but that was incredible,” Wadsworth said. “He’s made some big sacrifices, like being away from his family on this period, and this makes it totally everything worthwhile I think.”
“I’m sacrificing a lot of time with my kids and my wife, but that’s how it is,” he said. “It’s maybe the last two years of my career and they understand it and they try to make my life easier. Every day I work super hard and just thinking of the Olympics and the World Champs … I’m happy to be here.”
Kershaw, who wasn’t pleased with his own race in 33rd (+2:54.0), was inspired by Babikov’s performance.
“Ivan was absolutely stunning today,” Kershaw wrote in an email. “To take advantage of the grueling course and conditions and light it up like that – wow. It was amazing to witness. I am so proud of him – to call him a teammate and buddy.”
Wadsworth said the soft snow conditions on a balmy 8-degree Celsius afternoon suited the man they affectionately call Babs the Bulldog.
“The harder it is [the better],” Wadsworth said. “We knew it would play into his hands a bit.”
However, it wasn’t so great for Kershaw.
“The slower conditions are not his style,” Wadsworth said. “I was bummed to see that new snow and I knew would slow it up enough that that could be a factor. He likes to glide and have it fast and hard. It was hard, it just wasn’t real fast today.”
“Not much to say about my race today. It was another nightmare,” Kershaw wrote. “I am so disappointed it’s actually pretty stupid. It’s only ski racing, I know that – but it’s hard to describe how bad I’ve felt in pretty much every single race this season. Not much fun. I’m just glad I have such amazingly talented teammates … Alex, Lenny, Babs – those guys are the best.”
With Kershaw, they’re also the anticipated starters for Friday’s 4 x 10 k relay, where Valjas remains somewhat of an unknown. Wadsworth said he had a good workout on Wednesday and is trying to get back up to speed after a bout with strep throat.
Canada’s fifth man, Graham Nishikawa of the Alberta World Cup Academy was 39th (+3:03.6) on Wednesday for a much-improved result after he was 51st in the skiathlon.
“It’s getting better for me, but that was really hard,” Nishikawa said. “I just wanted to have a good race, feel good. There were some sections that were positive, starting to feel better for sure. In the middle, I died quite hard.”
Even mentally tougher is having people pass you on their first lap while you’re on the second or third time around. “[Switzerland’s Dario] Cologna came through me just like a rocket on my last lap,” Nishikawa said.
Unsure whether he’ll compete in Sunday’s 50 k classic mass start, Nishikawa said he’s enjoyed his first World Championships so far.
“The fans are great, the course is so hard, great atmosphere and we’re having pretty good success on the team,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to see Ivan get fourth, it was an awesome day for him. Alex has been on fire and they just missed another medal on the team sprint. Everything’s super positive on our team, and it’s pretty cool. Everybody’s stepping up.”