Ivan Babikov’s last race was up the Alpe Cermis in Italy. A month and 10 days later, the Russian-born Canadian World Cup Team member plans to be at the start line of the 2016 American Birkebeiner on Saturday in northern Wisconsin.
It’s been a few years, but Babikov, known by some as “Babs the Bulldog,” won the 51-kilometer freestyle marathon in his last try in 2008. He took home $5,000 U.S. dollars for the win, and this year, if he repeats the feat, he’ll earn $7,500 for his efforts. It’s not all about the money, but it gave Babikov, 35, incentive make the trip and 6 a.m. flight along with it.
On the phone earlier this week, Babikov explained he first thought about racing the 2016 Birkie last week. He had heard that Central Cross Country (CXC) revived its Marathon Cup series, of which the Birkie is part of, and reached out to CXC Executive Director Yuriy Gusev as a friendly hello.
“I emailed him and said , ‘Oh, good job, you started that loppet series again. Those are fun, that’s good,’ ” Babikov recalled. “So we started talking about Birkie and he said, ‘You wanna come? We’ll support you.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ ”
“Really?” became a reality, and early this Thursday, Babikov planned to fly to the U.S.
“They pretty much offered to pay for everything and support me there, so that was kind of the last thing,” he explained. “I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’ I think it will also be good prep for the Tour of Canada.”
Babikov skipped the NorAm Eastern Canadian Championships (Feb. 5-7 in Cantley, Quebec) and Western Canadian Championships (this Friday-Sunday in Prince George, British Columbia) because of the travel involved. Instead, he spent the last month training at home in Canmore, Alberta, ahead of the last World Cups of the season March 1-12 at Ski Tour Canada.
“Since I’m in Canmore for such a long period of time, there’s not much races to do between Easterns and Westerns, but I didn’t want to travel for those,” he explained. “The Birkie, I remember, is a super-fun race and of course it’s a good way to make some extra cash, which is of course a big help for me.”
Last year, Babikov launched a “Make a Champ” online fundraiser to fund his World Cup racing. He reached 50 percent of his goal, raising just over $8,300, and ended the campaign two months ago.
“I was planning to finish [the campaign] before the season started,” he said. “I didn’t reach my 100-percent goal … but I’m still thankful for all the people who donated. I know it’s not that easy.”
When he left the World Cup after the Tour de Ski, Babikov explained there were a couple factors involved, such as the team budget and criteria for staying on the circuit for Periods 2 and 3.
“I was 11th on the day of the hill climb, which was better than last year, and I ended up in the top 30 in the overall, which is a pretty good thing, too,” Babikov said of his 29th overall finish in the Tour. “But [the national team] decided to send me home. Of course I wasn’t happy with it, it’s kind of the first time in so many years I’ve been sent home, and skipping pretty much half of the season. So of course I was a bit upset, but I cannot do anything about it – it’s their decision, and I’m just now trying to focus on Tour of Canada. I’m hoping that it’ll be actually a good thing for me, so I’ll be rested and I’ll be ready for the Tour.”
Back in January, Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth explained that despite Babikov’s positive end to the Tour de Ski, he did not meet the team’s standards for Period 2 and 3 in Europe. He would have needed to achieve three top-30 World Cup results this season, two top 12’s, or even two top 20’s, Wadsworth said.
“I’m hoping that it’ll be actually a good thing for me, so I’ll be rested and I’ll be ready for the Tour.” — Ivan Babikov, Canadian World Cup Team veteran, on returning home to Canada in early January
But the fact that Babikov returned to Canada mid-season is old news. Now, he’s looking forward.
“I’ve been home, which is a good thing,” he said. “We have really good snow in Canmore so training has been really, really good. I feel much, much better. So Birkie will be good kind of test just to see how body feels, not even in terms of results or anything, but just to see how I feel, how body feels, just to get the last, final touches to preparation. It’s 50 k or a bit longer, but it’s fun and it’s a good financial [decision].
“I remembered how crazy the Birkie is and how much people there care,” he added. “This is their local Olympic Games, so I’m pretty pretty psyched to be going.”
The Birkie was recently named a 2016 Worldloppet race, in place of Estonia’s Tartu Marathon, which is suffering from low snow. That has drawn more international competition, aside from Babikov, to the U.S.
“I haven’t done a race like that in a while so I have to remember how to ski it,” Babikov said of the point-to-point marathon from Cable to Hayward, Wis. “I don’t think there’s pressure; I’m going there kind of last minute, just as a preparation. This time of year, I wasn’t focused on getting ready for the Birkie especially, right? [It’s] after a big load of training and getting my mind on the Tour of Canada. So of course nervous a bit – it’s been a few years since I been there – but that’s fine. I’m excited.”
Babikov has raced the Birkie three times, placing sixth in 2004 and 2005 before winning in 2008.
“I remembered how crazy the Birkie is and how much people there care. This is their local Olympic Games, so I’m pretty pretty psyched to be going.” — Babikov
After that, he’ll set his sights on the eight-stage Ski Tour Canada, which he prequalified for by scoring World Cup points this season.
“Having a World Cup Finals in Canada, it’s a pretty big thing,” he said. “Even for North America. All those guys coming to North America to race, but for the finals, with so many stages for the full tour, so it means a lot to us. Racing at home, with my family and friends watching and stuff. You heard this kind of thing many times, but when you’re racing at home and you know the course really well, every inch of the course … I will be ready, and for sure, I’ll give my 100 percent every day, especially finishing here in Canmore.”
Beyond the final pursuit in Canmore, Babikov said he’ll likely finish the season at Canadian Nationals in Whitehorse, Yukon, March 20-26. Beyond that, he’s taking each year as it comes.
“With the team now and the budget and all this stuff… I don’t know. Right now I’m not trying to think about it too much…,” he said. “Thinking about the Tour of Canada, and I guess I’ll decide finally after that. I’ll see what I want to do and see if I still have drive and excitement for racing, and I’ll see if I want to keep going – hopefully I do.
“And the team doesn’t mind me being on the team,” he added with a laugh. “There is some opportunity, some options, but right now I’m just staying in the game.”
— Seth Adams contributed reporting