Ivan Babikov doesn’t know why he is so good at climbing hills, growing up and learning to ski on flat terrain, but he certainly has no complaints after placing second in the famed Alpe Cermis Final Climb, beaten only by Marcus Hellner of Sweden.
“I just love climbing and I just go with it,” Babikov said.
Starting back in 17th just behind large group, Babikov knew he could not afford to dally on the kilometers of flat prior to the climb.
He pushed out of the start, working to close up the 20 seconds margin on the skiers ahead. Accomplishing that, he quickly moved up toward the front with the goal of keeping the pace high.
He said he was aided by teammate Devon Kershaw, who led the group for a time, and had a strong race of his own.
The last kilometer before the hill, they allowed the pace to drop, which Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth said may have cost Babikov the fastest time of the day.
“They were moving fast for awhile,” Wadsworth said. “Then they eased up a little before the climb started and that is where Ivan thinks he lost his time of the day. He wants the fastest time today.”
Babikov set a string of personal marks over the last week, saying “This tour is by far the best for me. Pretty much every race has been the best.”
But a strong race on the flats was not going to be enough to wrap up the seven-race Tour on the high note he was looking for.
The hill is his bread and butter, and he followed fellow climber, the small statured and tractor-loving local favorite Giorgio DiCenta (ITA).
DiCenta set a strong pace, and the pack dwindled behind, but Babikov was looking for more. He took over and while the Italian hung on initially, he eventually slipped behind as Babikov made his last charge.
He passed Wadsworth on the last big pitch and heeded his coach’s exhortations to leave it all on the trail.
Babikov skied himself all the way up to 7th, his best Tour finish, and the tops on a strong Canadian team.
“The race went really well,” Babikov told FasterSkier. “There is not much better than you can hope for.”
He attributes his success in the Tour, and all season, to a number of factors, including a focus on double poling and having the opportunity to regular train with Kershaw and Alex Harvey, men he accurately describes as “two of the best skiers in the world.”
While Babikov led the way, and earned the fourth Canadian podium of the Tour, Kershaw’s race may be more important in the long run.
According to Wadsworth, Kershaw “actually felt good today for the first time this the year.”
After finishing fourth in the Tour last year and second in the overall World Cup, Kershaw has struggled all season, telling FasterSkier, that his body would not respond when he needed to dial it up later in races.
The same was true in Saturday’s mass start where Kershaw skied in position for a top finish until the final kilometer, where once again, he found he had no high gear.
But that was not the case today.
“He could really go hard on the flats, just a totally different feeling. It is coming,” Wadsworth said.
Kershaw skied up to 12th place overall on the strength of the 13th fastest Final Climb, an event that has never been his forté.
“We knew his shape was coming, but today he said he actually felt great,” Wadsworth said. “That was a bit of a relief for him to feel good.”
Since the race is scored both as part of the Tour de Ski, and an individual event, Babikov earned significant World Cup points and also a decent financial return.
“You look at the prize money for finishing seventh overall out here and it is clear they just don’t hand that kind of cash out to anyone. There is a reason for it,” Wadsworth said.
Babikov earned 2,000 Swiss Francs (CHF) for his second on the day and another 5,000CHF for his standing in the overall.
The final Canadian in the race, Lenny Valjas, wrapped up his own highly successful Tour, heading for a break in Egypt with two podiums and a 23rd overall.
“Lenny to finish the Tour 23rd first time ever is amazing,” Wadsworth said. “He struggled a little on the climb, but hung in there for some good World Cup points.”
Valjas started in 11th, and told FasterSkier on Friday that he had no expectations for his first time up the Alpe Cermis, looking to finish the Tour well without completely wrecking himself.
The team will now split up with Babikov returning home to Canada to spend time with his family, Kershaw off to Oslo, Norway, Valjas to Egypt and Harvey to the South of France.
Valjas will then join the women’s team in Liberec, Czech Republic for a weekend of sprinting when the World Cup picks up next weekend.