Ivan Babikov (CAN) has traveled more than 10,000 kilometers since the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics in late February. He only has to go 50 more on Wednesday, but they’ll feel every bit as long and painful as his circuitous journey from Vancouver to Fort Kent, Maine.
Babikov is the clear favorite for tomorrow’s U.S. freestyle 30/50 k championships, but racing just 72 hours removed from the World Cup Finals in Sweden, he’ll be tested by a host of better-rested competitors.
Babikov’s strongest challengers include two American Olympians, James Southam and Torin Koos. Southam, a distance specialist, raced in Finland and Norway after the Games, but had just over a week of recovery in Alaska before traveling back east.
Koos is a U.S. Ski Team sprinter who sat out the spring season in Europe. He hasn’t had much success in distance races at the international level, but was the second American in this same event (though in the classic discipline) in Fairbanks two years ago.
Domestic racers most likely to contend include Americans Tad Elliot and Chris Cook, the second and third place finishers at the American Birkebeiner in late February.
A world-class mountain biker, CXC Coach Bryan Fish said that Elliot has already made the transition onto two wheels, but still traveled to Fort Kent for the ski season’s last hurrah.
Dark horses are Canada’s Gord Jewett and Americans Bryan Cook, Lars Flora, and Noah Hoffman, who uncorked a great race in last year’s 50 k championships.
Kris Freeman (USA) is not racing due to illness, according to U.S. Ski Team Coach Matt Whitcomb, and Canada’s Stefan Kuhn was a late scratch.
The women’s race will be Kikkan Randall’s to lose. Like Babikov, Randall is competing on the heels of the marathon trip back from Sweden, where she placed well in the World Cup Finals distance races. Her 14th place in the 10 k pursuit there was a personal best, better than big names like Anna Haag (SWE), Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN), and Virpi Kuitunen (FIN).
Randall’s start was unconfirmed as of this morning, but she responded to an e-mail inquiry by writing “Oh the 30km…It’s on!!”
The $1,200 winner’s check has to be a big incentive for her, but it’s not guaranteed. Holly Brooks (USA) finished a close second to Randall in the long-distance classic race at U.S. Nationals, and she’s gotten a few weeks of rest after a tough Olympics. Caitlin Compton is another threat, especially in freestyle races, and she’s also had a week to recover after racing at the Olympics in February and in Europe in early March.
Americans Taz Mannix and Rebecca Dussault have stuck mostly to domestic races this year, but both posted some strong results at the Birkebeiner along with Canadian Brooke Gosling. Kristina Strandberg (SWE/USA) has struggled this year, racing mainly in Scandinavia, but recently showed her form could be coming around by posting a sixth-place finish in the Vasaloppet.
A handful of biathletes are competing, including North American champions Tracy Barnes-Colliander and Russell Currier. They’ll have their hands full keeping pace with their cross-country counterparts.
Athletes will be racing three or five laps of a ten kilometer course at Fort Kent’s 10th Mountain Ski Center, which features two big climbs: a steep one near the start, and a longer grind into the finish. A kilometer-long stretch in an open field in the middle of the course will let the racers know exactly where they
stand during each lap.
Coverage was getting a little thin Monday after some long days of warm sun, but a shot of wet snow today should leave the course in decent shape. Wednesday’s forecast calls for continuing precipitation, with a full spectrum of snow, rain, and sleet predicted for the morning. That could make for a long, soft slog that would favor smaller athletes like Babikov, Elliot, Hoffman, Compton, and Brooks.
The fields for the 30/50 k will be much smaller than the number contesting the SuperTour Finals later in the week; as of last night, figures from the organizers showed just over 40 male starters and just under 40 women, whereas over 180 were signed up for the weekend.
FasterSkier will have complete coverage of the championships—check back tomorrow morning starting at nine for live updates during the race, and in the afternoon for a full report.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.