Midway through the U.S. 50 k Championship race on Wednesday, Ivan Babikov was a nation of one.
The lone Canadian in a group of five Americans, he was ineligible for the U.S. title. But that didn’t stop him from skiing away with the win, and the $1,200 check that goes with it.
Nearing the end of the last of five ten kilometer laps, Babikov put the hammer down, dropping CXC’s Tad Elliot and APU’s Lars Flora to ski unchallenged to the finish for his second U.S. 50 k win in three years. Elliot, the first American finisher, got his first national championship.
Like women’s winner Kikkan Randall, Babikov came to Fort Kent straight from the World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden. He spent one night at teammate Alex Harvey’s house in Quebec before arriving here Tuesday afternoon to check out the trails.
Babikov said he made the trip at the invitation of race organizers, who waxed his skis and set him up with a room at the university in town.
“It’s on the way, because I was coming from Europe, so I’m like, ‘why not?’” he said. “U.S. Nationals has been good to me.”
From the gun, the Russian-born Canadian was the favorite to win today, after two top-ten finishes in distance races at the 2010 Olympics. But it was APU’s James Southam who led early, taking a flier on the first lap.
“The pace was ridiculously slow at the start, and so I just skied, and pretty soon I had a 30-second gap,” he said. “I was never really going that fast.”
Southam wasn’t motivated to ski the whole race by himself, though, and he was swallowed up midway through the second lap.
At that point, Elliot finally started to get warm.
A professional mountain biker in the summer, Elliot traveled to Maine fresh off some early-season races last weekend in California. He came down with a case of the sniffles and hadn’t skied in the last two days.
“I put my trust in [CXC Coach] Bryan Fish [to] take my skis, wax my skis,” he said. “I walked to the start line, and first 10 k—it was hard.”
But Elliot worked his way into the race, and by 20 k, he was feeling “amazing.”
He took the reins and got down to business, upping the pace and thinning the lead group down to six.
At 30 k, the combined efforts of Elliot and Babikov started taking their toll, and Southam, Garrott Kuzzy (USST) and Bryan Cook (CXC) dropped off one by one over the next ten kilometers. For the final lap, it was down to just Babikov, Elliot, and Flora.
By the time the men started racing in the late morning, the warm temperature combined with the strides of dozens of skiers had flattened the new snow on the course into a nearly rock-hard slab—which did a number on Flora.
“I could tell, maybe the second lap…it was a lot harder on your legs than you would ever imagine,” he said. “That just wore on people.”
While he’s a 2006 Olympian with a lot of k’s under his belt, Flora has only raced three times since early January due to health problems. With two k to go, it finally caught up with him.
With Babikov driving at the front and smelling blood, Flora was trying to stave off cramps when he stuck a pole between his legs. He got tangled with Elliot, bringing the pair to a standstill and letting Babikov get away. And when the cramps finally set in for Flora, the U.S. title was Elliot’s.
Both Americans said that they would have had a tough time staying with Babikov even without the mishap.
“He really looked smooth, where Tad and I—you could tell our legs were kind of swampy,” Flora said.
It was the third straight Canadian victory in the U.S. 50 k Championships—an American hasn’t won since Kris Freeman in 2007. But the performance by the 21-year-old Elliot—on top of his second place in the Birkebeiner in February—suggests that that streak could soon come to an end.
“Tad, I thought, skied the strongest race,” Flora said. “Every time he took the lead, he just looked really good. It’s exciting…it was sweet for him.”
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.