No Alex Harvey, no Devon Kershaw, no problem for the Canadian men’s team as Ivan Babikov toyed with the top-5 and ultimately placed seventh in the men’s 30km freestyle in Davos, Switzerland on Saturday.
With Kershaw and Harvey sitting out in preparation for the Tour de Ski, it was up to Babikov to pick up the slack. Circumstances seemed ideal for the distance specialist.
The length of the race, the challenging hilly course, and the fact that the event was held in the individual start format all added up to a great opportunity for Babikov.
The Davos course featured several long extended climbs, and while Babikov can’t sprint worth a lick, he knows a thing or two about skiing uphill, having won the Tour de Ski Final Climb. He has also finished fourth and sixth in the event.
Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth told FasterSkier that the team believed that Babikov had a shot for the podium. While that didn’t quite pan out, both Babikov and Wadsworth were pleased with the day.
“It’s an amazing result,” Babikov said after the race. “For anybody to be in the top-10 in the world on any day, it’s a good day.”
The race plan, according Wadsworth, was for Babikov to go out hard and hold the pace, staying in contention for a top result.
Babikov did just that, ranking among the leaders from the start, and never falling out of the top-10.
“He went out hard and he knew he had the fitness and strength to keep it going, and he did that. Nearly,” Wadsworth said.
The “nearly” refers to a slight fade toward the end of the race. According to Wadsworth Babikov got excited when he heard he was in the fight for podium.
“He gave a little extra spurt with about eight k to go,” Wadsworth explained. “He said he might have paid for that a little bit in the last couple of kilometers.”
A stronger skater, Babikov already had a 16th in the 10km freestyle in Kuusamo earlier this season, while he struggled in the classic races.
He was clearly in top form in Davos after skipping the sprint weekend in Dusseldorf, Germany.
“I was feeling good,” Babikov said of his race. “The last lap I started cramping a bit, and I think that’s where I lost it a bit. I was fighting all the way.”
Wadsworth said that he is “really happy where he [Babikov] is right now,” pointing to a good summer of training.
“He has been more consistent with strength training and we wanted to start the season of a bit more consistent and a bit stronger, and he has shown that,” Wadsworth said.
At the end of the day, Babikov summed up the race simply, likely echoing the thoughts of most of the participants.
“It was hard. Damn hard. That’s a long race.”
With Harvey and Kersahw on the sidelines, and sprinter Len Valjas saving for Sunday’s freestyle sprint, Babikov was joined on the track by just one other teammate—Graham Nishikawa, following the circuit on the strength of his 2011 NorAm overall title.
Nishikawa’s performance may have been overshadowed by Babikov’s top-10 result, but the veteran member of the Alberta World Cup Academy turned in one of his all-time best World Cup races, especially considering the strength of the field.
“I think Graham is satisfied with his race,” Wadsworth said. “Of course he would have liked to have been in the points, but that is the way it goes sometimes. It was a good effort.”
Nishikawa was twenty seconds out of the top-30, and may have lost some time do to some strange tactics by Swiss skier Toni Livers.
Livers, who ultimately placed 24th, caught Nishikawa from 30 seconds back by the 7.5km mark, but instead of working with the Canadian to the benefit of both he took a different tack.
“Livers was doing some weird things, “ Wadsworth said. “He was jumping [accelerating], and then pulling off to the side. It wasn’t that cool of a way to race.”
Normally in an individual start race, skiers who come together will share the effort, knowing that two working together will result in better results for both.
“The course was really hard, and at altitude but I am very happy with my race,” Nishikawa wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
Neither he nor Babikov will race in Sunday’s sprint. They will get some more training in as they look ahead to the next distance race in Rogla, Slovenia.
Kieran Jones contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.