GÄLLIVARE, Sweden – With all of the success by U.S. women at the opening World Cup race today, it is easy to forget that lots of other North American skiers competed, too. And several had strong results – headlined by Ivan Babikov of Canada, who placed 14th in the men’s 15 k skate.
Babikov declined to comment to FasterSkier after the race, but appeared to have followed the same strategy he took to a podium finish in a FIS race in Bruksvallarna, Sweden, last weekend: starting slow, and building to a furious finish. At 2.3 k, Babikov was 47th; by 6.9 kilometers, he had improved to 22nd. From there, he built towards a solid race, finishing just 3.6 seconds out of the top ten.
“Ivan was solid and has been working really hard this year- I’m really proud of the hard work he has put in,” Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth wrote in an e-mail. “He stayed in Canmore longer to be with his family, so his tough period of training is a little different then the other guys. I think Ivan will be good all year now, he’s ready.”
While Babikov turned in his best World Cup performance since placing seventh in a 30 k in Davos last December, things didn’t go so well for his Canadian teammates. Alex Harvey placed 36th and Devon Kershaw 44th; 2012 NorAm leader Kevin Sandau wound up 64th.
“It was rough,” Harvey said of the 15 k. “It was the first skate race of the season for me, so it was hard on the legs and just not super. It’s a good course for me I think, with a lot of long gliding sections, but it could be the best course for you in the world, and you still need a good day. Today was not that day.”
Neither Harvey nor Wadsworth seemed particularly worried, however, that Harvey and Kershaw – who finished 2012 ranked second and eighth in the overall World Cup standings – were having a slow start.
“The guys have been here in Sweden for the last two weeks, and have trained a lot and haven’t had a good chance to absorb it yet,” Wadsworth explained. “Which is a good thing, as I don’t want them peaking for the first World Cup. They will be really good when it counts this year.”
When it counts, says Harvey, is World Championships.
“Last year I started the season really good, but the goal was to hold onto a decent level of shape [all year],” he told FasterSkier. “This year it’s all about February, so I’m going to keep training throughout the first period. I’m not expecting great results.”
You might think that it would be tough, mentally, to go through the first period of World Cup racing – where every mistake counts, ever bauble costing a place or several – knowing that you’re not at your best. But that’s not how Harvey looks at things.
“Even when I was a junior – I was on the podium at World Juniors, and then some races in Canada I was not even on the podium,” he said. “I’ve always had a hard time being at a great level throughout the season. I think I’ve been naturally able to peak pretty hard for a couple of weeks and then go back to not-so-good. But I just have to deal with that.”
Harvey is on tap to anchor Sunday’s 4 x 7.5 k relay for Canada. Lenny Valjas, still recovering from a broken bone in his hand, will lead things off, tagging to Kershaw. Babikov will ski the first skate leg before Harvey finishes things up.
Despite a tough day on the tracks, the Canadians are optimistic for the relay.
“It’s only 7.5 k and it’s a mass start, so it’s totally different,” Harvey said. “We could win the relay tomorrow. We could.”
If the Canadian men had a rough time at Hellner Stadium, the women had it worse. Dasha Gaiazova led the way in 61st, followed by Chandra Crawford in 71st and Alysson Marshall in 77th. Perianne Jones sat the race out.
Again, Wadsworth said, the slow start to the season is all part of the plan, especially for the women in a 10 k.
“Our focus for the ladies is sprinting, and I know they’re very capable of podiums,” he wrote. “To put too much weight on distance races for them would be foolish. Of course we all want them to improve at distance races, but the focus is on sprinting, and they’ll be there when it counts.”
According to Crawford, though, races like this one will help her stay in the mix through long sprint heats.
“It is just so good for my sprinting and my fitness to do as much of the distance racing as I can, so I feel really fortunate to strap on some boards and burn it up for 10 k,” she told FasterSkier. “I accomplished my goals of pushing my limits. The plan for today was to start with a pace that I thought that maybe I could hold. And it happened – I was out of my comfort zone almost the whole time. I got really blown out from trying to stick on a couple of girls, and then recovered on a downhill.”
As for the rutted corners that felled a few of her American friends, Crawford said, keep ‘em coming.
“I love it,” she laughed. “Rutted, ice, you won’t here me complaining when it’s fast and slick out there, especially for 10 k of skating. The faster the better for me, for sure.”
Gaiazova seemed slightly disappointed by the results, but was able to pick out the positives.
“Time-wise, I’m pretty happy with how it went, but position-wise, there are just so many good girls pushing for every second, so it’s always good to remember that,” she said. “So hopefully it will go up and up. It was really really tight with how close everybody was.”
She had gone into today’s race with a goal of skiing technically well on the course’s many transitions, and felt she had accomplished that.
“The person who started behind me, Vibeke Skofterud, caught me on the first loop, and I was trying to just ski with her,” Gaiazova explained. “I could tell that on those transitions I was as good as her, but she would pull away on the hills. So that was really cool to be able to just try to keep the same distance for as long as I could behind her. And she finished sixth or something, just behind Holly [Brooks].”
The American men didn’t have their best days, either. After Kris Freeman posted fourth and 14th-place finishes in distance races in Muonio, Finland, last weekend, and Noah Hoffman beating him out for 13th in one of those, expectations were relatively high. Today, though, the team just didn’t quite have it.
“It was okay,” Freeman said at the finish line. “I felt really good on the second lap and I started moving up in places, and then it wasn’t there from about kilometers ten to thirteen. I started playing defense, and then I got my legs back for the last couple of k’s. I’m hoping to hold on to points today, but it wasn’t a great race.”
Although he crossed the line well within the top 30, he eventually slipped down to 33rd, missing out on World Cup points by six seconds.
“I was moving up through the field, and then my legs just felt all loaded up, and I wasn’t able to close it out,” he lamented.
Hoffman finished just eight seconds behind in 38th; he’s only done better in World Cup racing a handful of times.
Tad Elliott placed 59th, Simi Hamilton 63rd, and 2012 SuperTour leader Sylvan Ellefson 76th.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.