MONT SAINTE-ANNE, Québec – Four days after flying home from Europe, Ivan Babikov was back in action at Canadian Ski Nationals on Monday.
The 31-year-old national team member was also back to his winning ways, hitting his stride as usual at the domestic championships and claiming his seventh Canadian title.
Out of nearly 160 men in the 10-kilometer classic individual start, Babikov was the fastest, completing the two loops in 28:38.6.
Runner-up Erik Carleton (Rocky Mountain Racers/NST) finished 8.1 seconds back, and Michael Somppi (Thunder Bay National Development Centre/NST) was third (+21.8).
By the time Babikov started Monday morning, the snow had softened under sunny skis and the wear about 200 racers before him. Babikov started near 30th in the randomized men’s race, which followed the women and junior girls.
Out on the course, he found several hills no longer had tracks; herringbone was the only option. That didn’t make racing any easier, but he acknowledged it was the same for most of the men’s field.
“I felt like I could fight,” Babikov said. “It was tough conditions and [I wasn’t] feeling great after the flight and jet lag … but it was enough to win and I’m super happy.”
Babikov said the victory most in principle and to those that idolized World Cup athletes like him.
“It’s good to see kids looking up to you,” Babikov said. “It’s not for me; it’s more for the other youngsters coming up. A title is a title. It’s cool to be a national champion.”
Personally, the win was another high in Babikov’s rollercoaster season. After skiing one World Cup race in March and scratching out of his last three, the Russian-born skier didn’t end the season as he had hoped. A second bout with a virus or flu kept him from finishing his last race in Oslo, Norway: the 50 k classic mass start.
“That was the hardest part,” Babikov said. “I didn’t make the finals and I didn’t finish some races, which never happened before. I was disappointed, but it happens. Better this year than next year or an Olympics year.”
Fortunately, he had nationals to come home and look forward to. Babikov said he felt relaxed going into Monday’s race and focused on staying calm throughout the challenging 10 k.
At the halfway point, he was 15.1 seconds out of first behind Patrick Johnson of Middlebury College in Vermont. Babikov closed the gap over the last 5 k and ended up beating Johnson by 32.6 seconds. Johnson finished fifth after another American collegiate skier, Eric Packer (Dartmouth).
Carleton forced his body into high gear as well, and to his surprise, it responded. With just two men starting 15 and 30 seconds ahead of him, he passed them both.
“I didn’t really feel that great … I wasn’t that comfortable,” Carleton said. “But on a 10 k, you have to be able to go that hard, and it’s nice that I had that today.”
During the race, he mostly worried about Brent McMurtry, who started two spots behind him. Eighth after the first lap, McMurtry finished 11th overall.
“I was thinking he would likely catch me today,” Carleton said. “It was just always skiing scared and, ‘You’ve got to just keep moving, he hasn’t caught you yet,’ kind of thing.”
A National Paralympic Nordic Team member and guide for Brian McKeever (Foothills/NPNST) on the IPC World Cup, Carleton knew this race could be his last before flying to Finland. While he hoped to squeeze in Tuesday’s 15 k freestyle individual start, Carleton also had a plane to catch with McKeever at 4 p.m.
Carleton said they were flying out of Québec on Tuesday to compete in the World Cup. The open men’s races start at 12:30 p.m.
“It was kind of, make the best of these two days,” Carleton said. “Hopefully, we have time to fit in that race tomorrow.”
Somppi in third initially aimed for the top five in the short-distance classic, which he said wasn’t his specialty. Upon hearing that he was in second throughout the race, Somppi set his sights a little higher.
“I couldn’t really hear who was leading,” Somppi said. “I knew I was in the mix anyway. I didn’t think I’d be on the podium.”
He wasn’t complaining. Starting about 10 racers from the front gave Somppi plenty of splits and motivation to feed off.
“Going into nationals I was hoping to take a medal, but I don’t think I really believed in myself,” he said. “I knew it was possible, but I knew everything would kind of have to work out perfectly for it to happen. Today it did.”
The race was Somppi’s first individual event since nearly a month ago at the 50 k American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis. Racing in Saturday’s team sprint helped him transition into racing mode again, he said.
“I think I’ve done a good job of peaking for the nationals,” Somppi said. “Hopefully the rest of the week will be just as good.”
Packer finished 6.9 seconds after from Somppi in fourth. Graham Nishikawa (AWCA/NST) was sixth, Dudley Coulter (NDC-Thunder Bay) was seventh, Harry Seaton (NDC-Thunder Bay) was eighth, David Greer (CNEPH) placed ninth and Jesse Cockney (AWCA) was 10th.