Ivan Babikov knows the deal when it comes to Olympic years. Having already competed in two previous Olympics, the Canadian World Cup Team member is entering this season with the confidence that comes from knowing how the game works. At 33, he’s essentially prequalified for this season’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and so far all of his prep work is going according to plan.
Babikov ended last season with some serious fatigue, but all wasn’t lost.
“It actually turned out the best ever,” he wrote on his blog. “With scoring points in pretty much every World Cup Race before Christmas, awesome result at Tour de Ski, and 4th place at the World Championship 15km skate race, which let me finish in top 20 in the World Cup Overall.”
Babikov’s fourth-place finish at World Championships was the best ever by a Canadian man in that event, and his runner-up result at the Tour de Ski hill climb earlier the season — also in Val di Fiemme, Italy — was also notable.
After that the World Championships, the effects of the long season started to kick in. He struggled with sickness for the next several weeks of World Cups, won the 10k classic race at Canadian Nationals, and then hit the wall.
“I just went straight to vacation, without even finishing Canadian Nationals,” Babikov continued. “I was exhausted mentally and physically, tank was empty, no juice left.”
After a bit of a reboot, Babikov moved on from that exhausting-yet-successful season to build upon what he knows works for him.
His early season saw the familiar iteration of a June training camp in Bend, Ore., followed by a New Zealand camp in August, where Babikov has been going for the past six years.
The Canadians have the benefit of training on the Haig glacier just outside of Canmore, Alberta, where Babikov lives. Even so, the Russian native feels that the benefits of accessing many kilometres of trail, combined with the mid-winter conditions, more than make up for the hassle of travelling to New Zealand.
This fall included a new national-team camp in Truckee, Calif., for high-altitude training. Besides that, Babikov has stuck to his usual regimen.
“[I’m] not trying to reinvent the bicycle, you know how they say?” Babikov said in a recent phone interview.
However, with the lessons of last season, Babikov’s main goal for this winter is to “pace the season well and pace the energy.”
“The season is long, and the Olympics are at the end of it, so you’ve got to pace [the World Cup races and the Tour de Ski] and get in good shape for February,” he said. “That’s what matters the most. But, yeah, we’ll see what’s gonna happen.”
Babikov has already seen some indication that his fitness is close to where he wants it; in an informal time trial at Canmore’s Frozen Thunder earlier this month, Babikov beat a solid group of Canadian and U.S. competitors in the distance skate race.
Looking ahead to the Olympics in February, Babikov is especially excited about racing in his country of birth. Although he was born and raised in Kozhva, a tiny town close to the Arctic Circle far away from Sochi, he said, “It’s going to be special … going back to your motherland and race. Not many athletes in the world get a chance to race two home Olympics. … I raced one in Vancouver and then [Sochi]. That’s already pretty special.”
At the same time, he doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on his results there.
“It’s all energy wasting … thinking too much and then getting too excited and too psyched,” he said. “I try to waste as least energy as possible and then just focus on the races.”
Fortunately, he said the courses suit him.
“There’s [a] huge uphill in the skate part and of course I love that,” Babikov said. “Harder is better for me. I’m not super-speedy guy, but I can manage those uphills.”
“What matters most is that the athletes are in the top shape for the best moment for those two weeks,” he added. “Whoever feels the best is going to [do best]. That’s why it’s so important to pace your season and save some energy for February.”
And, despite racing as a Canadian, Babikov is not worried about feeling like an outsider in his homeland.
“I still have my Russian passport and I’m still Russian,” he said. “We [my wife and kids] still speak Russian at home. So it’s like when some people have two houses, but they’re both home, and that’s kind of what it is for me. Of course, my home home is Canada, but I still know so much about Russia and it’s not going to be weird at all. It’s going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been here so much and I’m comfortable here,’ that kind of stuff.”
Until leaving for the World Cup circuit at the end of November, Babikov is doing his best to keep things normal and spend time with the family. His 11-year-old son Sergei, a budding biathlete, has his first race coming up.
“He’s going to start racing even before me!” Babikov says.