The plan going in was for Ivan Babikov to hang with the leaders and then, with two laps left, live up to his nickname and attack like a bulldog. Yet, there he was Sunday afternoon, leading the pack heading into the last half of the 30-kilometre skiathlon cross-country race.
Could he hold it through the final 15 kilometres of free-style skiing? Could the Russian-born Canadian reach the podium for the first time in his World Cup career?
It turned out the Bulldog had bitten off more than he could chew.
After a dogged start and a change in strategy, Babikov ran low on energy to finish 11th on his home course at the Canmore Nordic Centre. It wasn’t the result he wanted, especially with his wife and family cheering him on, but it was still his best showing on the World Cup circuit this season and a preview of potentially better things to come.
“I thought I had to try to do something different in front of my hometown here,” Babikov said of his approach to the classic-ski portion of the race. “I felt amazing. It was pretty easy for me and usually the [free] skate part is the one I can push harder. There were two guys on the breakaway and I thought I would get with them and maybe we’ll stay away from the group, but it didn’t happen. I tried. What can I say?”
Babikov, a two-time Olympian who posted a fifth-place finish for Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, looked as if he would record Canada’s best result so far this season. He battled with Russians Evgeniy Belov and Alexander Bessmertnykh until Bessmertnykh fell. Maurice Manificat from France passed them all to win and Babikov crossed the line almost eight seconds later.
“You can’t predict what will happen,” Babikov said. “Being out there by yourself and trying to keep the pack away is really hard. It didn’t happen today.”
Heading into Canmore, the Canadian team had yet to win a World Cup medal. The overall plan was to build for the 2013 races, including the Tour de Ski circuit and the world Nordic championships scheduled for Italy in February. That meant sacrificing top results in Canmore for a shot at the medals in Italy; “a message I’ve passed along at three different team meetings,” head coach Justin Wadsworth had said.
Still, the athletes and coaches had hoped for some sort of pre-Christmas surprise. What they got was a grab-bag of efforts: Chandra Crawford was sixth in Saturday’s 1.5-kilometre skate-sprint while Alex Harvey was 11th and Devon Kershaw 17th in Friday’s 15-km classic race.
Both Harvey and Kershaw did not compete in Sunday’s finale.
“I would have gone back to Devon and Alex to give us our best results, like a podium, I thought was really a potential,” said Wadsworth, who rested his two aces. “We didn’t get what we wanted but these home World Cups are good for really our young skiers because we don’t get to race against this caliber of field very often.”
Crawford, an Olympic gold medalist in 2006, raced in the women’s 15-km skiathlon Sunday and finished 46th. (Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland finished first by a margin of 34.9 seconds.)
According to Crawford, her sixth-place on Saturday was good for something.
“[Teammate] Perianne Jones told me we both made the Olympic criteria. So she’s now had two top-12 results and I’ve had a top-six and that’s pre-selection for Sochi,” said Crawford. “It was really important to do something good to set up the next [part of the 2012-2013] season, the world championships. So the weekend was just a blast.”
Canada also squeezed some encouraging results from young skier Emily Nishikawa, who was 34th in the women’s skiathlon, and her brother Graham, who was 15th Sunday.
“Graham, that kind of came out of nowhere and that was really fun,” said Wadsworth. “I think we’re going to take a lot out of this and come away in better shape.”
Editor's Note: Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw did not race in the 30-kilometre skiathlon cross-country race in Canmore Alberta Sunday. An earlier online version of this story was incorrect. This online version has been corrected.