• Alex 50km Lahti Champion
    • Sochi 2014: A Canadian’s uphill climb to a medal

      January 21, 2014

      Jeff McIntosh/CP

      Anyone wondering just how tough the cross-country course for the Sochi Winter Games is, need look no further than the nickname that’s been bestowed on its final, lung-busting hill—“the Putin Climb.” Or the fact that when the macho-man Russian president himself stopped by to survey the venue in early January, he strapped on a pair of downhills and conducted his inspection from the top down.

      Carved out along the edge of the Psekhako Ridge, some 1,500 m above sea level, the two interconnected five-kilometre loops will be a rude awakening for Olympians after the smooth and swift trails at Whistler’s Callaghan Valley in 2010. Technically demanding, filled with swift descents, sharp turns and a bunch of nasty grinds, Sochi’s “Laura” venue—named after the turbulent river that flows through it—has been designed to maximize the home-field advantage. But perhaps somebody forgot that not all native sons will be sporting the federation’s white, blue and red tricolour.

      Ivan Babikov represented Russia at the 2006 Turin Games, placing 13th in the 15-km skate-ski race. Four years later, although the vanity plate on his SUV still read “Ruskki1”, he was racing for his adopted homeland of Canada, and piling up three top-10 finishes at the Vancouver Games, including a fifth in the 30-km pursuit, just 3.6 seconds off the podium. Since then, the short, stocky 33-year-old, who everyone calls “the Bulldog,” has become a persistent threat on the World Cup circuit, taking a silver at the 2012 Tour de Ski, and placing fourth in the 15-km at last year’s world championships. He’s a fierce competitor blessed with one particular gift—the more it hurts, the better he gets.

      “I just have a way of dealing with the pain in my legs. I have no idea where it came from. Maybe it’s in my genes,” says Babikov. “But I just love the uphills. When I feel like there’s no way I’ll be able to go any further, somehow I just do.”

      The area around Kozhva, the small village in Russia’s Komi Republic where Babikov grew up, 1,500 km northeast of Moscow, is mostly flat. But with an average winter temperature of -15°C there’s plenty of snow. Cross-country is a local passion, and the remote area had produced more than its share of national champs and Olympians over the years. Babikov, however, only fell into the sport around age 10 because of his love of soccer—Kozhva’s cross-country club fielded a summer team that he wanted to join. The cost was a promise to ski that coming winter. “I didn’t really like it. It was so cold and different,” says Babikov. He was also the smallest guy on the team. It was not a natural fit. “I don’t know how many times I came last, or second-last,” he says. “But I didn’t mind because I was hanging out with my friends, and I never gave up.”