Monday, March 30, 2009

The men's 50K race at the US National Cross Country Ski Championships in Fairbanks was expected to be a pack affair for 20 or 30K, followed by domination by Russian turned Canadian, Ivan Babikov. That was half right. A pack of 12 to 15 skiers, including most of the major players, formed over the first laps. Among the early casualties was Leif Zimmerman, who won the US version of the 30K on Friday, but he was out of it from the beginning.

First time's a charm: leaders power up Black Funk on the first lap of the 50K.

The pack stays tight.

And it looked like Glenn Randall of Dartmouth would be out of the picture early as he broke a pole in the first lap and fell way behind. By the 2nd or 3rd lap Randall caught up and even led the group for a while. But things seemed as expected, with Babikov biding his time while teammate Stephan Kuhn did much of the early work, leading the tight pack of skiers through the hilly course.

One anomaly was 19 old Noah Hoffman, always near the front of the lead group. He's on the US ski team and considered a huge talent, but has been erratic. He went out with the leaders last year and faded out of the top 20. This time Hoffman would have none of that. He took the lead by half way and broke up the pack, with only Babikov, Kuhn, and 10K champion James Southam in tow. After a lap, the Olympic veteran Southam dropped off, and young Hoffman kept leading. To the surprise of everyone.

Noah Hoffman (116) skis with World Cup veteran Ivan Babikov (101) in the early going.

He led from the half way through most of the 6th lap, stalked by Kuhn and Babikov, who were content to let the inexperienced USA'er do the work. Finally the US coaches, appearing mildly disgusted, ordered the youngster to relinquish the lead to the Canadians. Hoffman shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “I can't help it if my skis are so fast,” and let up. Southam was 50 seconds arrears with 10K to go.

On the final lap Hoffman began to struggle and hunch over, while the Canadians powered away. Southam was 40 sec back the beginning of the lap and by half way through it was 35 seconds, but by then Hoffman appeared to practically fall on his face with each stride. He must have crawled up South Tower hill (a 200' climb) because when they came back down five minutes later, the Canadians still had their commanding lead, but it was now Southam with an increasing gap on the fading Hoffman.

Despite working hard on the early laps, Kuhn looked more fresh than Babikov with about 5K to go. We were beginning to think Babikov was unbeatable here in Fairbanks. Announcer Adam Verrier who carried a microphone while skating around the course to give up to date splits and coverage, reminded the crowd that it's often not the fastest skier, but the one who has the freshest legs who will win the sprint over the final stretch
Starting to struggle, Hoffman leads Babikov and eventual winner Stephan Kunz up the Black Funk

Kuhn had both the sprint speed (with a top 15 World Cup to his credit this this year) and fresher legs and pulled away to win by 5 seconds. Southam came in a minute and half later, followed by a spent Hoffman who held on to second.

Meanwhile the college kid Glenn Randall had worked his way up to the Bronze medal position for 3rd, picking off Team USA members one by one over the final laps. In addition to Hoffman and Randall, the youth movement is on! Four of the top 13 were 20 and younger, including local favorite David Norris, 18, who was only 6 minutes behind the US winner in 13th place.


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