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American Birkebeiner: A congested race throughout -- except at the very top

HAYWARD, Wis. -- Few races in the history of the American Birkebeiner have been as congested as Saturday's 35th running of the cross-country ski marathon from Cable to Hayward.

In fact, no other Birkie may have had as many front-runners so late in the race.

Russian native Ivan Babikov was among a group of about 20 men at the front when he finally broke free on an uphill portion of the course about 6 kilometers from the finish.

When he did, nobody could stay with him, and it quickly became a frantic fight for second as Babikov raced to his first Birkie freestyle title, covering 51 kilometers in 2 hours, 7 minutes, 8.9 seconds.

Defending champion Zack Simons of Park City, Utah, and Adam Swank of Duluth came in second and third, respectively, 38 seconds later as they held off the remnants of that pack.

"This was my third Birkie, so I knew the course pretty well," said Babikov, who finished sixth in 2004 and 2005. "I knew there was an uphill section late in the race, and I knew that was [the] last chance for me. I feel much better making a move going uphill. I figure the harder it is, the better for me."

Nicknamed the "Russian Rocket," the 27-year-old Babikov lives in Canmore, Alberta, where he is trying to gain citizenship. The former Russian Olympian tried to spark a break from the pack on two earlier occasions on Saturday, only to find himself all alone at the front. With nobody to work with, he thought better of racing alone and slipped back into the pack to conserve energy.

"After I made my move, [I] tried not to look back because I didn't want to ski [with] this big wall of skiers behind me," Babikov said.

Indeed, there were some nervous moments for all of the skiers. With that many skiers clustered together, constantly shuffling between the back and front, the chances of breaking a pole or having an accident were greatly increased.

Simons, a strong sprinter who used a late surge to win a shortened Birkie in 2007 and finished second in the Elite Sprints on Thursday, never received the chance to challenge for the lead on Saturday as Babikov took home the $5,000 top prize.

The second- through ninth-place spots, meanwhile, were decided by a mere 2.9 seconds.

"It was definitely a tense time for a good 40K," Simons said. "I was about six, seven guys back in the pack. I kind of got caught up in it, but even if I had been there right behind Ivan, I don't think I would have had the strength to keep up with him. He was definitely the strongest guy [Saturday]."

Last year, Simons took advantage of a field that lacked the elite Italians who had dominated the Birkie for several years to become the first American to win the men's race since Carl Swenson in 1998. This year's field was again lacking an Italian presence as many Europeans stayed home to concentrate on the FIS World Cup and other events.

None of that mattered to the 32-year-old Swank, who overcame a lingering cold and broken pole early in the race to become the first local skier in recent memory to finish in the top three of the men's race. It was Swank's best finish in 10 career Birkies, much to the delight of the crowd. It was also one of the strangest races he had ever been in.

"It was such a big pack that team tactics didn't play a big role," said Swank, who races for Fischer-Craft. "It was so fast that it was difficult to break away, and I saw three poles broken just around me. Usually it starts to get strung out by about 15K, but that never happened this time. I've never seen it that congested -- ever. It was pretty crazy."