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This year's edition of the Gatineau Loppet included the best elite field in a long time. The last time there were as many strong skiers among both the men and women was probably in 2003, when the event was last part of the prestigious FIS Marathon Cup circuit. From the event organizers' point of view, this was an encouraging fact as positive reviews from the top competitors have a tendency to trickle down and bring more skiers in general.
For those who don't understand why the 53k skate tends to be the most competitive, there are a number of factors at play. One is history. For a long time, there were no classic events, so the Gatineau Loppet became well known as a skating event first. In years when it has been part of the FIS Marathon Cup, it has been the skate event which was designated as counting for points purposes. Finally, the prize money has tended to be better in the skate event.
Conditions were excellent, with the temperature at about -13 C at the start, and the course being firm, although a little on the slow side because of the recent fresh snow. The sun was shining off and on, and while some wind was present, there was nothing particularly daunting in that department.
The men's event started very sedately, with a large group of something like 15 or 20 skiers completing the first 9km loop together. Following the turn onto trail 15, Ivan Babikov(x-c.com) started put the screws to the rest of the field. The only people who managed to follow his extended acceleration were former Gatineau Loppet champion Robin McKeever and Thomas Freimuth of Germany.
Behind them, the effect of Babikov's attack was to splinter everyone else. For a long time the chase groups followed individually or occasionally in pairs. Finally, at around the 1A, Chris Jeffries of x-c.com was in charge of a chase pack that also included Carl Steudler of Foothills, Will Fitzegerald of Avalon Nordic, Karl Saidla of XC Ottawa, and Erik Carleton of Rocky Mountain Racers. Jeffries and Steudler quickly pulled away from this group, but, despite a valiant effort, were not able to make any serious headway on the leaders.
In an exciting finish, Babikov and McKeever benefited from Freimuth breaking pole less than 1km from the line, with Babikov taking his first victory at the Gatineau Loppet.
The women's field included three time olympian Milaine Theriault of Canmore, now retired from the international skiing circuit and focusing on loppets with the x-c.com racing team. Her x-c.com teammate Nikki Kassel from Prince George was 2nd at the Keskinada last year, and in shape for a good performance. XC Ottawa racers Sheila Kealey and Megan McTavish, both concentrating on shorter distances this year, were testing their long distance strength in their familiar training territory. Also competing was XC Oregon's Sarah Max.
Among the women, most of the field got off to a clean start, and the pack stayed close together for the first 9km loop. Coming through the stadium area at 9km, Theriault led Kealey, Max, and McTavish, but the women's field soon started to break up during the first long climb of the course, with Theriault leading and Sara Max pursuing strongly, followed by Kealey and McTavish. Nikki Kassel didn't get off to a fast start, but following the first climb, she began to steadily ski her was through the pack, passing all women except for teammate Theriault. The parkways made for interesting drafting dynamics, with some women alone, or tucked in behind packs of men. In the end, it was Theriault, followed by Kassel, Max, Kealey, and McTavish.
All in all, it was an excellent and very competitive Gatineau Loppet 53km skate. Congratulations to all competitors, volunteers, and the organizing committee!