The main attraction of the 18th "Cross Auchan-Roncq Tourcoing" – the only French event of the IAAF cross-country circuit - which takes place in Tourcoing, northern France, this Sunday, will be the competition between Sergiy Lebid and Frenchman Mustapha Essaid, respectively gold and silver medallists in the last European championships in Croatia.
But can there really be hopes of revenge by Essaid, in light of the impressive performances achieved recently by the Ukrainian?
Sergiy Lebid needs no introduction, he has been making the headlines for weeks. His victory last week in the Vallagarina cross-country was his third in a row this year, following those in the ‘Campaccio’ in Italy and in Belfast.
There are big names among the list of those he has defeated this season: Charles Kamathi, Paul Kosgei, Richard Limo, some of Kenya’s best. Lebid is the only one who can regularly challenge the African domination, leaving aside Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele who has been competing in a class of his own.
On the other hand, Essaid didn't look so sharp on his return to cross-country last week-end in Le Mans, where he finished 8th and only the second Frenchman behind the winner Driss El Himer. An average performance that he put down to the fact that he hadn't fully recovered from gastro-enteritis, he explained after the race. "My main goal this season is first to defend my French title in the beginning of March and then feature well in Lausanne". He has his chances especially since El Himer has announced that cross-country won't be a priority for him this season, to the despair of the national distance coach who keeps trying to convince him that he is needed in order to build a competitive team for Lausanne.
But El Himer has another concern: his participation in the World Championships marathon this summer. After his thundering debut in Amsterdam in 2001 (2:07:02), he couldn't do better than 2:11:52 in Chicago. He made the qualifying time but his selection is not assured yet. If four Frenchmen achieve better performances during the spring, he won't be selected: a risk that he is not prepared to take. That's why he'll run another marathon, probably in Paris. In the meantime, he'll still compete in the European Clubs’ Cross Country where he'll be facing Sergiy Lebid.
The race in Tourcoing may not materialise into a European duel as the African runners will also have their say in the matter. The most serious competitors will certainly be Ethiopia's Ybeltal Admasu 4th at 10,000m in the 2001 IAAF World Championships and Tanzania's Fabian Joseph, 4th in Brussels and Amorebieta this season. Shadrack Kosgei from Kenya will attempt to better his second place from last year. Some of the best Moroccans (Gharib Jaouad, Said El Wardi, and Khalid El Aamri) are also entered. Bernard Barmasai and Habte Jifar (Tesfaye's brother) who haven't been running much recently, will be worth watching too.
The women's race doesn't feature any clear-cut favourite since rumours about a probable participation of Colleen De Reuck to defend her title have faded away. After an easy win over Salina Kosgei in Le Mans last week-end, the South-African born American flew back to Colorado to prepare for the World Championships in Lausanne and the US marathon Trials the following week.
In her absence, the older generation, represented by experienced runners such as Kenya's Lina Cheruiyot, Tanzania's Restituta Joseph or Belgium’s Anja Smolders, will try to contain the younger, represented by Dorcus Inzikuru from Uganda, the 2000 World Junior 5000m champion and Mestewat Tufa from Ethiopia, 5th in the 3000m in the same Championships. Each has already won an international cross-country this year: the Vallagarina cross-country, last week for Inzikuru and the "Cross de l'Acier" in Lefrinckoucke (France) at the beginning of December for Tufa. In this context, the European junior champion Charlotte Dale from Great-Britain and the best French athletes will also be doing their utmost.