Tourcoing, France Ukraine's Sergiy Lebid justified his status as the outstanding pre-race favourite with an easy victory in today’s 18th Cross Auchan-Roncq Tourcoing (9700m – 5 laps) – IAAF Permit cross country - thus recording his fourth win in a row in 2003, after triumphs in Campaccio, Belfast and Vallagarina.
Though the opposition faced by Ukraine’s European champion wasn't of the same calibre as he faced in Campaccio, the rainy conditions and the setting of the course didn't make it an easy race for all that.
"The corridors (marking the route) set for the runners were too narrow so it created a bottleneck from the beginning" declared Lebid, who was relegated to around 10th position in the first few kilometres, while the usual Kenyan armada led by steeplechaser Bernard Barmasai set the pace.
An attempt by the Kenyan Shadrack Kosgei to pull away in the middle of the second lap, which progressively reduced the leading pack down to a group of six - Barmasai, Kosgei, Julius Kiptoo of Kenya, Tanzania's Fabian Jospeph, Morocco's Hamed Baday and Lebid - was enough to convince Lebid that he shouldn't let anybody get out of sight.
The following two laps didn't produce much of a change, with Barmasai and Kosgei doing most of the running, and there were still five runners with the possibility of victory at the bell.
Though he never outrageously dominated the race, Lebid was always in control and he made his move when he wanted, around 400m from the finish, opening a gap big enough to discourage his opponents.
"Kenyan runners are always good sprinters, so you have to make sure there are no more along (with you) when you enter the finish straight. The last two laps were essentially used to tire them, as a build-up for the sprint" explained Lebid after the race, visibly satisfied with getting the job well done. "I had very good preparation, and everything is going well for me".
In Lebid's wake, the Kenyans were left battling to grab a place on the podium. In that game Shadrack Kosgei proved the strongest, thus equalling his second place finish from last year. Julius Kiptoo followed him home just ahead of Barmasai, who lost ground in the last metres but was satisfied with his return to competition.
"I have had an knee injury ever since 1999 which became worse last year,” said Barmasai, who is a former holder of the world steeplechase record. “Fortunately the treatment I got from my doctor and physiotherapist was fruitful and I could go back to training last September. I don't think that I lack finishing speed. I was tired at the end of the race because I had only just arrived from Nairobi yesterday. As for my next races, I'll compete in Vilamoura, and then take part in a road race before heading back to Kenya for the Trials. This summer, I'll try my best to bring back the steeplechase World record to Kenya."
The woman's race ended in an African party with three Ethiopians in the top three places, though Britain's European Junior champion Charlotte Dale was never far from creating a surprise. Unafraid of the African challenge, she didn't hesitate to take up her responsibilities and make the running with a group of runners, with Lenah Cheruyiot, Rahad Ndungu, Mestewat Tuffa also taking turns in the lead.
The outcome remained uncertain for a long time, and was only settled in the final sprint where Ethiopia’s Etalemahu Kidane, Bisunech Bekele and Tuffa overcame Dale by a narrow margin.
Their names are still relatively unknown as these athletes have just come out of the junior ranks but there's no reason that they shouldn't be heard about again in the next future. Of note, Kidane was third in Hannut (Belgium) last weekend, and Bekele won the Addis-Ababa cross-country.
Carole Fuchs for the IAAF
Men (9.840 km)
1 Sergiy Lebid (UKR) 29:59
2 Shadrack Kosgei (KEN) 30:03
3 Julius Kiptoo (KEN) 30:06
4 Bernard Barmasai (KEN) 30:08
5 Fabian Joseph (TAN) 30:12
6 Tom van Hooste (BEL) 30:23
7 Hamed Baday (MAR) 30:27
8 Abdeladi Habassa (MAR) 30:31
9 Mustapha Essaid (FRA) 30:32
10 Serguei Lukin (RUS) 30:44
1 Etalemahu Kidane (ETH) 19:11
2 Bisunech Bekele (ETH) 19:12
3 Mestewat Tuffa (ETH) 19:13A
4 Charlotte Dale (GBR) 19:16
5 Rahad Ndungu (KEN) 19:17
6 Fatima Yvelain (FRA) 19:21
7 Lenah Cheruiyot (KEN) 19:23
8 Nancy Omwenga (KEN) 19:24
9 Ayano Yenealem (ETH) 19:27
10 Rakiya Quetier Maraoui (FRA) 19:30