The field for the junior men’s race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships was the biggest of the event, with 112 runners taking to the start line.
But in the end it became a duel between just two, a brilliant confrontation that did not end until Turkey’s Ali Kaya found enough to outsprint Belgium’s Isaac Kimeli to take gold.
At the finish, athletes were sprawled out on the grass recovering as Kaya nonchalantly wandered away, smiling, followed by photographers, grabbing a Turkish flag to celebrate with and looking like he could run the 6km race again.
His rivals had been warned.
In the summer, Kaya lapped the whole field when he won the 10,000m at the European Junior Championships in Rieti and while he was never going to be as dominant on Sunday, he was not far off.
Kaya won in 17:49 from Kimeli in 17:51 with Russia’s Mikhail Strelkov third in 18:05. It was that trio from a long way out and the rest of runners just had no response.
But there was delight for France who won the team gold with 48 points from Russia with 51 and Italy with 55.
This second event of the championships began with a fierce sprint start as the sun became brighter and the conditions warmer on a glorious morning in the Serbian capital.
The Italian twins, Samuele and Lorenzo Dini, made the early pace with Strelkov among them.
After the first 1.5km, Samuele Dini was in front in 4.21 but it was just a case of Kaya biding his time. As he showed in Rieti, the Turkish runner thrives on being at the front and dictating the pace.
He would have learned a great deal during these near 18 minutes about how to hold enough speed until the final stages when he needed them the most.
This lead group of three quickly created a 10-metre gap between them and the rest and it was not long before Strelkov was left on his own in third.
Kaya and Kemeli just burst away and with 2km to go, the Belgian showed he really meant business by whipping off his bobble hat and putting his head down for the final surge.
His country had never won a gold medal at this junior event and it looked like Kimeli would be the first.
Inside the final kilometre Kimeli had led before Kaya regained top spot.
But then Kimeli made another, last push with 200m to go which seemed as though it would be enough for the Belgian. It was not to be.
With 100m left, Kaya came charging through on the inside and with 50m left, he took over, showing perfect timing to win by two seconds.
As he proved once more, Kaya has a great future ahead of him and could be one the stars of this summer’s European Athletics Championships in Zurich.
Kaya said: “This was a much tougher race than I had expected. I had just enough left to stay ahead of him at the finish.”
France won team gold as Alexandre Saddedine, in 18:12, was their first runner home, a performance which was followed by Mehdi Belhadj in 12th in 18:22, Alexis Miellet in 14th in 18:22 and Maxime Hueber Moosbrugger in 16th in 18:29.
Strelkov led the Russian team to silver while Lorenzo Dini was the first of the Italians, fifth in 18:06.
Strelkov acknowledged how tough it was to catch the leaders and said: “I am very glad to finish third, the two ahead of me were just too strong today.”