Podebrady is fast becoming a home from home for Europe’s finest race walkers

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Plenty are headed back to the town 50km east of Prague for the second time in just over a month to compete on the same park course in the European Race Walking Cup on Sunday.

The European Athletics Permit Meeting on 8 April acted as a useful warm-up – for athletes and organisers alike – and on a fast 1km-loop there’s a fair chance those who did well will repeat the feat.

On the team front, Ukraine have pedigree and experience all round but other walking powers are generally looking to the next generation with a host of first timers at a major competition.

Spain and Italy will account for more than a fifth of the 243 athletes on the final entry lists but, for example, the Spanish 20km women’s team has Julia Tacacs as the only established walker in a red and yellow vest.

Likewise, Italy has included former European Cup winner Giorgio Rubino for the men's 20km, but that was eight years ago in Metz.

Saying that, on current form, compatriot Antonella Palmisano should be a distant blue speck to the rest in the women’s 20km by the finish.

A sharp 41:57.29 for 10,000m back home in Orvieto towards the end of last month suggests the former IAAF World Cup U20 winner is in good shape to back up her excellent fourth place at the Rio 2016 Olympics Games and has a 1:27:51 personal best from 2014 to her name.

Italy’s Antonella Palmisano here competing in the 20km race walk at the Zurich 2014 European Athletics Championships
Italy’s Antonella Palmisano here competing in the 20km race walk at the Zurich 2014 European Athletics Championships

But, if there are to be a challengers, then Portugal, Ukraine and, perhaps surprisingly, Lithuania are the likely bets.

With little walking success as such, the Baltic state now has three who can challenge for team honours, and two of them literally form a twin spearhead.

Živilé and Monika Vaiciukevičiūté, both born April 3 1996, finished third and fifth in the April Podebrady meeting and both posted personal bests.

Supported up by Brigita Virbalytė-Dimšienė and her second place in February at the Adelaide IAAF Challenge race only 33 seconds outside her top seven placing in the 2015 World Cup, a country of under three million could be about to make a senior team podium for the first time.

Ines Henriques and Ana Cabecinha rarely disappoint for Portugal and the Ukraine quartet headed by Nadiya Borovska could be up there, at least in the early stages.

In the men’s 20km, Great Britain’s Tom Bosworth has been hard at work at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he has been building endurance to go with his prodigious speed and also notched a comfortable 1:20:58 in Portugal at the beginning of April, having also finished sixth atb this distance in Rio.

If form again has anything to do with it, Christopher Linke and Kevin Campion will probably be Bosworth’s shadows.

Linke removed 20 seconds from his personal best to breeze home in a fast 1:18:59 in the April Podebrady meeting, his first race of the year, and the German has also been to Flagstaff.

France’s Campion has also returned to form after a disappointing 49th in Rio and has improved to, 1:20:28.

Spain’s Alvaro Martin and Miguel Angel Lopez, the latter the 2014 European and 2015 world champion, will add to the clamour at the front while Ukraine again also have a strong quartet.

For the first time at a major race walk championships, the words ‘Authorised Neutral Athlete’ gets added to a name on the start list.

Sergei Shirobokov is the one Russian cleared to compete in the 20km, and after an unratified 1:18:26 in his Winter Championships in Sochi in February, can boast of the fastest time this year.

However, Shirobokov can point to previous success to back up his fast time.

Now 18, he was the boy’s 10,000m winner at the 2015 IAAF U18 Championships, and although something of a dark horse, that background could see him easily gallop up on the inside in the final straight.

The men’s 50km starts the weekend and, as is usually the case with the long one, there are only three in the 32 field who have completed the distance so far this year.

Once again, Ukraine has good depth with Ihor Hlavan having a 3:40:39 best while Ivan Banzeruk was fifth in the 2014 European Championships.

Finland's Aleksi Ojala sports an impressive 3:46:25 best from last year, but after those three, it will need an unknown to upset the odds.

The U20 races could be Sunday's highlight.

As said, this town with its terrific walking history – which dates back to the late 19th century – already put on a fine show in April.

Men’s U20 star then was Germany’s Leo Kopp, who is returning to the scene of his win where he set a 10km best of 41:19 after a dazzling turn of speed in the last kilometre to win from David Kuster, who finished 11 seconds back for France.

Łukasz Niedziałek was third for Poland, Justin Bournier, France, was fourth, and all four are back to do battle again.

Turkey will fancy its chances with Abdulaziz Daniş and Abdulselum Imuk rewriting their personal nest marks in February, as will Giacomo Brandi, who has a 41:44 best from Podebrady last year.

If Great Britain’s Chris Snook needs further advice after his personal best in seventh place on the same course in April, his mother Verity should prove to be a good mentor.

Not only is she a British team coach and in attendance, but she herself competed on the same course 20 years ago in what was then the IAAF World Cup.

Turkey are team favourites to lift the women’s U20 10km title although form suggests Germany’s Teresa Zurek will contest the individual title.

Her 45:09 in Naumberg less than a month ago is not far behind the mark set by Turkey’s Meryem Bekmez on home soil in February.

Others potentially in contention for the podium are Turkey’s Ayse Tekdal and the second ANA (Authorised Neutral Athlete) of the weekend, Yana Smerdova. A 45:48 best suggests she too could provide a surprise, like Shirobokov in the men’s 20km.

Live streaming of the European Race Walking Cup is available here.