Lopez golden at home in Murcia

Lopez golden at home in Murcia
European Athletics

Spain's Miguel Angel Lopez took gold over 20km ahead of Slovakia's Matej Toth and Yohann Diniz of France.

There is no place like home - ask Miguel Angel Lopez. The Spaniard knows the streets of Murcia like the back of his hand, and on Sunday evening he made them his own.

Men's 20km

The homegrown favourite paced a scintillating walk to get clear at nine kilometres and then enjoy the cheers, bravos and the rest of the race if not exactly in comfort, at least with a winning feeling.

Lopez has set his hearts on World gold to go with two European firsts, and believed when he was 27 he would be at the top of his game. He reaches the milestone in July.

If you tell yourself that long enough, and couple it with hard miles, the sky’s the limit. Lopez to win not only conquering the rest of the world in Bejing at the end of August, he wants Olympic success as well.

But he might have had his heart in his mouth soon after the start.

Yohann Diniz set off like his singlet was on fire. A first 300 metres was at lightning pace and 3:58 after the first kilometre, the French world record holder for a week earlier in the year had creviced an eight-second gap on the chasing throng. By 3km (11:48) it had grown to 18 seconds to three chasers, Lopez, Ivanov and Denis Strelkov.

By the next time round, on a slight dog-leg of a course meant he was momentarily out of sight of pursuers. However, the chasing three had gone a marginal but significant two seconds quicker for the lap up to 4km.

On the next circuit the lead had been cut to a mere five seconds as quickly as it was forged in the first place, but Strelkov had been dropped.

It was deadlocked at 7km with Diniz, Lopez and Ivanov together, but the chasers were gathering to reel in the second Russian and did so after another 800 metres.

The split for the places came in the ninth lap. Diniz was shot out the back, clearly paying for his rash start, while Lopez had drawn a slight advantage out of Ivanov.

He grew the gap all the more when he saw the Russian had drawn two DQ cards.

After that, the chase for the minor medals took centre stage.

Diniz was caught and passed by Matej Toth, third in Dudince’s edition of the European Cup in 2013, who had Dzianis Simanovich from Belarus for company.

He was living just inside his comfort zone, but like the Slovak got a lift when the unfortunate Ivanov picked up the third and final card.

A second Belarussian, Dziubin passed his friend, but was quickly overtaken by Diniz who had gathered himself for a second go at a medal.

The second wind turned into a strong breeze as he whistled past Simanovich and finally settled a fascinating race that went with a heartening second Spanish win of the day.

Incidentally, Lopez’s 1:19:52 matched his Spanish national championship win in February to the second.

"The crowd was amazing and I live very close to the course, and I will be thinking about today when I am here in the future. It was tough, but I am very happy,” said Lopez.

Video impression of the Murcia 2015 European Cup Race Walking

Women's 20km

The women’s 20km lived up to star billing with a dramatic last-lap sprint that decided gold.

Eleonora Giorgi made a brave bid on the final circuit, and it looked to be a decisive move by the Italian.

But world leader, Elmira Alembekova decided otherwise. With arms pumping and legs whirling, she dug deep to turn a five-metre deficit into the slightest of leads with 250 metres left.

Throwing caution to the winds as judges peered ever closer at the leaders’ technique, the Russian underlined her fine form to just about hang on to the finish.

Giorgi hurtled across two seconds later and suggest she will be a major threat at the World Championship later in the year. After all, the economics student improved her personal best for the third race in a row.

A second Russian, Svetlana Vasileyva, walked a last lone lap to claim a deserved bronze.

It was a far cry from the early circuits.

Six were slightly ahead but spread across the road rather than the processional look of most major races. However, the group quickly reformed to 14 by the third tour - with all the favourites forming the spearhead.

It then showed slivers of sunlight a lap later, although just about held together at 5km  (22:21). Then three came off the back including Portugal’s Ines Henriques as the pace moved it up a notch.

Elisa Rigaudo, the Olympic bronze medallist from 2008, was next to discover the leaders meant business.

At half way, (44:12), European Championship silver medallist Lyudmyla Olyanovska was a nose ahead of the rest, but it was almost the same formation with Rigaudo getting an unexpected lift as she latched on to the struggling Raquel Gonzalez from the host country.

By 12km, those in contention had been whittled down to seven, but with all favourites still in place.

Former world record holder Vera Sokolova was the one Russian now forced to settle for a minor place, and twice more round the final seven were also looking susceptible to a major split.

Olyanovska was at the back, and along with Portugal’s Ana Cabecinha, the pair were forced to let the first five go at 15km (1:05:32).

The European Bronze medallist from 2014 looked to be in to trouble, but with determined cap on back to front, Anežka Drahotová clawed her way back to the leaders.

It wasn’t to last.

The circuit between 16 and 17km proved decisive. Marina Pandakova paid for the pace as did Drahotová. On the bell lap, Alembekova was going eyeballs out to drop Giorgi and Vasileyva.

She managed to dispose of the latter, but the Italian took up pole position only to discover Alembekova, who is now blond rather than brunette, proving a show stopper.

For all that, Giorgi was delighted with second place. “This is my first medal and I am very happy; it was my dream. My previous national record was 1:26:46 so I am very happy I beat it for the third time. I would like to fight and beat the Chinese and Russian athletes in Beijing.”

Men's 50km

Mikhail Ryzhov was lost amongst a group of female walkers as he took 50km gold but the Russian winner was a man alone for the last seven kilometres.

He dropped team-mate Ivan Noskov when it mattered and strode on to a third medal success in three years. In 2014, he won the World Cup, and before that silver at the World Championships.

Such was the nature of races overlapping each other, the men’s junior 10km and the women’s 20km took place in between.

Even so, there were tiring athletes in both races who only briefly glimpsed Ryzhov as he swept past them.

Noskov held on for second, and Marco de Luca, sporting more red tape than a government form, was a deserved third.
The Italian wears the medical strapping to relax his shoulders, but he was as calm and cool as the other 29 walkers at 8am. Soon the two Russians and the in-form De Luca decided to warm things up.

Three laps into the 50 demanded, the trio forged 200 metres between themselves and chaser Poland’s Grzegorz Sudol, who in turn was 50 metres ahead of the chasing pack.

Noskov and Ryzhof cranked up the pace to make 5km in 22:35, with De Luca seven seconds in arrears. By 10km (44:46) the leaders had upped a gear, but the Italian was still tantalisingly close.

However, by 20km, the Russians were almost a minute clear and 13km later De Luca suffered. He was forced into a pit stop on lap 21 that saw him lose a minute, but not third.

Giving chase was Ukrainian Ivan Banzeruk who notched 2:16:54 at 30k, but although more than three minutes back led a team of talents with proven success in the World Cup, and were to claim bronze in this race.

Ryzhof was first to show his hand at 43km in a bid to break the bond with his compatriot, and when he did, the medals were decided.

Banzeruk was fourth, and unsurprisingly Russia won team gold, with Italy delighted at a third silver of the morning.

Women's junior 10km

It went to form in the women’s junior 10km with the fastest this year first across the line.

Russia claimed their third victory of the day when Klavdiya Afanasyeva left her two-team mates just before the 7k mark. When you are as fair-skinned as the winner and still triumph over 30c degrees Spanish heat on a tiring Sunday afternoon, it suggests another successful product off a unceasing assembly line of champions.

Mariya Losinova was second, but when team-mate Olga Shargina was shown the red card on the last lap, the decibels revved up around the circuit.

Behind the leading pair, and they were well spread out, there was a battle royal for what was believed to be fourth.
Instead, Maria Perez quickly gleaned she and Italian Noemi Stella were chasing a medal after Shargina’s demise.

Roared on by Murcians around the course, Perez found the gear all those given fresh inspiration do, and was 11 seconds clear by the finish.

However, the leading pair made sure the Russian national anthem got a fifth airing along the Gran Via Escultor Francisco Salzillo when they took team gold to go with two previous individual and two team wins.

All three Spanish walkers carried hopes of a home win and were carried on a wave of support from the gun.

Treading on their heels were two Russians - and the third was in the leading group of 12. Three were dropped next time round, and the big shock of the day was to see Lidia Sánchez-Puebla 15 metres back of the leading seven.

The co-favourite ,as a result of a ratified second fastest time on the start list, was clearly struggling. At 5km (23:34) all three Russians forged a lead, hammered, was closer the truth. The 20-metre advantage was a consequence of a 4:28 1km loop in contrast to the next best 4:34 by second Spaniard Maria Perez.

Stella ate into Perez’s lead and passed her, only to see the tables turned when Russian fortunes took a tumble.

A long way back, Katarzyna Zdzieblo sensibly moved through the heat for fifth, and behind her Sanchez-Pueblo will live to fight another day, but this race was more than two minutes outside her best.

Perez admitted she was in good form. I felt perfect physically. I thought the other Spanish performances today were sensational, although the temperature was a like devil’s inferno, and the course was a little bit complicated because it was seemingly flat, but undulated here and there.”

Men's junior 10km

It’s been coming for a while - but Diego Garcia finally made top of the podium after a couple of near misses.

Roared on by an early morning home crowd in Murcia, the 19-year-old took the bull by the horns from the second lap and never let go.

Surprisingly, he was given a pretty easy ride, and although his face betrayed the effort, the gap to second allowed Garcia to high-five just about every cheering spectator over the last 150 metres.

Garcia won silver at the World Championships last year. Before that, it was bronze at the World Youth Championships in 2013, but this race was all but over after half way.

A blanket would have covered the first 15 on the 1km lap as they tore past 50km walkers already an hour into their race.

Garcia clearly took home cheers to heart as he forged a small gap on the second circuit that by 4km (16:23) had grown despite a slightly slower mark than the previous two. A dozen-strong group were vainly trying to stay in the Spaniard’s wake, but they were looking far more stretched than he was.

His fifth lap to reach 5km was a heart-bursting 4:01 as he revved up the pace, and only a major collapse was going to stop him.

The pack was whittled down to three after one of the Russian favourites Maksim Krasnov was disqualified at 7km, and clearly one of them was going to miss out on a medal.

It turned out to be Ukrainian Miroslav Uradnik who came off the pack with two laps to go. For a moment it looked as if it was going to be a Spanish one-two, but Frenchman Jean Blancheteau battled with head bowed to get the better of Pablo Oliva over a tough last circuit and decide the medals.

Garcia was ready and waiting to greet Oliva at the end with arms thrown around each other in celebration. Both are trained by same coach, José Antonio Quintana, and both do six sessions a week together.

The winner admitted to a touch of nerves as he went for broke.

“I was on my own during the last race in the World Championships in Oregon,” Garcia added. “I didn’t know how my body would react but this time, it did not bother me.

“I trained to win this race and we were hoping for a one, two. Bringing the gold medal home in my home country is even more important than the next competition in Sweden at the European Junior Championships.”