Italy’s Yemaneberhan Crippa produced a brilliantly successful defence of his junior crown at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in “the best race” of his career as the host nation celebrated gold at the same time.
After winning by 15 seconds in Samokov 12 months ago, Crippa, 19, triumphed by six seconds this time from France’s Fabien Palcau, whose performance led his nation to glory here at home in the team event.
France had three runners in the first seven in a race that had looked like it might be close after the opening stages before Crippa left the rest battling for the silver and bronze medals.
He is quite a character, with his spikey hair that stands out from the rest, but as the race began he could not be seen in the field where Switzerland’s Julien Wanders was the early leader.
Crippa had made a slow start before then moving into the top 20 as the race was made up of three long loops after the initial opening.
Wanders was in front at the end of the start loop in 3:03 and by the end of the second loop, Great Britain’s Alexander Yee was ahead.
But all the time Crippa was just easing his way into the race and it was not long before he broke away.
He explained afterwards that it was his plan to stay with the group, yet had to go.
"It was not easy today. The course was very tough but it was very nice as well," said Crippa. "With my coach Stefano Baldini, we decided to stay with the lead pack: I was tired of waiting, so I tried to relax and accelerate. This is the best race of my career."
Often when you are out in front for so long you can become wary but Crippa rarely lost his rhythm when it mattered and his pace stayed strong. It was important it did because he could not maintain that level of a lead, which was 11 seconds at one time, and the pack were gradually moving nearer.
Behind him there was quite a race for second and third with Palcau impressing along with Crippa’s teammate Said Ettaqy, who had finished third in 2014 as Italy also won team gold.
Palcau then sensed the chance of tracking Crippa down but the Italian had too much of a gap as the finish came into sight, waving his left hand and then his right as he reached the final 50m before crossing the line in 17:39 from Palcau (17:45), just beating the fast-finishing Spaniard El Madhi Lahoufi (17:46).
"Running in France, in front of this crowd, is really fun," said Palcau, who had great support from his fellow Frenchman as Jimmy Gressier was fourth (17:48), Mohamed-Amine El Bouajaji (17:52) was seventh and Maxime Hueber Moosbrugger (18:06) was 14th.
And how the whole squad sang their hearts out to La Marseillaise at the medal ceremony. It was one of the best moments of the whole championships.
They combined to win with 27 to take the team title from Italy by just two points as Great Britain took bronze with 67.