Wang Zhen in the men's 20km at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 (© Getty Images)
When it mattered, the pedigree of Wang Zhen shone through for an emphatic 20km gold at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016.
Parts of the course in the shadow of the Colosseum were shaded, but when it came to a duel, no one was able to match the heat of a last four-kilometre sprint from the two-time world silver medallist.
Wang won this competition in 2012, and four years later his speed was such it provided the only draft for lapped race walkers caught in his wake as he made for the line.
He had bided his time through a succession of pretenders who darted ahead and were reeled in like so many fish before the big one got away.
Wang looked reasonably untroubled as he moved through the gears, and behind him Chinese teammate Cai Zelin also seized the chance to increase the revs, albeit at a distance.
His was an equally decisive drive for bronze, won by Spain’s Alvaro Martin from the fast-improving Dane Bird-Smith, who nonetheless notched a second personal best of the year – and this time by 26 seconds.
But it took a while for the race to ignite.
There is always one rabbit caught in the headlights on these occasions. In the past it used to be injured world record-holder Yusuke Suzuki; this time it turned out to be another Japanese, Takumi Saito, obviously keen to pick up a bit of frontman status.
He was joined by 2011 world bronze medallist Kim Hyunsub, who decided it was his turn to be the only one in camera shot as he went through at a modest 8:03 for 2km.
Once Kim had his five minutes in the sun, the group – or rather throng of 51 race walkers – would have been covered by the same large blanket if a spectator around the historic course had cared to throw one.
Brazil’s Moacir Zimmerman was next to show with South Africa’s Lebogang Shange treading on his heels. The 5km mark was another modest 20:21, slower by a second than the junior men in the morning.
India were looking good for a team prize with three in the first 12, even though it was a fluid dozen, while Zimmerman struck out to head the rest and was left to his own devices for a lot longer than those before him.
Even so, he was swallowed up after another two plus kilometres, and this time the group was down to a more manageable 25 by the halfway point in 40:22 that betrayed a very even pace – one well within the scope of most of the frontmen.
Canada’s world bronze medallist Ben Thorne then took over lead duties despite claiming in casual conversation before the race that he would be the man following.
But even given the warm afternoon, the tempo was modest at this level.
Cai decided this was the moment to strike and quickly opened a four-second gap close to 13km. He too perished like the lone wolves before him, although by 14km at 56:14 the medals were going to be three from nine.
Defending champion Ruslan Dmytrenko was next to ease off the back. In Taicang two years ago, it was raining and cool. This race was hot and rough but it suited Wang to a tee.
Off he went into the distance never to be headed, and for about 200 metres over the final kilometre, Martin first drew level and passed Cai, who reacted almost instantly to retake second spot.
Martin, and not world champion Miguel Angel Lopez, was the Spaniard climbing on to the third step this time, and even though he was without a medal this time, Bird-Smith looked as if his career as a serious contender had just taken off.
China were comfortable winners ahead of a strong Canadian trio headed by Thorne in fifth. The sterling work from Andres Chocho one place further back was the cement that saw Ecuador plant their collective feet on the team podium for bronze.
The winner was phlegmatic about his latest victory.
“I did not think I had the right training to win a medal,” said Wang. “We just thought this was a good chance to test our condition before the Olympics, and it gives me confidence for Rio.”
Cai was likewise none too impressed with his silver.
“I am not too satisfied because I didn’t reach my ideal performance,” he said. “I don’t have many chances against Wang, and I am still far from his level. I will learn from him.”
But Martin was delighted with an unexpected third.
“This was a good competition with great Chinese and Japanese athletes, and a very good race ahead of the Olympic Games,” he explained.
“In the last 3km, I knew it was possible to win a medal and I had to be strong, it was so good. You have to do what makes you happy and race walking makes me very happy.”
Paul Warburton for the IAAF