Mahiedine Mekhissi Benabbad (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Madrid, Spain

European champions the favourites in Madrid

Madrid’s 50th San Silvestre Vallecana, an IAAF Silver Label Road Race and arguably the most prestigious of the myriad New Year’s Eve races around the world, offers a pair of interesting battles on Wednesday night (31).

The race is held on a slightly downhill 10km point-to-point course and starts alongside Real Madrid’s famous Santiago Bernabeu stadium before finishing on the pitch of another Spanish first division club Rayo Vallecano in Madrid’s southern suburbs.

The men's contest should be a duel between France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, Kenya’s Mike Kigen and the local contingent in the guise of Roberto Alaiz, Antonio Abadia and Jesus Espana.

The 29-year-old Mekhissi-Benabbad is the European 1500m champion and has an impressive list of accolades including two Olympic silver medals in the 3000m steeplechase but the big question mark is: will he be able to perform at a high level at a distance far beyond his comfort zone, having never raced seriously on the roads nor at a distance further than 3000m?

As for Kigen, the 28-year-old Kenyan is an accomplished track runner who holds fine 5000m and 10,000m career bests of 12:58:58 and 27:03:49 respectively but he has opted for the longer distances over the past year.

Kigen broke the 60-minute barrier for the half marathon in New Delhi last month and is now fresh after a marathon personal best of 2:06:59 when finishing second in Frankfurt on 26 October.

From the Spanish triumvirate of Alaiz, Abadia and Espana, the first two were part of the national team which took the team silver medal at the European Cross Country Championships just over a fortnight ago.

Alaiz and Abadia share a number of similarities as they both were born in July 1990, they also started their top-level careers in the 3000m steeplechase – Abadia was the 2009 European junior champion – but have recently moved up to the 5000m, where they managed fifth and eighth respectively at the European Championships in the summer.

Abadia came 12th and Alaiz 15th at the European Cross Country Championship in Bulgaria, while they also crossed the finish line almost together for second and third places at the Venta de Banos cross-country race on Sunday.

Although Abadia will be making his debut in the race, it will be Alaiz’s fifth successive San Silvestre Vallecana outing, having made the podium in the past two years, with a bronze medal on both occasions.

Espana flying the flag for Spain

However, the most experienced local runner by far, in both the race and internationally, is the 36-year-old 2006 European 5000m champion Espana, who has been a regular entrant since 2001 when he finished as the runner-up.

After being hampered by injuries over the past few years, Espana ran a promising 7:45.06 3000m in Rieti in September and he will also in the hunt to be the first European, and Spanish, winner of this race since Spain’s Chema Martinez won in 2003.

The women’s event will see Great Britain’s newly-minted European cross-country champion Gemma Steel on show.

With a 31:27 career best over 10km on the roads, Steel will be looking to follow in the footsteps of her illustrious compatriot Paula Radcliffe, the only previous British women’s winner, who took the honours in 2005.

Into the bargain, Poland’s Iwona Lewandowska (eighth in Bulgaria behind Steel) and Portugal’s Carla Rocha (10th) will also be on the start line.

Yet, the stiffest opposition for the in-shape Briton well might come from Morocco’s Malika Asahssah, who lowered her 10km best to 31:42 last month in a low-key race in Madrid barely one week after placing a strong third at the opening IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting of this winter, which was also on Spanish soil in Atapuerca, near Burgos.

Watch out too for US marathon runner Desiree Linden and France's European marathon champion Christelle Daunay.

Forecasters predict a chilly night on Wednesday, with temperatures ranging about 5-7 degrees Celsius by the time the gun goes for the last IAAF Label Road Race of 2014 at 2000 local time but no rain and little wind is expected.

In addition to the elite contest, there will be a mass race with almost 40,000 entrants, almost half of which are women, taking to the streets 2.5 hours before the main event.

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF