GREAT Britain international Stewy Bell, a stalwart of North-East road races, has decided to face a stiffer cross country challenge instead of defending his title in tomorrow's tough Derwentside 10.

Last year Bell, recovering from a back injury which had plagued him since competing in the 2000 Flora London Marathon, underlined his progress by romping home in his local road race, regarded as one of the most gruelling in the UK.

His victory - in 55 mins 50 secs - on a new, two-lap course at Derwentside set him up nicely for the following weekend's opening Reebok Cross Challenge at Falkirk, where he was the first North-East man home in 17th position.

This time, however, the dates clash and the 36-year-old Chester-le-Street AC runner, has opted to travel to Scotland.

Also competing in Falkirk will be Ryan McLeod, the 19-year-old son of former Olympic Games 10,000m silver medallist Mike McLeod.

McLeod, who has competed at international level for Great Britain, demonstrated his preference for cross country competition last year when he finished third and led the North-East to junior team gold medals in the Inter Counties Championships at Nottingham.

The top women competitor in today's Reebok event is expected to be Chester-le-Street's former BUSA 10,000 champion Alyson Dixon, who runs in the senior women's race.

The absence of Bell, winner of his club's 10K road race in March and runner-up to Tynedale's Andy Caine in last month's Tynedale 10, throws tomorrow's race wide open and, with late entries being accepted, competition on the testing double circuit will be fierce.

Last year's women's winner was 21-year-old Tracy Brown, whose mother, veteran Sue Laws, won the event for a third time in 2002. The race starts at 9.45am.

* Internationals Rob Birchall, Chris Davies and Billy Farquharson head the line-up when the first race in the Reebok Challenge gets under way today.

The English trio head a strong contingent for the opening event in Falkirk's Callendar Park.

Scots Collette Fagan, Freya Murray and Susan Partridge are expected to dominate the women's event.