Both of them may not have been seen as the biggest favorites – in the men’s race the main focus was on Joe Skipper and in the women’s race on defending champion Diede Diederiks – but the Dutch Menno Koolhaas and Italian Margie Santimaria just won Challenge Geraardsbergen with a huge show of power. They did so under tough, hot conditions with temperatures soaring above 30 degrees.
It was Menno Koolhaas who indicated before the start that it was important to watch out to blow up too early in the race. “On a course like Challenge Geraardsbergen and under these hot conditions, it’s necessary to don’t go all out directly. If you push too hard on the bike, you will break down during the run,” he said a few minutes before the start. Koolhaas already came out of the water with a huge lead and saw a chasing group of six emerge about a minute behind him. Yet this group did not ride directly toward Koolhaas as the Dutchman kept up a brisk pace. In this chasing group was German Ruben Zepuntke, and after about thirty kilometers, the former cycling pro stepped up to leave the rest of the group behind him and then ride towards Koolhaas within a few kilometers. Once joined by the Dutchman, Zepuntke immediately passed him before riding solo to T2 on his own.
Meanwhile, the temperature was rising and the race conditions were getting really tough. This was evident when Zepuntke saw his margin of about two minutes built up during the bike ride disappear like snow in the sun during the run: already after three kilometers Koolhaas took back the lead in the race. At an impressive pace, the Dutchman ran unchallenged to victory: he did so in a time of 3:55:27. Ognjen Stojanovic, who was in the chasing group while biking, also experienced a good run and eventually ran to second place: 3:59:35. Skipper, the odds-on favorite, had a tough day but still managed to run to third place in a time of 4:01:21.
The main battle in the women’s race was between two top athletes: Margie Santimaria and Emma Bilham. The two of them came out of the water at nearly the same time – Santimaria indicated afterwards that she was very happy with the fact that it was a non-wetsuit swim – and then also kept biking close together for the first part of the race. Still, Santimaria was clearly the stronger cyclist and after the women had once conquered De Muur van Geraardsbergen, the first serious differences emerged between Santiamaria and Bilham. In the end, Santimaria came into T2 solo and already had a comfortable lead during the run. Meanwhile, Dutch defending champion Diederiks experienced mechanical issues, making a top ranking impossible for her.
At the same time, Santimaria still had to dig deep during the run to secure her victory, as running 21 kilometers under the hot conditions in Geraardsbergen is never comfortable. Nevertheless, the Italian held on very strongly and did not see her victory threatened: 4:32:07. Bilham also kept running at a very high pace, keeping constant pressure on Santimaria, and eventually came second in 4:34:28. Italy’s Marta Bernardi finished third in 4:39:28.
Interviews with both winners: