Temperate weather conditions and curious and enthusiastic local crowds greeted athletes racing Saturday’s inaugural Challenge Taiwan in the oceanfront city of Taitung, the Challenge Family’s first venture into the Asian market. True to Challenge form, the event provided a festive family friendly atmosphere while also showcasing a number of triathlon’s top international talents in the full distance Challenge, Challenge Half and kid’s aquathlon races.
In the men’s race, long course newcomer Dylan McNiece (NZL) proved that his start-to-finish victory at January’s Challenge Wanaka was no fluke; the 27-year-old again asserted himself early on, leading a highly competitive field by over three minutes out of the swim and never relinquished his position of dominance. McNiece’s closest rival out of the water was Todd Skipworth (AUS), an Olympic rower-turned-triathlete and also a rookie in the professional long course ranks. Skipworth leapfrogged between second and third place throughout the bike course with Georg Potrebitsch (GER), eventually reaching T2 just ahead of the German. Within a few kilometers on the run Potrebistch managed to pull ahead and maintained his position to the finish line. Skipworth would ultimately drop back to fifth, passed by both Fredrik Croneborg (SWE) and Petr Vabrousek (CZE) who crossed the line in third and fourth respectively. But while Vabrousek’s finish marked an historic 125th long course race for the Czech athlete, Croneborg’s performance was equally remarkable. The smiling Swede, who bases out of Phuket, Thailand, was a swift yet silent achiever, working his way steadily through the men’s field and capping his stellar day with a race best run split of 2:52:33. Also of note in the men’s race was Guy Crawford (NZL) who, despite a debilitating mechanical issue on the bike fought hard to hold onto sixth place.
Men’s champion McNiece was somewhat stunned by his success. “I was running and I was at the front and I thought, ‘Geez I’ve been at the front all day again today. This is just what people are going to always expect of me!’ It really is a hard way to race. It’s a good way to race because you’re always in control and it’s your own race and your own pace, but today and in Wanaka both I suffered the last 10k. I was stopping and walking, I started cramping and my stomach was a mess.”
“It’s just like after Wanaka,” continued the humble champion. “I still don’t even know that I won. It takes a long time to settle in. At the moment I’m just happy to have finished, just happy it’s done. But in the next few weeks it will settle in and be a great feeling.”
The women’s race featured an equally dominant champion, with Challenge Family ambassador Belinda Granger (AUS) claiming her 15th title in 47 career long course finishes. Fresh off of a two-week training camp in Phuket, Granger initially seemed too far in arrears to set the first women’s course record in Taitung. She exited the water 6:23 back from notably strong swimmer Hillary Biscay (USA) and 4:50 from fellow Australian Kate Bevilaqua. But the swim deficit only served to light a stronger than usual fire underneath the already powerful cyclist, and by T2 Granger’s 4:55:34 bike split propelled her to the women’s lead.
“My swim was shocking,” admitted Granger, “But sometimes that’s a blessing in disguise. It makes you kick it up a notch, where when you have a really good swim you can become complacent. So I had to chase from the start. Hats off to Hillary, she was having a storming bike and I didn’t catch her until 60k. Then she stayed with me–legally–until 90k. The only reason I got rid of her is because I knew she would stop for her special needs bag. I don’t use special needs on the bike so I took off like a maniac!”
Granger’s maniacal ride–followed by an equally strong run–was successful; she built a comfortable buffer over Biscay, posting a winning time of 9:23:15. Biscay, who boasts an even more impressive long course resume with 59 finishes to her credit, held tough on both the bike and the run, finishing in 9:37:40 for second place. Kate Bevilaqua rounded out the women’s podium, despite struggling with stomach issues throughout the bike leg.
Both winners of the Challenge Half event, which did not feature a professional division, were well-known Hong Kong based athletes. Men’s victor Michal Bucek is a personal trainer and coach, while women’s winner Kate Rutherford, proudly sporting the Hong Kong Tritons’ team colors, is a podium regular in the Asia-Pacific region.
Following the day’s events, the professional athletes weighed in on the course and overall experience of this newest addition to the Challenge Family.
“The swim was pretty straightforward, but there was a little bit of chop which maybe played into my hands,” said men’s champion McNiece. “The ride has a lot going on. You’ve got dogs, you’ve got people, you’ve got these little towns and it’s just a really cool ride. Then the run has all these different surfaces so it keeps you busy. And down here at the finish line there are tons of people so it’s great.”
“I saw the first Challenge Wanaka,” he continued, explaining his affinity for the series. “I was there training, so that’s the reason why I did that race. And the Challenge side of things always looked really cool, with Wanaka and Roth. I’ve always heard such good stories about Roth, so I’ll definitely be there this year. I’m happy to stick to the Challenge stuff. They look after you so well and have great races in great venues.”
“It was an amazing race, and what a beautiful course,” gushed women’s winner Granger at the finish in Taitung. “I absolutely loved it. It wasn’t the fastest I’ve ever run but it was the best I’ve ever felt. It just went so bloody quick because there are so many different surfaces, it can’t get boring. Running on that wood pathway by the railroad tracks feels so good on your legs. And we had perfect conditions for running–you couldn’t have asked for better weather.”
Hillary Biscay commented on her first experience racing in Taiwan:
“It was definitely an adventure. Racing in Asia always is! You have to have your wits about you and stay focused–there are scooters and dogs and things like that, but it makes it more interesting. Actually the far end of the bike course was totally tropical and so beautiful. Same thing on the run–we saw so many interesting corners of Taitung that I hadn’t seen until today. And I thought the race was exceptionally well run for a first year race.”
Biscay’s sentiments were echoed by numerous age group athletes, stopping by at the finish area to thank first time race director Michael Dhulst and his crew on the ground in Taitung for providing them a safe, highly organized and extraordinarily fun experience. But the positive feelings at the finish line festival were not only directed toward the race organization–two marriage proposals were celebrated under the Challenge Taiwan finisher’s arch.
Taitung, Taiwan – May 4, 2013
2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run
1. Dylan McNiece (NZL) 8:16:21
2. Georg Potrebitsch (GER) 8:27:06
3. Fredrik Croneborg (SWE) 8:28:28
4. Petr Vabrousek (CZE) 8:35:55
5. Todd Skipworth (AUS) 8:42:25
1. Belinda Granger (AUS) 9:23:15
2. Hillary Biscay (USA) 9:37:40
3. Kate Bevilaqua (AUS) 10:05:09
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