Top riders launch make-or-break bids
BAYOMBONG, Nueva Ecija, Philippines – They either ride triumphantly or fade in the dreaded mountain passes as Ronda Pilipinas reaches its most trying stages after two weeks of hard grind all over the country.
Pacesetters PLDT-Spyder's Ronald Oranza, Navy-Standard’s Santy Barnachea and LPGMA-American Vinyl's Irish Valenzuela launch their bids, hoping to gain crucial ground in the 133.5km Stage 14 to be flagged off from this warm provincial capital and will journey through the cold mountains of Benguet via Kayapa town.
It's a tough race passing through Mount Pulag – the highest peak in Luzon and third highest in the country – and Ambuclao Dam, the stage that usually determines the tour champ.
It could be Oranza or Barnachea or Valenzuela, the top three riders going to Stage 14 of the 21-day, 16-stage and 2,200-km P7.5 million race which award the winner P1 million and the team winner another P1 million.
Oranza, a 20-year-old proud son of Villasis, Pangasinan, leads the pack with an aggregate clocking of 47 hours, 20 minutes, 14 seconds in this event bankrolled by LBC Express, Inc., the country's leading courier firm, and sanctioned by PhilCycling.
Barnachea, a seasoned rider feared for his bold forays, is only three seconds behind with a time of 47:20.17 while Valenzuela, a 25-year-old Tabaco, Albay native, is at third only 33 ticks adrift at 47:20.47.
The 25-year-old Valenzuela is the prohibitive favorite, being a known mountain-climber who emerged champ in the LPGMA Manila-Baguio race five years ago and the King of the Mountain winner in Ronda’s first two editions. He also paces the current KOM race with 36 points, a whopping 18 ahead of Junrey Navarra of Mindanao-Cycleline Butuan.
"Yes, I heard a lot about him and we'll see tomorrow (today)," said Valenzuela. "One thing I can promise is that I will give everything I've got tomorrow in the last two stages."
Oranza and Barnachea made the same vow.
"I pour everything tomorrow (today)," said Oranza, who also leads the MVP Sports Foundation, Inc. Young Rider race.
"The race starts tomorrow (today)," said Barnachea, the Tour champ in 2002 and 2006 and the inaugural Ronda winner in 2011.
Oranza, Barnachea and Valenzuela have taken turns wearing the LBC red jersey with Oranza grabbing it from Valenzuela in the Vigan-Laoag Stage 10.
Roadbike Ph's Ericson Obosa wore it first after topping the Zamboanga-Ipil opening stage but he has withdrawn from the race following a death in the family.
No lead could be safe in the mountain passes of Sierra Madre and Cordillera particularly this Bayombong-Baguio route, the backdoor to the City of Pines.
Stage 14 offers four ascents.
It will pass through the Sierra Madre and Cordillera mountains including Mt. Pulag, the country's third highest peak at 2,922 meters above sea level, and the Ambuclao Dam before ending up in Burnham Park.
Valenzuela had first-hand experience of the dangers lurking in the route, having injured his left shoulder in training here last December.
"It's really dangerous there if you're not familiar with it. In fact I injured my left shoulder there while I was training last month," said Valenzuela. "I'm thankful that my injury healed fast and got to participate here."
Also expected to make a run for top prizes is Roadbike Ph's Ronald Gorantes, from Victorias, Negros Occidental, who still has a realistic chance of snatching the crown away from the favorites as he is just 1.11 minutes off the pace at 47:21.25.
And so do PLDT-Spyder's rookie rider El Joshua Carino and LPGMA-American Vinyl's Cris Joven, who are just over five minutes behind at 47:25.36 and 47:25.41, respectively.
The 19-year-old Carino, in particular, should be a rider to watch having pulled the rug from under his older, fancied foes by snaring the Lapu Lapu-Busay Stage Five triumph – the second most challenging lap in the Ronda.
"I'll just try to do my best again," said Carino.
Standard's Oconer (47:33.44), VMobile-Smart's Joel Calderon (47:34.05), Roadbike Ph's Mark Galedo (47:34.45) and Team Tarlac's Merculio Ramos (47:36.37) round up the top 10 in this race backed by Total, the MVP Sports Foundation, Jinbei Auto, Smart, Icom iDAS, Standard Insurance, Maynilad, SunStar and NLEX.