CALBAYOG CITY – With still 10 legs to go, no one will tell current overall leader Baler Ravina that the 2nd Ronda Pilipinas is already in the bag.
But given what lies ahead, the 33-year-old native of Asingan, Pangasinan should certainly like his chances.
After sweeping into the lead last Saturday following his blistering victory in the rigorous 227-kilometer Tagum-to-Butuan stretch, the mountain-climbing expert was able to fend off his foes in retaining the coveted LBC red jersey for three more legs.
With cooperative and strong support by his teammates and a lot of plucky riding, Ravina is pursuing his second straight major triumph barely a month after topping the Le Tour de Filipinas and the whopping P1-million pot in the event backed by LBC, the country’s leading courier and cargo services firm.
Two days after Ravina wrested the overall lead from One Tarlac’s Tomas Martinez, sprinter Ericson Obosa took his turn at the podium for Roadbike Phils by placing second behind Navy-Standard Insurance’s Jan Paul Morales in the short Stage 4, a 117-km. dash from Butuan to Surigao City.
Ravina and skipper Mark Galedo, a Southeast Asian Games double silver medalist, then connived with Obosa in the next stop – a 146.6-km. winding and rolling stretch from Ormoc City to the Leyte provincial capital of Tacloban, hometown of former First Lady Imelda Marcos.
After the trio carried the main pack, Obosa caught up with the early frontrunners, finishing third behind American Vinyl-LPGMA’s Rudy Roque and Ronnel Hualda, who took first and second in the stage in the bunched finish.
On Wednesday during the 170-km. drive to Calbayog, Samar, passing through the famed 2.16-km. San Juanico Bridge that connected the provinces of Leyte and Samar, Ravina had to be quick on his feet after Roadbike skipper Galedo, who was riding in tandem with him for the first 50 kilometers, suffered a flat tire.
Initiating a 15-man breakaway at the 40.1-km. King-of-the-Mountain portion, the wily cyclist managed to persuade his fellow frontrunners not to yield, doing the dirty work of anchoring the lead pack for the next 120 kilometers before leveling off in the last 10.
Ravina subsequently conceded stage honors to One Tarlac veteran Sherwin Diamsay, who was part of lead batch and beat Mindanao’s Jay Tolentino in a photo finish, with Obosa securing third spot.
But he managed to keep his overall lead while preventing Roadbike Phils. from dipping from its current place of third since that pivotal run in Stage 3.
On the other hand, V-Mobile’s Oscar Rendole, who had stalked Ravina for three straight days in second place, slipped to third overall after suffering cramps with 15 kilometers to go and was unable to keep pace.
Another Tarlac bet, Joseph Millanes, vaulted from fifth to second after the stage that ended in the Samar’s main commercial and industrial hub, a port where most of the province’s copra produce is shipped out.
Only 59 seconds separate Millanes and Ravina, who had logged 24:53.59 with still 10 stages to go, foiling the imminent threat of Rendole, another feared uphill expert, compared to the new runner-up, who is more at home on the flats.
“Since hawak ko na ang overall, pangatawanan ko na,” said a determined Ravina.
And with two back-to-back difficult uphill legs in Stage 8 and 9, he is poised to pull away from the rest of the remaining 86 riders unless the rest of the big guns, defending champion Santy Barnachea of Navy-Standard Insurance included, make their move.
Barnachea was No. 13 overall (24:59.26) and trailed the Roadbike Phils. bet by five minutes and 27 seconds.
But at 36, the Umingan, Pangasinan native is no longer young and whether he can keep up with the in-shape Ravina remains to be seen.
The Ronda entourage left here early Thursday to Port Allen in Northern Samar where they will take a ferry to Matnog, Camarines Norte and drive 70 kilometers to Legazpi City where they will stay overnight.
Both riders can afford to coast when the bikefest resumes on Friday with the seventh stage, an easy-going flat 115-km. run from Legazpi City, where the world-famous Mayon Volcano is located, to Naga City in neighboring Camarines Sur.
The going gets rougher on Saturday when the cyclists tackle Stage 8, a daunting 209.2-km. race from Daet to Lucena City, Quezon, highlighted by the dreaded “Tatlong M,” a Category 2 climb of 250 meters inside the Atimonan National Park.
Although shorter at 155 kms, Stage 9 from the Quezon provincial to Antipolo City, Rizal on Sunday is no less challenging since it sports another major hurdle at the 117.9-km. point: a winding and a narrow one-kilometer climb – also a Category 2 – in the town of Teresa.
Race director Rick Rodriguez noted that these two stages with their tricky and accident-prone climbs will tax the riders to the limit “and obviously those with climbing artists in their squad hold the advantage.”
You can bet that is what Ravina is counting on.
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