LINGAYEN – Riders still in the running will literally have to pass through the imposing Lingayen-to-Baguio City Stage 12 to decide their fate in the 2nd Ronda Pilipinas, according to race director Rick Rodriguez.
Given its past reputation of making or breaking even the hardiest of riders, the daunting 96.7-kilometer uphill trek to the country’s summer capital in the P7.5-million cycling showcase is the most challenging of all for the 75 cyclists remaining, Rodriguez said Wednesday, a rest day, on the eve of the crucial leg.
“Definitely, whoever among the top 10 overall riders, most of them mountain climbers, will win this stage has the biggest chance of winning the Ronda Pilipinas,” he noted.
Unlike in the past where most of the previous climbs passed through Kennon Road, the peloton will travel along the more difficult Marcos highway, now renamed the Aspiras highway, with one 124-meter Category 4 ascent at 43-km. mark near the Damortis junction along McArthur highway.
And at the point where majority of the cyclists are likely running short of breath comes the 1,144-meter “Hors” Category climb – the most difficult of all categories – within Green Valley in Tuba, Benguet, merely five kilometers from the finish line at Lake Drive in Burnham Park.
The uphill specialists, Rodriguez said, have the decided edge in this stage as they pursue the both invididual and team championships, each worth a whopping P1 million, in the bikefest presented by LBC and supported by Total, MVP Sports Foundation, Rudy Project, IcomIdas, DHL and Maynilad.
“Most likely, it the Ronda Pilipinas champion will be from these 10 riders.”
These star-studded list of uphill specialists are led by Roadbike Phils. Mark Galedo, who has worn the LBC red jersey, symbol of overall leadership, for the past three stops since placing second behind American Vinyl-LPGA skipper Irish Valenzuela in the uphill run to Antipolo last Sunday.
With a total time of 42:25.50, the 26-year-old Southeast Asian Games silver medallist will have his work cut out for him, considering that he has precarious 16-second lead over second running Harvey Sicam, nephew of the late 1981-82 Marlboro Tour champion Jacinto Sicam.
While Sicam has kept a very low profile, the Eastern Pangasinan rider has surprisingly managed to retain his spot for the past three stops and looms as a darkhorse in the backbreaking grind to Baguio City, famous for its sweet strawberries.
“Kilala ko ang laro ni Harvey, may-ahon rin siya, pareho kaming mga rookie niyan ni Irish noong 2006,” said Galedo, referring to the Padyok Pinoy Pilipinas won that year by Santy Barnechea.
V-Mobile’s Oscar Rindole, who rose back to third place after being No. 5 in the previous leg, is ranked among the best all-rounders out of Nueva Ecija and is at home in uphill legs.
In fourth is Navy-Standard Insurance’s Lloyd Lucien Reynante, son of the fabled two-time Tour champion Manuel “Mawi” Reynante, considered one of the craftiest riders and mountain-climber extraordinaire of this competition.
AMV-LPGMA Cris Joven, who also leads the sprint standings, and Valenzuela occupy fifth and sixth places while another V-Mobile bet, Rey Martin, is in seventh spot, followed by Barnechea, One Tarlac’s Joseph Millanes and RBP’s Baler Ravina rounding up the Magic 10.
Asked if his 36-year-old legs would be able to keep pace with the younger mountain-climbers, Barnechea played it coy, saying: “Baka hindi na ako makasababay sa mga bata. Ngayon, kung apat o limang taon noon lalaban ako ng sabayan sa kanila.”
But this is the same thing that Barnechea virtually said last year before wresting the overall lead from Joel Calderon in the seventh stage to Baguio on the way to clinching the inaugural edition of the event, his third major cycling plum following victories in the 2002 and 2006 Padyak Pinoy.
He described his slow but sure rise in the overall standings “like that of an ampalaya vine, which slowly creeps up on you unnoticed until it reaches the top.”
In fact, veteran sportscaster Rick Yap Santos, who has been covering major bike races for over two decades, counts the Barnechea among those who could win it all following Thursday’s leg “because he is not only strong climber, magulang din.”
Ravina, who held the overall lead from Stage 3 until dropping out with a lacklustre showing in the eight stage from Daet to Naga City, said he was content to be the “domestique” of his skipper Galedo.
“Baka tulungan at protektahan ko na lang si Macmac (Galedo’s nickname) at pilit hilahin ang aming team sa overall rin,” the 33-year-old Asingan, Pangasinan native said.
But since Ravina is only 4:22 behind his teammate and is no slacker when it comes to ascending stages as he showed in winning last month’s Le Tour de Pilipinas, Roadbike Phils. team manager Bong Sual said he won’t deprive his charge the chance to top tomorrow’s stage.
“Nakita na nating ang galing ni Baler sa ahunan at sisikapin namin na yong dalawa ang makaangat, hindi lang sa individual pati na rin sa team,” Sual said. “Palitan si Baler at Macmac ng bikes kung sakaling ma-flatan ang isa.”
With their squad reduced to four riders, he added that Bryan Sepnio will take over as the “domestique” instead of Ravina.
AMV-LPGMA coach Renato Dolosa explained that what the frontrunners cannot afford to do is stalk each other and allow those behind to sneak up on them, just like what Barnechea did last year to Calderon.
“Pag nagbantayan yong mga nasa harapan at nakalingat sila, yong mga nasa likod ay maunahan sila katulad ng ginawa ni Santy noong isang taon,” Dolosa said, explaining that the four to five-minute difference among the riders at the top could easily be wiped out in this stage.
Just as keen is the battle in the team competition with frontrunning Metro Manila (1:26.17.29) nursing a 24-second lead over One Tarlac (126.17.53), while dangerous Navy-Standard Insurance lurks just 1:28 in thir place (1:26.18.57).
Young Inquirer scribe June Navarro, who grew up behind the Amoranto Stadium in Quezon and has covered just about every big bike competition since 2000, pointed out that if the frontrunners wind up close in tomorrow’s leg “it will be the individual time trial that could decide the winner.”
“The time trial experts like Barnechea and Ravina should be favorites to win if the contest is still close,” said Navarro of the penultimate stage, a 27.4-km. race-against-the-clock from Tuba, Benguet to Baguio City on Friday.
For more 2012 LBC Ronda Pilipinas highlights videos and pictures, go to the websitewww.rondapilipinas.com, Facebook at www.facebook.com/RondaPilipinas, the Ronda Pilipinas Channel on Youtube and Twitter @rondapilipinas.
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