Ronda starts Luzon swing

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EL JOSHUA Carino blows a kiss at the Stage 5 finish line.

MALOLOS, Bulacan—After seizing the red jersey in the Visayas, Irish Valenzuela of LPGMA-American Vinyl expressed confidence of holding on to the overall lead of the Ronda Pilipinas  until the bikathon  hits the toughest climbs ahead.

With a lead of one minute and 36 seconds over El Joshua Carino of PLDT/Spyder, Valenzuela, last year’s runner-up, is expected to remain on top after today’s Stage 6 ending in Tarlac City which kicks off the Luzon swing of the 16-leg race.

The 128.3-km stage from the capital of Bulacan province is mostly flat, marked by a pair of intermediate sprints that favors cyclists with the hunger for speed.

“I just have to mark my main rivals on the road and pray that no accident happens on the trip,” said Valenzuela in Filipino. He missed winning cycling’s biggest prize in 2012 after losing to Mark Galedo by 33 seconds.

Aside from Carino,  Valenzuela will be keeping a close watch on  Ronald Oranza of PLDT, who is running  third, 1:58 behind, Joel Calderon of Smart (3:29), LPGMA teammate Cris Joven (4:40) and Road Bike’s Ronald Gorantes (4:51).

Three-time champion Santy Barnachea, who relinquished the overall lead to Valenzuela after holding it for three straight legs, is seventh (5:07) followed by  Cebu’s Marvin Tapic (8:30), Tarlac’s Merculio Ramos  (9:35) and Marcelo Felipe of Smart (9:38).

It’s no secret that LPGMA-American Vinyl, the cycling club co-owned by LPGMA representative Arnel Ty and Eric Sy, has been eyeing the individual crown this year after capturing the team championship in 2011 and placing second  last year.

“We focused on the team the past two years and had our share of success. We’re now after the individual prize, which we haven’t won before,” said LPGMA-American Vinyl coach Rene Dolosa, a two-time Tour champion.

Valenzuela, Ronda’s reigning King of the Mountain the past two years, also has to watch out for Galedo, who moved up to 13th, 12:36 back, as well as Philippine Navy’s Lloyd Reynante, last year’s third placer,  who is 15th overall, 12:47 off the lead.

The 25-year-old Valenzuela from Tabaco City in Albay faces a bigger challenge in Stage 7, a 180.5-km trip from Tarlac to Subic featuring two mid-level climbs going to the finish. If he survives that lap, Valenzuela could keep the overall in the succeeding stages across Pangasinan, Ilocos and Cagayan.

The biggest obstacles for the riders will come in Benguet, where three mountain stages await them.

The 90 surviving riders rested their weary legs yesterday on a  ferry boat from Cebu to Manila before going to Malolos, the kickoff stage of the deciding phase in Luzon.

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