BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya—Crowned King of the Mountain the past two years, nothing would please Irish Valenzuela more than to continue his reign.
The climber with the legs of steel from LPGMA-American Vinyl will be a marked man on his domain as the Ronda Pilipinas hits the homestretch of a 16-leg Tour with the first of three critical mountain stages in the Cordilleras.
From this quiet town near the foot of the Sierra Madre, the 81 surviving cyclists will have to endure a chain of torturous high-grade climbs and scary downhill rides in today’s 133.5-kilometer Stage 14 to Baguio City.
“We’ve all been waiting for this stage,” said Valenzuela, also last year’s overall runner-up. “I hope to be in good shape (today) and keep up with the other climbers. I want to win the KOM again.”
But overall leader Ronald Oranza of PLDT/Spyder, Santy Barnachea of Philippine Navy, Ronald Gorantes of Road Bike Philippines and the rest of the top contenders, including defending champion Mark Galedo are standing in the way.
Oranza is only three seconds ahead of the three-time champion Barnachea and 33 seconds in front of Valenzuela, the pre-race favorite along with Galedo.
Gorantes is fourth, 1:11 back, followed by PLDT’s El Joshua Cariño (5:22 behind), LPGMA’s Cris Joven (5:27), Navy’s George Oconer (13:30), Joel Calderon of V-Mobile (13:51), Road Bike’s Galedo (14:31) and Tarlac’s Merculio Ramos (16:23).
“Today’s rest really helped a lot. I will be ready (today),” said the 20-year-old Oranza, who will be wearing the red jersey for the fourth straight stage.
Though Valenzuela is arguably the strongest climber in the field, the 25-year-old from Tabaco, Albay, doesn’t have a formidable support group like Oranza and Barnachea.
Oranza’s PLDT/Spyder lays second in the overall team classification, just 11 seconds behind the Philippine Navy of Barnachea, who counts mountain specialists Lloyd Reynante, George Oconer, Reinhard Gorantes and Eusebio Quinones as teammates.
“I have nobody to lean on, so I guess I have to work hard on my own,” Valenzuela conceded.
Oranza, Barnachea and Gorantes forged an alliance in Monday’s Stage 13 from Tuguegarao City to Solano to prevent Valenzuela, who pulled off a bold breakaway, from seizing the red jersey.
Today’s punishing trek along the Nueva Vizcaya-Benguet Highway that cuts through the Sierra Madre and Cordillera mountain ranges features four huge KOM summits with the final super-steep ascent waiting for the riders 9 km from the finish at Burnham Park.