APARRI, Cagayan, Philippines – Ronald Oranza, the new, surprise package from a province of cycling champions, regained lost ground in the final stretch of a fast-paced race against time on the highways of Cagayan and retained the overall lead with the slimmest of margins over new title contender Santy Barnachea heading to the last five stages of the 16-stage, 21-day Ronda Pilipinas yesterday.
The 20-year-old Oranza, from Villasis Pangasinan, lost and later regained the overall lead after parrying go-for-broke attempts of Barnachea while towing his young PLDT-Spyder team back to the helm in the rain-drenched 171.4-km stage that was flagged off in scenic Pagudpud, rambled through a long stretch of highways in Northern Luzon and glided into this clean, quiet town near the northern edge of the Philippine map.
Oranza finished with the peloton that checked in 50 seconds off eventual lap winner Ronnel Hualda of Roadbike PH.. He retained the LBC red jersey with an 11-second margin over Barnachea, who provided the biggest threat to Oranza's front-running position as the former second-ranked Irish Valenzuela got stranded with a slower group and finished third overall.
Oranza clocked 40 hours, 18 minutes, 31 seconds after 11 stages of the P7.5 million race which will award the champion a princely sum of P1 million and the team winner another P1M, all tax-free, in the country's biggest, richest race on wheels.
The Pangasinan pride said the overall lead became the least of his worries when Barnachea and Valenzuela were breathing down his neck.
"I was ready to relinquish it because our main concern is the team race," said Oranza, who wrested the lead from Valenzuela of LPGMA-American Vinyl during the Vigan-Laoag Stage 10 team time trial a day earlier.
"I was surprised and a little relieved that somehow I managed to keep the red jersey," added Oranza, who also leads the Jinbei sprint and MVP Foundation, Inc. Young Rider categories.
True to plan, PLDT-Spyder leapt back to the top as it overtook former leader Navy-Standard with a total time of 117:42.48, barely 37 seconds ahead of the latter's 117:43.24. Roadbike PH was at third in 117:48.16.
"We were ready to give up the red jersey for now because we were more concerned and worried about the team race and our energy going into the key stages," said PLDT-Spyder's American Chris Allison, who also mentors the same LBC Express, Inc.-backed under-23 side that trained and competed internationally and locally the last six months.
Barnachea, one of the oldest participants but also one of the most intelligent riders here at 36 years old, appeared to have seized the lead after towing and organizing the lead pack that broke away way back in Claveria, the province’s first town, and leading by almost two minutes ahead of the chasing pack that Oranza was bunched with.
But the Uminggan, Pangasinan native, who won the Tour twice in 2002 and 2006 and later crowned himself inaugural millionaire champion of Ronda's first staging two years ago, fizzled in the final stretch as he finished solo fifth in 4:07.16 and allowed Oranza and the rest to cut their deficit and catch up.
"I just lost it in the end, I was really hoping to eat away some significant time but they just caught up on us and closed the gap," said Barnachea, who once held the leader's jersey for a few days in the Mindanao and Visayan phase.
Barnachea, however, succeeded in moving from No. 3 to No. 2 and inching closer to Oranza as he now has a time of 40:18.42, only 11 seconds off the pace in this event bankrolled by LBC Express, Inc.
The Navyman, however, thinks LPGMA-American Vinyl’s Irish Valenzuela, who was at No. 3 overall in 40:19.25, may still end up the Ronda champion after the smoke of battle in the 2,200-km event clears.
"He will win it because he is really a strong climber," said Barnachea, referring to Valenzuela, the 2008 LPGMA Manila-Baguio race champion who is seeking a King of the Mountain grand slam after emerging as the back-to-back KOM winner of the Ronda.
Rounding up the top 10 were Roadbike's Ronald Gorantes (40:19.58), PLDT-Spyder's El Joshua Carino (40:24.09), Joven (40:24.22), Roadbike's Mark Galedo (40:32.07), VMobile-Smart's Joel Calderon (40:32.43), Team Tarlac's Tomas Martinez (40:33.08) and Navy-Standard’s George Oconer (40:33.26).
Grabbing some of the limelight was the 30-year-old Hualda, who relied on the energy bar given to him by his wife and Roadbike Phl coach Ednalyn in the final stretch to pull off the exciting win.
Hualda, born in Manila but now based in Riverside, California, bested Navy-Standard's Jan Paul Morales, LPGMA-American Vinyl's Cris Joven and Team Tarlac's Joseph Millanes, respectively, in a mad dash to the finish to rule Stage 11 with identical clockings of 4:07.12.
"The energy bar was crucial, it gave me strength in the end,
said Hualda, who nailed his second lap triumph in the Ronda following his victory in the Manila criterium of the first Ronda staging in 2010.
For Morales, his recent podium finish was an advanced birthday gift for him since he’ll be turning 27 tomorrow.
"It's a nice way to celebrate a birthday," said Morales, a Calumpang, Marikina native and a Navyman second class who snared two laps--Surigao and Naga--in last year's Ronda.
For Joven, who had two second place efforts in Zamboanga City and Subic Bay, it was another day at the office.
"It's my third podium finish but I haven't won a lap, I hope I could eventually get one soon," said Joven, a 26-year-old, Iriga City, Albay boy who was discovered by LPGMA's Arnel Ty's "“Barrio from the Athletes" program.