BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – Irish Valenzuela conquered the heights of Marcos Highway and the sturdiest men of the tour in a race against time, romping off yesterday with an overall lead of over two minutes that all but decided the champion of the 2013 Ronda Pilipinas and winner of the princely sum of P1 million.
Valenzuela of the LPGMA-American Vinyl team summoned his guts and all the strength his 25-year-old legs could carry him to assume the overall lead, giving little chance for new runner-up Rolando Gorantes and dislodged overall leader Ronald Oranza to snatch victory from the jaws of fate going into today’s 67.2 km criterium, traditionally a victory ride for the would-be champion.
The Tabaco, Albay native topped the penultimate Stage 15, a 34-km individual time trial from Pugo, La Union to the top of the summer capital to move just 67.2 kms away from completing the climb to the biggest triumph of his life.
His clocking of one hour, 23 minutes, 18 seconds gave him a commanding overall lead of two minutes, 24 seconds over Gorantes and 2:42 over Oranza, still hurting from a crash a day before.
“I guess I’m starting to reap the fruits of my hard labor and for enduring all those heartbreaks in the past years,” said Valenzuela, who had an aggregate clocking of 53:34.34.
When Valenzuela checked in at the finish line, he just bowed his head and went straight to his team tent and hugged teammate Cris Joven and later his coach, former two-time Tour champion Renato Dolosa with all of them shedding tears of joy.
Valenzuela’s father Kiko and mother Francia came next and took their turn to hug their son and cried once more.
Minutes later, Valenzuela, now regaining the LBC red jersey he held for five stages starting in the Lapu Lapu-Busay Stage Five before relinquishing it to the 20-year-old Oranza in the Vigan-Laoag Stage 10, then smiled to the crowd, knowing luck has finally smiled on him.
Now destiny beckons for Valenzuela.
“I’ve waited this long for this moment and I will do anything not to lose this golden chance again,” said Valenzuela, who started campaigning professionally seven years ago when he bagged best young rider of the Tour honors as a promising 18-year-old.
Barring any major accident or untoward incident, today’s final stage should be a smooth ride for the survivors of the 21-day, 16-stage, 2,181.7 km journey of Mindanao, Visayas and Luzon as it will go around this bustling city 25 times starting and ending at Lakeshore Drive in Burnham Park.
“I’ll still need to defend and ride smart and not be complacent for me to finally win,” said Valenzuela.
Valenzuela, who caught eight riders on his way to his first lap victory since topping the Lucena-Antipolo stage last year, also got some help from Joven, who took his position right behind him, ready to provide help just in case adverse things happened.
“I knew he needed me so I just stayed the distance allowed in the ITT and ready to help him just in case anything bad occurred, I have sacrificed myself because I want him to win,” said the 25-year-old Joven.
It’s also a proud moment for the Bicolanos as Valenzuela, who hails from Tabaco, Albay, became the first from the province to rule the Ronda or any race of this magnitude since his coach Dolosa, who is from Sorsogon, won the fabled Marlboro Tour twice – in 1992 and 1995.
“I’m proud for him (Valenzuela) because I’m also a Bicolano,” said Joven, who is a proud son of Iriga City.
Valenzuela’s triumph also buried the spectre of his campaign last year when he came 33 seconds short of snatching the win from Mark Galedo of Roadbike Phl.
Interestingly, Valenzuela also came into yesterday’s lap 33 seconds off the pace.
“I was challenging him yesterday (Wednesday) if he will again allow this one to slip by, just like last year when he was also 33 seconds away from winning. I’m glad he responded to the challenge,” said Dolosa.
Sharing the spotlight with Valenzuela was Roadbike Phl, which snatched the overall team lead from PLDT-Spyder and Navy-Standard, thanks to top 10 efforts by Galedo, Gorantes and Baler Ravina.
Galedo, who failed to defend his title after a slow, accident-prone start, checked in exactly one minute behind Valenzuela in 1:24.18 while Gorantes and Ravina, a former three-time KOM winner who finished third the day before, followed suit at third and 10th in 1:24.48 and 1:27.41, respectively.
Their efforts sent Roadbike Phl flying to the top with a total time of 157:39.00 surpassing Navy-Standard (157:42.07) and former leader PLDT-Spyder (157:43.04).
Other teams in the top 10 of the team race were LPGMA (158:17.27), VMobile-Smart (158:22.32), Mindanao-Cycleline Butuan (158:35.00), Y101FM-Cebu (158:43.52), Team Tarlac (158:58.28), Hundred Islands-Pangasinan (159:52.41) and Team Enrile (160:07.56).
“We just kept on believing in ourselves and never lost faith,” said Roadbike Phl team manager Bong Sual.
Gorantes’ solid effort also sent him leaping from No. 4 to No. 2 in 53:36.58, while Oranza slid from the top to No. 3 in 53:37.16 – no thanks to lack of ITT experience and injury that slowed him down.
Navy’s Santy Barnachea, the 36-year-old 2002 and 2006 Tour king and Ronda’s inaugural winner two years ago who was just three seconds behind Oranza going into yesterday’s race, fell from No. 2 to No. 4 in 53:39.24.
Worse, Barnachea was slapped a one-minute deduction from his total time “for not respecting the distance rule in the ITT,” according to race officials of this PhilCycling-sanctioned event.
Gorantes was also slapped the same penalty while PLDT-Spyder’s El Joshua Carino lost 10 seconds for almost the same infraction.
Carino (53:42.33), Galedo (53:49.36), Mindanao-Cycleline Butuan’s Junrey Navarra (53:53.16), VMobile-Smart’s Joel Calderon (53:56.44), Joven (53:56.03) and Navy’s George Oconer (53:59.41) rounded up the top 10.
Valenzuela’s recent feat came a day after he got a scolding from Dolosa, who thought the former wasn’t following orders only to realize that his hurting left shoulder, which was injured during training last December, acted up.
“I promised to coach and my teammates that I will give it all to win this stage and I’m glad I didn’t disappoint them,” said Valenzuela, who thanked his LPGMA boss Arnel Ty for supporting the team.
Valenzuela lost his chance to become the second rider to win the King of the Mountain race for three straight years after losing out to unheralded cyclist Junrey Navarra, a General Santos City native who surprised everybody including himself by reigning supreme in the “killer” Bayombong-Baguio Stage 14.
That’s just one battle lost if he wins the war.