MANOLO FORTICH, Bukidnon – Cold weather welcomed the LBC Ronda Pilipinas delegation to this so-called 'Baguio of Mindanao, but the place has hardly doused the fire in the eyes of current overall leader Jan Paul Morales of the Philippine Navy Standard Insurance team.
Morales will try to widen his lead in the Mindanao leg of the race when the penultimate stage - a 21.7-kilometer individual time trial race - rolls off in Barangay San Miguel passing through the famed Del Monte Pineapple farm and climbing to the scenic Dalihayan Forest Park.
After his conquest of Stage 3 in Cagayan on Tuesday, the Calumpang, Marikina rider hopes to inch closer to the title in the Mindanao race now that he has accumulated a total of 39 points after the first three stages.
"Hindi ko na lang iisipin ang pressure, smooth ride na lang at solid performance hanggang maari," said Morales, who still feels the heat from teammates Lloyd Lucien Reynante, who is 10 points behind, and Ronald Oranza, who is 12 points adrift.
Under the new system experimented by Ronda officials, Morales was able to collect 18 points after finishing second to Oranza in the first two stages, additional 8 points for placing second to Reynante in the King of the Mountain honors in the opening stage before ruling stage 3, which merited another 10 points.
In ITT race, all riders will be flagged off at two-minute intervals with Morales, the red jersey donner, going last in this event organized by LBC and LBC Express, sanctioned by PhilCycling and sponsored by Manny V. Pangilinan Sports Foundation, Petron and Versa Radio-Tech 1 Corp. with Maynilad and NLEX as minor sponsors.
"Medyo technical yung ruta, may mga rough road, kaya kailangang maging handa hindi lang ako kung di pati yung gamit ko, lalo na yung gulong, prone sa flat tire yun," he said.
"Mahirap sa karera na to, sarili ko na kalaban ko. Pag napressure ako, nagkamali ako ng atake, pwedeng mabura yung lead ko. May isang stage pa sa Malaybalay (Bukidnon)," added Morales.
More than bringing the country's topnotched riders to Mindanao, the Ronda Pilipinas has also achieved its other goal: discover new and raw talents.
The Mindanao edition has become a springboard for young and previously unknown riders like LBC-MVP Sports Foundation riders Arnold Marco (6th overall) Ronnilon Quita (8th), and Mindanao riders James Paolo Ferfas (10th) and Marbel, South Cotabato teen Ranlen Maglantay (11th).
The Mindanao leg of Ronda Pilipinas will close out with a 158.32-km Stage 5 in Malaybalay, Bukidnon on Saturday, before the race moves to the Visayas Island on March 11 and in Luzon on April 3.