YOUNG Ronald Oranza may have the overall leadership at the moment, but veteran riders and former tour champions believe this year’s Ronda Pilipinas title is Irish Valenzuela's for the taking.
Oranza is expected to be under siege when the annual odyssey on wheels goes to Baguio City, where the 20-year-old PLDT spearhead's will and suspect climbing skills will be put to a severe test on mountainous terrains where Valenzuela had been peerless the past few years.
Two-time tour champion Santy Barnachea, himself deep in the running for the individual title with just a 12-second gap separating him from Oranza, is looking at Valenzuela to make his move in the mountain-climbing stages that should separate the men from the boys.
“Manipis yung lamang ni Oranza na yun," said Barnachea, pointing to the 55-second lead the PLDT rider had over the third-running Valenzuela going into Sunday's relatively flat Stage 12 from Aparri to Tuguegarao.
Barnachea has in fact played down his own chances, conceding that Valenzuela has the clear edge in the critical mountain stages in Solano and Ambuklao leading to the country's summer capital.
“Puro makukunat ang daan dun. Mas pabor kay Irish yun," said Barnachea, who is not an impressive mountain climber.
Reigning Le Tour Filipinas champion Baler Ravina has also conceded the individual championship to Valenzuela, a perennial King of the Mountain who also excels in time trials.
“Lahat ng next stage, wag lang magka-aberya, pabor na kay Irish yun,” stressed Ravina.
The 204-kilometer Tuguegarao to Solano, Nueva Vizcaya Stage 13 on Monday should give the remaining riders a taste of the daunting finish that awaits them. Tuesday is a rest day, giving them just enough time to recover ahead of the punishing 'queen stage' from Bayombong to Baguio via the dreaded Ambuklao road.
“Dun na magkakabasagan yan, ewan ko lang kung may ahon si Oranza”, said Ravina.