BAGUIO City – Irish Valenzuela just saved his best for last.
His brilliant mountain climbing skills in full display, the LPGMA-American Vinyl stalwart stole the thunder from his distinguished rivals on Thursday when he topped the penultimate Individual Time Trial race and lined himself up as the next Ronda Pilipinas champion.
The native of Tabaco, Albay readily stepped on the gas shortly after he was released two minutes ahead of erstwhile overall leader Ronald Oranza of PLDT-Spyder during the 34-kilometer Stage 15 race from Pugo, La Union to Baguio, maintaining an average speed of 18 km per hour as he negotiated the narrow and steep roads of Marcos Highway.
The lap – and the title – appeared already in the bag for Valenzuela just halfway through the ITT race when he registered the fastest time of 41 minutes and 20 seconds, some 85 seconds faster than Oranza, as he boldly changed gear on the tupsy-turvy roads of the Baguio climb using his conventional 53-39 spikes of plate and spokes.
The fearsome mountain climber then capped his brilliant ride by overlapping eight other riders flagged off ahead of him on one-minute intervals.
Like a triumphant warrior, Valenzuela was welcomed with loud cheers by the time he crossed the finish line at Lakeshore Drive, clocking a blazing time of one hour, 23 minutes and 18 seconds.
With heads bowed, he went straight to the LPGMA tent, and as tears welled in his eyes, hugged his teammate Chris Joven and coach Renato Dolosa, the two-time Tour champion, in triumph, very much aware that after three grueling weeks on the road, everything here is over but the shouting.
“Talagang binuhos ko na ang lahat. Alam kong ito na `yung huli kong tsansa,” said Valenzuela, who began the final two laps trailing Oranza by 33 seconds.
A few moments later, the champion in waiting caught up with his parents, Kiko and Francia Valenzuela, as the three hugged each other in tears.
“Sila ang inspirasyon ko,” he said of his parents.
The 16th and final stage Friday serves as Valenzuela’s victory ride when he wears the red jersey symbolic of the overall lead and join the remaining cyclists negotiate a 2.7-km criterium race.
Valenzuela, who lost the overall lead to Oranza in Stage 10 in Laoag City, admitted he miscalculated his move during the Bayombong to Baguio Stage 14 Wednesday when everyone expected him to finally dislodge Oranza on top, allowing the PLDT-Spyder rider to maintain the overall leadership.
“Alam ko po nagkamali ako sa atake kahapon (Stage 14), kaya pinangako ko kay coach (Renato Dolosa) at sa mga sponsor ko na babawi ako,” he added while offering the victory – worth a cool P1 million - to his benefactors Congressman Arnel Ty and Eric Sy.
Badly bruised from a spill he suffered the other day, Oranza tried to keep pace with Valenzuela but in vain.
The 20-year-old rider mounted a rally in the final 10 seconds, allegedly getting a little help in the ride from Santy Barnachea, whom he overlapped in the 20-km mark, but only finished sixth in the race – three minutes and 5 seconds off Valenzuela.
Roadbike Philippines also made a significant leap and dislodged PLDT-Spyder on top of the team standings.
The team had a total clocking of 157:40.08 as Ronald Gorantes, dethroned champion Mark Galedo, and Baler Ravina – all noted mountain climbers – finished inside the top 10 of the ITT race and overhauled the two-minute, 48 seconds lead of PLDT-Spyder.
Navy-Standard is now in second place with clockings of 157:42.07, while PLDT-Spyder fell to third with 157:42.07.
“Sabi ko sa kanila, huwag papakasiguro kasi puro climbers ang bata ko,” said team manager and founder Bong Sual, obviously referring to the trio of Galedo, Ravina, and Gorrantes.
The strong finish had Gorrantes (53:36.58) now running second in the individual race, behind by two minutes and 14 seconds to Valenzuela. He is followed at third by Oranza (53:37.16).