Salleh takes lap honors, Sheppard still in yellow as bunched finish sets stage for thrilling finale
Malaysian Harrif Salleh took lap honors in a wild finish. Jerome Ascano

LINGAYEN, Pangasinan — A bemedalled Malaysian prevailed in a bunched finish to claim Stage Three top honors while the overall leaders remain unchanged in calm before the storm of the 2015 Le Tour de Filipinas on Tuesday.

Harrif Salleh, a 2011 Southeast Asian Games double gold medalist, came from behind with the main pack of almost 60 riders that swallowed what had been a three-man lead pack, before the Malaysian edged the rest of the field after a mad dash with only a few meters away from the finish line.

Salleh finished ahead of Iranian Mehdi Sohrabi by less than a bike’s length as the two submitted a time of three hours, 38 minutes, and 35 seconds, the same as the rest of main group that also had classification leaders Eric Sheppard of Australia, defending champion Mark Galedo, and Frenchman Thomas Lebas.

Sheppard finished 41st in the stage, but maintained his overall lead at 10:46:06, three seconds clear of Galedo and four ahead of Lebas after the penultimate stage of the sixth edition of the race, presented by Air21 and co-presented by Smart and the MVP Sports Foundation.

Sheppard and Lebas are not the only worries of Galedo, the top local bet bidding to become the first back-to-back champion of the International Cycling Union (UCI)-sanctioned race, as the Filipino standout is just six seconds ahead of fourth-running Oleg Zemakiov of Kazakhstan, and 1:38 of Stage Two winner Scott Ambrose, who completes the Top 5. 

Salleh, a sprinter for Terengganu Cycling Team, relished the flat terrains that mostly covered the 150.1-kilometer leg with a single Category 4 climb in Alaminos City, a relatively easier course compared to the previous stage. Monday’s Stage Two from Balanga, Bataan to Iba, Zambales had two tough ascents.

“It was very good win for me,” said Salleh, also a former Tour de Langkawi stage winner. “Like my entire team, we were just waiting for the sprint (stage) because mountains are very hard for me.”

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The Malaysian, however, will have his hands full in the fourth and final stage of the road bike competition that features a 101.7-kilometer journey to Baguio City, including a lung-busting 10.1-km Hors Categorie ascent on Kennon Road that will separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Salleh is cherishing the stage victory, which hardly made a difference in the overall picture as the Malaysian sprinter stayed in 61st spot, just ahead of five more riders.

Another flat-road expert in Theodore Yates actually was the first to showcase his speed by ruling the two intermediate sprints, the first at the 38-kilometer mark in Candelario town and the second two kilometers before the 100-km mark.

The Australian rider Jang Sun Jae of Korea and Japanese Hiroki Tsubaki formed the three-man lead group that broke away from the pack barely 20 kilometers into the race in Macinloc Town, building leads of eight minutes and 30 seconds.

But the main group started to catch up with the trio in the last 50 kilometers. Worse, Yates’ suffered a flat rear tire in the last 15 kilometers entering Lingayen, needing a replacement from a neutral service in a unfortunate scene that saw him lose the lead entirely.

“It finished my race,” the 19-year-old Australian said in a short chat with Spin.ph after the race. “I was angry earlier, but I’m better now.”

Follow the writer on Twitter: @KarloSacamos