MANOLO FORTICH, Bukidnon - Philippine Navy Standard Insurance rider Jan Paul Morales has all but put the Mindanao title of the 2016 LBC Ronda Pilipinas in the bag on Thursday.
This after the pride of Calumpang, Marikina pulled off an emphatic victory in the 21.7-km individual time trial Stage 4 which began at the Del Monte Plantation Farm and ended at the scenic Dahilayan Forest Park here.
Morales clocked 48 minutes and 26.69 seconds, proving once and for all that he is still one of the best time trialists in the county and all but putting the wraps on his first Ronda title.
So good was Morales' performance that he was able to catch chief rival Lloyd Lucien Reynante, who was flagged off one minute ahead, in the first three kilometers of the race sponsored by LBC and LBC Sports and supported by MVP Sports Foundation, NLEX, Maynilad, Petron, Versa Radio Tech-1 and Mitsubishi Motors.
A rugged four-kilometer stretch slowed down Morales, who was again left behind by Reynante before he stepped on the gas in the well-paved roads leading to the finish.
"Ang hirap po nung rough road sa simula, ang tatalim ng bato. Kaya nag-ingat na lang ako. Kasi mahirap na ma-flat ako o mag-spill, mas malaking problema. Di ko naman kailangang magmadali run," said Morales.
"Halos nahilo rin ako kanina, kasi sobrang tagtag. Hirap ako kapitan yung manibela ko, parang nagja-jack hammer ako," he added.
See video highlights of the race:
As soon as the race returned to paved roads, Morales overtook eight rivals released ahead of him including contenders Ronald Oranza, Daniel Carino, John Mark Camingao and Rudy Roque.
"Nakita ko bumagal sila at hirap sa ahon, kaya tumayo na ko sa bike ko para umatake," Morales said after his second straight stage win since ruling the Cagayan de Oro criterium last Tuesday.
Overall, Morales has already won six Ronda stages in his career.
The victory earned Morales another 10 points to improve his overall score to 49 points, opening a 14-point lead to now second-running Oranza, who finished third one minute and four seconds off the pace.
Morales will need only to finish the fifth and final stage, a criterium, on Saturday in Malaybalay, Bukidnon to officially crown himself champion.
"Mas dagdag ingat, pag minalas sayang ang pinaghirapan mula Stage 1," said Morales.
Joel Calderon, another Navy rider, ended up second in 48:33.63 while another Navyman El Joshua Carino, Team LBC-MVPSF's Ronnilon Quita, and Navy's Deniel Ven Carino took the fourth to sixth places with clockings of 50:17.03, 50:17.77 and 50:43.51, respectively.
Reynante, Navy's team skipper who was flagged off second to last, had a bad day and wound up seventh in the stage in 50:45.63, sending him skidding from second to third overall with 33 points.
Meanwhile, LBC officials are now preparing for the Visayas and Luzon legs, which will kick off on March 11 and April 3, respectively.
"We're preparing for bigger races there, so we want all of our cycling fans to watch out for Ronda Pilipinas in their places. It's going to be exciting," said LBC Ronda executive project director Moe Chulani.