THE Ronda Pilipinas bike race enters its toughest stage on Wednesday and as favorite and current third-placer Irish Valenzuela looks to make his move, he will be keeping a watchful eye not on the two men ahead of him in the standings but someone behind him.
Two feared mountain climbers, Valenzuela and fourth-running Ronald Gorantes, are expected to seize the limelight on Wednesday during Stage 14 of the multi-stage bike race which will see the surviving riders make the climb from Bayombong in Nueva Vizcaya to Baguio City via the dreaded Kayapa-Ambuklao road.
While young overall leader Ronald Oranza could pull off a surprise and hold his own in the killer lap, he himself admits that it would take a huge effort on his part to overcome Valenzuela, who has time and again proven his skills on the ascent to Baguio.
Second-running Santy Barnachea never had the legs to match the pure climbers in previous tours and is once again expected to fade in the toughest mountain stages, leaving Gorantes as the biggest threat to Valenzuela in the 133-kilometer race to the country's summer capital.
“Yung labanan kasi sa stage na yan, bakbakan ng climber. Si Gorantes na lang talaga ang kinatatakutan ko,” said Renato Dolosa, two-time Marlboro Tour champion and now Valenzuela’s coach at LPGMA-American Vinyl.
Dolosa is also not counting out fifth-running El Joshua Carino, although the PLDT team stalwart trails Valenzuela by more than four minutes.
“Sa akin bantayan na lang, saka ubusan na ito ng lakas. Kailangang makabawi na sa oras,” said Valenzuela while lying on his bed and getting the needed rest ahead of the biggest race of the tour.
“Sa ngayon, gagawin ko na lang lahat ng makakaya ko … Hindi na muna ko magsasalita," he added.
Gorrantes, for his part, said he hopes to overhaul Oranza's lead of one minute and 11 seconds and post a comfortable advantage after Wednesday’s action.
“Two minutes na lead, Okay na yun. Safe na yun. Kahit sa time trial sa Huwebes,” said the rider from Victorias.
Meanwhile, Oranza is banking on the support of his teammates to hold off the attacks of the tour's finest mountain climbers.
“Magandang laban ito. Lahat naghanda,” said Oranza, admitting that Valenzuela will be tough to beat in the 'queen' stage.
“Talagang mabigat na kalaban yun. Malakas ang katawan at malakas din umahon,” said the Pangasinense.