By Jerome Lagunzad
Top local cyclists, led by reigning national champion Jan Paul Morales and 2014 titleholder Mark Galedo, are expected to be tested by crack foreign counterparts right away as the ninth edition of Le Tour de Filipinas hits the road today from Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City to Palayan City, Nueva Ecija.
Morales, 32, the highly-respected skipper of powerhouse Navy-Standard Insurance which includes reigning Ronda Pilipinas champion Ronald Oranza, is among those who will be at the forefront of the local charge in what could be the most thrilling edition of the annual road race co-presented by Air21, Cignal and Cargohaus Inc.
Also determined to keep himself in strong contention is Galedo, 32, who will spearhead the title pursuit of an equally formidable continental team 7-Eleven Cliqq RoadBike Philippines which has Marcelo Felipe and Rustom Lim in its fold.
“Matagal tagal ko rin hinintay ang pagkakataon na ito at sisiguraduhin ko na magbubunga ang lahat ng sakripisyo at hirap namin sa training,” said Galedo, who himself sat out the Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia last month as he kept his full focus on reclaiming the crown in the International Cycling Union-sanctioned 2.2 race.
Perennial contender George Oconer and Jerry Aquino Jr of the Philippine national team, along with returning veteran Lloyd Lucien Reynante and Cris Joven of Bike Xtreme Philippines, CCN Philippines’ Mark Julius Bonzo and Go for Gold’s Boots Ryan Cayubit, could also spring some surprises in the four-day race.
“We are confident that our Filipino riders, with the bigger number this time around, can make the country proud,” said LTdF chairman Donna May Lina. “But for sure, their foreign rivals will come in with equal motivation and determination. So we’re expecting an exciting and action-packed race no less.”
Meanwhile, reigning Tour de Langkawi champion Artem Ovechkin of Malaysian-based Terrenganu Cycling Team and Team Interpro’s Daniel Whitehouse, the bridesmaid finisher last year, are considered by many as the top title favorites in the 85-rider, 17-team race organized by UBE Media Inc.
Also in the hunt are Pishgaman Cycling Team (Iran), Nice Devo Cycling Team (Mongolia), Oliver’s Real Food Racing (Australia), Korail Cycling Team (South Korea), Team Sapura Cycling Team (Malaysia), Ningxia Sports Lottery Livall Cycling Team (China), KFC Cycling Team (Indonesia), Uijeongbu Cycling Team (South Korea) and Forca Amskins Racing (Malaysia).
After the relatively flat 151.32-km opening stage which will pass through the historic EDSA for the very first time for a neutral zone of about 9.5 kilometers, all protagonists will have to tackle a punishing 157.90km trek from Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija up to Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya via the treacherous Dalton Pass.
Then the title pursuit intensifies in the 174.5km Stage 3 that will start from Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya and will finish at Dagupan City, Pangasinan. The fourth and decisive stage will be the daunting 154.65km challenge from Lingayen, Pangasinan up to Baguio City via the back-breaking Kennon Road.