Pinoy cyclists gave a gallant fight, but in the end the superior training of foreign pros was just too much. That pretty much sums up the action at the recently concluded Le Tour de Filipinas–the most prestigious biking race in the Philippines.
I was fortunate to have been part of the media contingent for this year’s tour. I was invited by Living Asia Channel to document the event, and am now in the process of writing the script for it. I finally got to see the windmills in Bangui Ilocos Norte, ride through the awesome Patapat viaduct again, see the postcard pretty Marlboro country in Cagayan, and witness the brutal but beautiful uphill road from Nueva Vizcaya to Baguio. Most important of all, I got the chance to observe up close what a UCI sanctioned race looks like. And let me tell you, it’s the next best thing to actually seeing the Tour de France.
Day Zero -April 12
We arrived at around noon in the town of Pagudpud after a tiring ten hour drive. It was a relief to finally hit the fabled highways of Ilocos Norte and see the windmills up close. I guess there is no better backdrop to this type of race than these icons to alternative energy.
As we checked into our hotel, I saw some of the teams relaxing near the beach. There were a total of 15 teams taking part in the race. 10 of them were foreign teams with riders from countries as varied as Singapore, Mongolia, Australia, Ireland and Iran. There were also 5 teams from the Philippines who were eager to test their mettle against the visitors. Team TPT from Iran was the heavy favorite among the foreigners. Local rider Baler Ravina of Team 7-Eleven meanwhile was looking to defend his crown after winning the race last year.
Most of the TV crew with me were veterans of past Le Tours, and they agreed that the Iranians were the team to watch. They said that unlike the other foreign teams who were used to racing in milder climes and were likely to be affected by the country’s summer heat, the Iranians would not get bogged down by the soaring temperatures as they trained in even harsher environment.
Everyone was in a festive mood during the socials that evening. But you could tell that each rider was also eager to get on the road and get the race started. There was a mild rain that evening which hinted at how the weather could turn the following day.
Day One – April 13
For the first leg of the race, riders were taken to the town of Bangui just a few minutes away from Pagudpud. There was electricity in the air as riders inspected their bikes and stretched their muscles for the upcoming battle. The sky was blue and the wind was mild when the racers assembled at the starting line. Fans and onlookers cheered as the gun was fired and the peloton paraded out of Bangui.
The weather quickly changed just a few kilometers out of town. Rainshowers greeted the riders as they rolled through Pagudpud and up the scenic Patapat viaduct. By the time the riders reached Claveria, the sky seemed to have sprung a leak and was letting go of rains usually seen only during the Habagat season. There were several riders who met accidents.
The rain however did not get in the way of a 13-man group which broke away from the 74-rider pack and plowed through the torrent. I could not help but admire the power as well as willpower of these pros to keep pedalling hard despite the storm-like conditions.
But the weather was not done yet. After drenching the riders, it then baked them in searing heat that would have been enough to make weekend warriors like me throw in the towel.
183 kilometers later in the town of Aparri, Cagayan, Korean rider Lee Ki Suk of CCN cycling team punched the air in triumph as he came in first. Lee sprinted and crossed the finish line a wheel’s length ahead of Douglas Repacholi of Perth Cycling Team.
They were followed by four riders from TPT Iran led by Ghader Mizbani Iranagh, who clinched third place. Filipino cyclists failed to make it to the top ten. Apparently, the rains took away Pinoys’ distinct advantage of familiarity with the temperature. The rains cooled down the ride and enabled the visiting riders from other countries to really pull away.
But Pinoy cyclists would have their day on the second leg of the tour, where vicious searing temperatures would prove to be their unlikely ally.