OLONGAPO CITY – On the eve of the fifth Le Tour de Filipinas, youthful Australian rider Eric Timothy Sheppard of OCBC Singapore gamely took the stage to join the Filipiniana group for a tinikling dance during the pre-race dinner.
On Monday, the 22-year-old got the stage for himself again after stealing the thunder from the veterans in ruling the 160-km opening lap from Clark to this highly-urbanized city in four hours, three minutes and 52 seconds.
He threw a punch in the air as he reached the finish line near Olongapo National High School, going home two minutes and 40 seconds ahead of his closest pursuers, Yousif Mirza of the UAE National team and accident-hit Kwon Soonyeong of KSPO of Korea.
"I was with the small breakaway early on with five guys. But I slowed down after first KOM (in Balanga), then I was able to catch up again and join the breakaway group in the second KOM (in Balanga) and peeled away in the last 15 KMs (from Morong on)," Sheppard said before excusing himself from the post-race interview.
A champion in the Tour of Indonesia three years ago, Sheppard made his big move in the last of three mid-level climbs along the hilly roads of Morong, Bataan, maintaining an upperhand as he descended into SMBA and Olongapo.
Mirza and Kwon checked in at 4:06:32, the same clocking given CCN's Roman van Uden, Sheppard's teammate Choon Huat Goh, and TSR's Khalil Morshid.
Kwon, however, suffered a mishap that would likely put him out of commission for the rest of the four-stage, UCI-sanctioned race. The Korean rider collided with two photographers some 10 meters after crossing the finish line. He flew out his bike and crashed to the ground while his bike was wrecked by the impact.
The injured rider, as well as the photographers, Josh Abelda of Rappler and Alysa Salen of Business Mirror, were immediately rushed to the Unihealth-Bay Pointe Hospital and Medical Center for treatment.
"Rider and Josh (are) undergoing CT scan at Unihealth-Bay Pointe Hospital and Medical Center; both (are) conscious. Alysa fractured clavicle for minor surgery. Race organizers and race doctor watching over them," organizers said in a statement.
Kwon managed to put himself at No. 1 in the Best Climber classification prior to the accident, having topped two KOM – the Category 4/280meter climb in Balanga and another Category 4/170m climb in Morong.
Debuting Mark Julius Bordeos provided the lone bright spot for the outgunned Filipino riders as he finished ninth overall with 4:08:02, some four minutes behind the lead.
Bordeos, 19, launched a spirited bid to keep in step with the foreign charge and managed to do so three-fourths of the way before his legs cramped up going to the final 15K.
"Malapit ko na abutan, mga 20 seconds behind na lang sa lead pact pero pagdating sa Morong, nag-cramps na dalawang legs ko (I was that close to catching up with the lead pack but I slowed down by cramps in the climb along Morong)," said Bordeos, who paid the prize for not taking enough hydration drinks during the race.
The riders, meanwhile, can save their climbing skills today as the Stage Two puts them on a relatively flat 175.5 K ride to Cabanatuan City.
In this so-called "Triple-X Stage," they test their sprint skills on the well-paved roads of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX), North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), and Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEX).
The fifth edition of Le Tour is presented by Air21 and supported by Smart, NLEX, SCTEX, TPLEX, BCDA, Petron, Victory Liner and M. Lhuillier.