SORSOGON CITY, April 15, 2004
By Nelson Beltran - The Air21 Tour Pilipinas 2004 unwraps today with the first stage putting in focus the quest of a grizzled champ for a place in history, the comeback of a former titlist and the bid for triumphant ride by a proud son of the region.

For the country’s intrepid cyclists, the chase for fortune and recognition begins with the initial stage set from here to Naga City.

With the majestic Mayon Volcano as backdrop, 84 riders, including reigning titlist Arnel Quirimit and six former Tour champions, figure in their showdown in Year Two of the tour’s new era, tackling the 141-kilometer winding and rugged route to the Camarines Sur capital city.

Air21 chairman Bert Lina fires the starting gun at 8 a.m. at the Castilla town proper.

Much of the attention in the opener of the 17-stage, 2,758-kilometer tour could well be on three marquee names: Quirimit, who is raring to put his title-retention bid on a flying start, former two-time champion Renato Dolosa who is hoping to ride triumphantly before adoring fellow Bicolanos and 1996 titlist Victor Espiritu who is looking forward to a grand comeback in the Tour.

The riders are one in describing the route as "makunat" with uphill rides in the towns of Sorsogon and Albay, but all expect a fast race to gain a headstart in the battle for the P1 million team purse and P200,000 individual overall prize.

"Matinding bakbakan ito dahil fresh pa lahat. Maraming pwede kaagad mangyari," said race director Paquito Rivas.

In last year’s first stage run from Legazpi to Sorsogon and back, Quirimit made an early show of strength and power to earn early possession of the green and yellow jerseys.

"Kapag hindi nila ako binantayan, kukunin ko talaga iyan," said Quirimit of the first stage honors to be disputed in the tour sponsored by Red Bull as the official energy drink, Lactovitale, Isuzu, Summit, Pharex multivitamins and Gatorade.

But the other riders have other things in mind.

"Siyempre, gusto ko rin magpakita sa mga kababayan ko," said Dolosa, a proud son of Bicol region from Gubat, Sorsogon.

"Kung pwedeng panalo ang first lap ko sa Air21 Tour, bakit hindi?" said Espiritu, who is returning to the Tour scene after skipping last year’s when he found himself in the crossfire of feuding leaders in the national cycling association.

The return of Espiritu simply makes the 2004 tour a lot more competitive and challenging, providing a huge hurdle to Quirimit’s bid for back-to-back championships.

Others expected to give Quirimit a tough challenge are his fellow national riders and members of the Pagcor trade team.

Warren Davadilla, for one, is brimming with confidence as he outperformed Quirimit in their campaign in the Asian Cycling Championship in Japan a few days back. Davadilla, the 1998 Marlboro Tour champion, finished second best among Southeast Asian Games participants and 13th overall while Quirimit came in 16th.

The fight for the team championship could also turn out fierce and furious with the organizing Air21 staking richer prizes in the event. At stake is P1 million for the champion, P500,000 for second placer and P350,000 for third.

Intel is not in the fold to defend the crown it won last year with Davadilla as its lead rider. Teams slugging it out this year are the Quirimit-led Tanduay team, Samsung (skippered by Merculio Ramos), Purefoods (Davadilla), PLDT-NDD (Rhyan Tanguilig), Dole (Albert Primero), Marsman Drysdale (Carlo Guieb), Metro Drug (Renato Dolosa), Beer na Beer (Espiritu), Vat Riders (Felix Celeste), Postmen (The Star carrier Enrique Domingo), Mail n More (Santi Barnachea) and Patrol 117 (Placido Valdez).

From Naga City, the riders race to Daet Camarines, Norte on Stage Two, Lucena on Stage Three, Tagaytay on Stage Four, Quezon City Stage Five, Olongapo Stage Six, Dagupan Stage Seven, Cabanatuan Stage Eight, Solano, Nueva Vizcaya Stage Nine, Tuguegarao Stage 10, Aparri Stage 11, Laoag Stage 12, Vigan Stage 13, Baguio City Stages 14 and 15, Tarlac Stage 16 and in Intramuros, Manila 17th and last stage.

"Tour Pilipinas 2004 shifts to higher gear toward a higher level of competition marked by determination and the will to compete and win. A more difficult route, a stricter adoption of international rules and a state-of-the-art system are put together to realize a more organized and highly competitive athmosphere for this year’s race," said Tour executive director Mar Mendoza.

TOUR NOTES: Members of the Pagcor Trade Team are getting the kind of support that could be the envy of other riders. In the caravan on the way to Sorsogon Monday, Espiritu and Co. came together in Ford F150s and not in the vehicles of their respective teams in the Tour. They were also billeted in a different hotel. These riders, however, are expected to join their teams as the Tour starts today... Not a few still consider former two-time champion Carlo Guieb, at 36, a force to reckon with. However, Guieb, they say, faces a big disadvantage as he continues to frown on new technology. "Gusto doon pa rin sa traditional na gamit. Eh, iba na ang mga gamit ngayon. Kaya umpisa pa lang, disadvantage na siya," said an observer... Among the new systems to be introduced in the tour this year is the use of the photo finish machine not only in getting clear result of deadheats but also correct order of finish by the riders from the first finisher to the last. Getting good raves is the use of the neutral start as introduced by the Union Cycliste International (UCI) in the local tour in 1997. "Since the introduction of the neutral start, nawala na ang massed spill sa umpisa ng karera," said tour PR director Jun Lomibao.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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