Daet, Camarines Norte, April 17, 2004
By Nelson Beltran — If Merculio Ramos were able to don the yellow jersey in the Tour de Langkawi, there’s no reason he couldn’t do the same in the local tour.

Ramos accomplished the feat yesterday, grabbing the overall leadership in the Air 21 Tour Pilipinas 2004 with a victorious ride in the short but uphill climb to this Camarines Norte heartland.

"Hiningi ito ng misis ko. Mahirap tangihan dahil buntis," said the Samsung skipper, 25, whose wife Arlene is on the fifth month of pregnancy.

Drawing second wind under shadows of big ancient trees on the way up to the Buaca town via the winding Bitukang Manok, Ramos staged a solo run to catch the lead group before the summit point of the KOM (King of the Mountain) race. He then kept his searing pace to the end, tagging along teammate Ericson Obosa for a one-two finish in the stage from Naga City.

"Inabot ko yong lead pack bago dumating sa tuktok. At noong inabot ko sila at naramdaman kong sila groggy na at ako hindi pa, tinuloy-tuloy ko na," said Ramos, who held the overall leadership in last year’s tour for six days before yielding it to eventual champion Ariel Quirimit. The Army private first class officer finished second behind Quirimit.

Curiously, Ramos also donned the yellow jersey in Stage Two of the most recent Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia after confusion marred the first stage. The RP trade team member was given that honor being the sprint winner in the kickoff stage.

Felix Celeste, in the lead pack caught by Ramos, drifted with the main bulk together with 1996 Marlboro Tour winner Victor Espiritu, coasting along to the finish after the gut-wrenching Bitukang Manok ascent.

"Nagtabi na lang muna ako ng lakas dahil mas malayo at mas mahirap ang takbo bukas," said Celeste, who fell to fifth place, 19 seconds behind the new leader in this two-day-old tour sponsored by Red Bull as official energy drink, Lactovitale, Isuzu, Summit, Pharex multivitamins and Gatorade.

Traversing the 98-kilometer route in two hours, 13 minutes and 15 seconds, Ramos emerged the new leader with a seven-second lead over Obosa, whom he beat for stage honors by a bike.

Obosa, a little-known rider from Manaoag, Pangasinan, opted not to challenge his team captain for stage honors, saying he knows it’s hard to be the tour leader. "Hindi ako sanay magsuot ng yellow jersey. Alam ko mainit iyan, lahat nakatingin sa iyo. Eh, sya (Ramos), sanay na diyan," said Obosa.

Arnold Marcelo of Mail n More kept Ramos and Obosa company to the finish, coming in third and improving his standing also to third, 10 seconds off the pace.

Eusebio Quinones checked in fourth at 2:13:19. The Purefoods assistant skipper is now also running fourth, trailing Ramos by 18 seconds.

The other tour big guns, including Quirimit, Rhyan Tanguilig, Enrique Domingo, Placido Valdez and Renato Dolosa, have yet to make decisive moves. They’re outside the Magic 10 as the Tour leaves the Bicol Region, going to Southern Tagalog in Lucena City passing through the dreaded Tatlong Eme in Gumaca for Stage Three today.

"Hanggang kaya kong hawakan, hahawakan ko iyan," said Ramos on his plan for today’s race.

It would be remembered that Ramos grabbed the yellow jersey from Quirimit as the tour hit the Quezon Province capital last year.

As in Stage One, Ramos and his Samsung team gained top podium honors yesterday with Mail and More coming in second then Purefoods third.

Postman Lloyd Reynante topped the category-three Summit KOM stage, beating Espiritu and Tanguilig, while Marsman’s Alfie Catalan ruled the sprint stage, topping Samsung’s Villamor Baluyot and teammate Paulo Manapol.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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