MANILA, MAY 23, 2007
(MALAYA) THE ship has been built. Test cruises have been made to the United States west coast and Iranian waters. Members of the 11-man crew have bid their families adieu and the captain calls for all to come aboard.

At 10 this morning, the quest for an Olympic berth in Beijing next year officially starts for the San Miguel-Pilipinas team when it departs for the Southeast Asian Basketball Association Men’s Championship in Ratchaburi, Thailand, hoping to negotiate its way past an armada of ambushers from Malaysia, Indonesia and the mysterious host country.

The Nationals, including center Rico Villanueva who got the green light from Red Bull management to stay on, will fly to Bangkok via Philippine Airlines before taking a two-hour bus ride 60 kilometers west of the capital to Ratchaburi.

They are expected to reach their billeting hotel at 10:30 p.m.

Accompanying them are national coach Chot Reyes, assistants Aboy Castro and Nash Racela, and strength and fitness coordinator Dennis Aenlle.

Forward Tony dela Cruz, who sprained an ankle during the FIBA-Asia Champions Cup in Tehran where the team finished fourth, will follow on the 25th when the Nationals open their bid to secure a berth in the FIBA-Asia Men’s Championship in Tokushima, Japan, against Singapore.

The SEABA tourney is the qualifying tournament for the FIBA-Asia which, in turn, is the Olympic qualifier for Beijing

"We’re looking forward to this competition," said Reyes, who arrived with the rest of the team late Monday night from Iran.

"Everything we’ve done, the camp in the States and the Iran trip, is geared toward giving the players enough time to be together, know each other and understand the value of being a team."

SMC-RP drew a bye today, takes on Singapore on May 25, Indonesia on the 26th, Malaysia on the 27th, and Thailand on the 28th, with the top two finishers going to Tokushima.

"Obviously, there’s always concern in international play, especially with news the Thais have US NCAA Division I players in their lineup," Reyes said. "We’ve not been able to confirm the reports, so we’re not going to take the opposition lightly."

The haste with which the Nationals have had to regroup and then fly off to Thailand left them limited time to be with their families upon their return from Tehran, an opportunity they took advantage of yesterday.

Riders brace for Baguio legs BY ALDRIN QUINTO

LAOAG. — Big guns led by individual leader Arnel Quirimit look to keep things under control against lurking contenders as the 2007 Padyak Pinoy braces for the mountain laps Wednesday in a rolling 213.8-kilometer Stage 6 from this city to San Fernando in La Union.

Recharged by a whole day break on a cool and rainy Tuesday, Quirimit, skipper of the Mail & More team, will take a one minute and 52-second lead over Cool Pap co-captain Baler Ravina in his bid to keep the yellow jersey going into the crucial trek up Baguio. At least 25 riders are within 10 minutes of Quirimit and a big overhaul in the individual standings is not far-fetched.

Running third is Vellum skipper Frederick Feliciano, just 2:11 behind Quirimit, while former champion Victor Espiritu, Cossak Vodka captain Renato Sembrano and 20-year-old teammate Irish Valenzuela, Cargohaus leader Lito Atilano and defending champion Santy Barnachea of Team Champion are within five minutes of the race leader.

Wow Magic Sing skipper Espiritu, mountain bike specialist Feliciano and Young Turk Ravina have clinched podium finishes at least twice in the first half of the 10-stage tour. Although they may not make a move to steal the overall lead at this stage, both are expected to quickly respond to attacks and keep their rivals in check in the second-longest stage featuring three intermediate sprints and a Category 3 climb.

Others top riders who have lurked behind in the past few days are expected to try and steal the show, with Merculio Ramos, Lloyd Reynante and Bernard Luzon all within striking distance.

Espiritu, who lifted the crown in 1996, won Stage 3 and took podium spots in three other legs while Feliciano has also figured in the podium thrice, although his team’s clocking in winning Monday’s Team Time Trial did not count in the individual race. The 25-year-old Ravina has chalked up two runner-up finishes and is raring to finally score a stage win.

"Hindi safe ‘yung lamang na ‘yun. Matutulog ako ngayon maghapon para bukas may pang-tutok ako," Quirimit said, admitting he has somehow lost some of the power that he used when he claimed the King of the Mountain title in 1996.

"Sina Victor (Espiritu), Lloyd (Reynante), Baler, mga climbers namin ‘yan. Sila ‘yung malalakas diyan. Ako pang-gitna lang ‘yung lakas. Noon malakas ako umahon, ngayon hindi na masyado," said the 2003 champion.

Espiritu and Feliciano, both known for their skills and strength in long and steep ascents, know their deficits would not be too hard to overcome but stressed matching pace with the other contenders in the lead-up to the mountain stages will be crucial.

"Magandang bakbakan pa ‘yung mga darating. Tatlong stages pa na matitindi," said the 31-year-old Espiritu, back-to-back King of the Mountain in 1997 and 1998.

"Kasi ‘yung medyo hindi gaanong malakas sa ahon, magsisikilos ‘yun. Kasi kahit papaano makapondo sila ng oras bago mag-Baguio," he added.

Feliciano is also looking to stick it out with the leaders, although he admitted his focus is split between making it in the individual race and helping tow Vellum, which is leading in the battle for team honors, especially with the big difference in prize money. The individual champion in the event presented by Tanduay in cooperation with Wow Magic Sing and Air21wil receive P50,000 while the team champion will receive P500,000.

"Gusto kong matulungan ‘yung team, pero siyempre gusto kong makuha yung individual title," he said.

Taking advantage of the break, most of the riders went on a two-hour leisurely morning ride under light rain outside the city to loosen tight muscles. Some opted to get more sleep in the afternoon while several spent a little more time outside the hotel setting up their bikes, including Ramos who is looking to finally launch an attack after languishing in the shadows of the leaders the past few days.

Ramos led for eight days in the 2003 tour but struggled with the leaden weight of the yellow jersey and slipped back in the final stages. This time, he is hoping he could steal the win from behind.

"Noong nakaraan kasi, ang hirap. Dala mo ‘yung yellow, mahaba ‘yung karera, nakatingin sa iyo lahat ng tao," Ramos said. "Mayroon pa diyan, marami pa. Tulad ni Reynante, ‘yung iniisip ko, iniisip din niya ‘yun. Tapos may mga iba pa diyan," he added.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved