SINGAPORE - As two-time defending champions of the OCBC Cycle Speedway Southeast Asia (SEA) Championship, cycling powerhouses Malaysia were always going to be the team with the biggest target on their backs.
On Saturday (Nov 18), an aggressive race plan and keeping close to Malaysia proved to be the Philippines' winning formula, as the latter dethroned their rivals to win the championship at the Singapore Sports Hub for the first time.
The Philippines, who finished third in 2016, completed the race in 21 minutes 04.90 seconds, ahead of Malaysia (21:05) and Brunei (21:05.10). Singapore were fourth in 21:11.
Each team had to complete 10 laps over a 1km course, with the first pair of cyclists doing five laps before being replaced by the second pair for the remaining five laps.
Each team's timing is taken when their second cyclist crosses the finish line.
Malaysia's Fauzan Ahmad Lutfi and Filipino George Oconer broke away from the pack early and were the first riders to cruise past the finish line together on Saturday. The race ended in a tight sprint, with Filipino Ronald Oranza raising his arms aloft as victory was sealed.
The 25-year-old Oranza, competing in his first OCBC Cycle, grinned as he told The Sunday Times: "I'm so happy. The plan today was to finish first, and in the qualifying rounds and semi-finals, my team-mates attacked and raced aggressively.
"I tried to follow the Malaysian rider. In the last two laps, he broke away but I managed to catch up and sprint the last 500m... I'm very happy."
Captain Oconer, who took part in 2016's race, added: "We're happy and a little bit tired. The race plan was to always follow the Malaysians... we had a strong team this year and I'm glad I could help the team because I was more familiar with the route."
The Philippines received prize money of S$6,000, while Malaysia and Brunei received S$4,000 and S$2,000 respectively.
Malaysian captain Fauzan was disappointed at falling short of retaining the title, but said: "The Philippines' line-up was very strong, especially their second pair of riders... we were unlucky today.
"With the format of this race, strategy is very important. The other teams knew we were the defending champions so they were all just following us, there was nothing we could do.
"Maybe we can come back and win again next year."
For Singapore captain Junaidi Hashim, Saturday's finish was "so close yet so far", but he was pleased that his team-mates posted a better finish than last year.
The Republic were unexpectedly eliminated in the qualifying rounds in 2016, and Junaidi said: "I'm happy because we did way better than last year, although a little disappointed because my personal target was to finish in the top three.
" But it doesn't matter because we still did well - it was anybody's game, and in terms of tactics everything worked well."
Local club TWC Racing won the OCBC Cycle Club Championship, while Specialized Roval Mavericks and Matador Racing were second and third respectively.
Teams from the Singapore Civil Defence Force, OCBC Bank and GlaxoSmithKline occupied the top three spots in the corporate race.
The OCBC Cycle continues on Sunday, with the 42km Sportive Ride and 23km Straits Times Ride taking place at the Singapore Sports Hub.