Remembering the Marlboro Tour

It’s summer time many years ago, after the “Closing” in Mintal Elementary School and Holy Cross of Mintal. Time to help my father tend the little store we keep in the market and get the chance to be the first to read the daily news serving of Tempo. It also meant I can serve more Masses at the Immaculate Conception Parish especially during the Holy Week and Easter season. The whole May for Flores de Mayo. And of course glued in to my favorite Cebuano dramas in the radio. But what made those summers more memorable was the Marlboro Tour of Luzon.

It was the time of the year that the country’s elite cyclists gather and travel across the majestic mountains of Sierra Madre, plains of Central Luzon, the treacherous Dalton Pass en route to the city of Baguio and the gruelling travels to the Bicolandia passing through the notorious Bitukang Manok (am I right?). At the time the farthest place I went to was Bohol. Haven’t traveled to Luzon made me marvel if I could venture to those places myself in a few year’s time.

It was an Inquirer front page in 1986 which showed half-body portrait of an exhausted champion which bares the title: The Marlboro Champion is a tuba gatherer. I was referring to the legendary Boholano Ronaldo Pagnanawon who won the Tour that year.

A tuba for those querying brains, is an rural Filipino drink made up of coconut juice, fermented and flavored with something called tongog. It’s a truly Filipino drink which somehow never got the limelight because of its notorious ethnic taste and was often associated with the backward economy of the hinterlands.

Personally I do not drink it, though my brother did when we were young enough to realize a drunk man don’t appeal well to women. Concocted with egg and chocolate drink from cacao nuts, it transforms itself to an energizing kinutil which made me sick when my grandma introduced it to me.

So that’s the product Pagnanawon gather before (possibly after too) he joined the 21-lap bikathon. It’s typical for tuba gatherers to ride their rickety bicycles (fondly called pantubaay) to carry two 12-gallon bins to sell to sari sari store retailers whose business transforms itself into an important gossip generating, self-made drinking pub as the clock hits the angelus.

Traveling across barrios bringing joy to the hungry palates of tired farmers, Pagnanawon has been doing the job for years, and apparently, his desire to earn more prompted him to kick the pedal faster. Eventually, it brought him honor to the ranks of the lowly manananggot people, the local term for tuba gatherer. The job of climbing a forty footer coconut tree is a daunting task, a career that almost took the life of my uncle.

It was a patriotic act of recalling the past glory of Philippine cycling where collecting gold medals in SEA Games were a norm just before aerodynamic technology put an edge to the Europeans and eventually those who caught up with it elsewhere in the world.

Carlo Guieb, Gerardo Igos, Bernardo Llentada, Romeo Bonzo, the late Jacinto Sicam, Armando Catalan and Renato Dolosa, formed the Hall of Fame cast in Philippine cycling, lording the streets and baked pavements summer after summer in the 80s and 90s.

Lap by lap, from Sorsogon in the South to Laoag in the North, I tune in via my lola’s transistor radio, listening to Rick Yap Santos and Danny Javier with my peculiar pen and paper stance to add up the accumulated time clocking of teams such as the Broncos, Mavericks, Studs and later regionalized teams to make team building more meaningful among racers from various parts of the country.

Those days were gone but surely the joys of cycling will always be remembered even if it is a fact that I learned how to ride the bike just hours after my high school graduation.