In what can only be described as a breakthrough international season, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio has set a blistering pace for women’s cycling both locally and abroad.
The national road and time-trial champion became the first South African woman to podium in a World Cup event, the first to break into the top 10 on the UCI world rankings and has been named Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Sport.
The former Olympian is also the only elite woman selected to represent SA in the road race at the world championships in Florence, Italy, on September 28.
However, Moolman-Pasio says it has not been all smooth sailing but that her faith and positive attitude have helped in overcoming the challenges of pursuing a professional cycling career.
“It’s strange, because 2013 has been my best year yet, however it has also been one of my worst,” she says.
“Although I have enjoyed much success, it has come with a fair amount of challenges. The recent fracture to my hand is one example.”
The 27-year-old all-rounder, who races internationally for Belgian outfit Lotto-Belisol, broke the fifth metacarpal bone in her left hand after crashing out of the Route de France in August.
Fortunately for her, the stable fracture did not require surgery but did necessitate a week’s complete immobilisation during a crucial time of the season.
“I must admit, I’m completely blown away by how quickly my hand has healed – it’s now three weeks post-crash and my hand feels almost new again.
“Injuries have prevented me from taking part in and finishing a few races, which are important to score points that contribute to UCI ranking. Rankings are changing daily as races continue to take place, but I’ll do my best to maintain a top-10 ranking till the end of the season.”
In April, Moolman-Pasio’s third-place finish in the Flèche Wallonne World Cup event set a milestone for SA women’s cycling.
“World Cup races are very prestigious, as they attract the toughest competition and are usually contested over challenging courses. It was a huge honour to step onto the podium as a proud South African and African ambassador.
“I hope my result serves to inspire young talented South African women to pursue their passion for cycling. Anything is possible for those who believe.”
Conveying this positive message through the medium of cycling is what, she believes, secured her the title of most influential sportswoman on the continent.
“It’s a real honour. My personal success is not my purpose, but merely the means by which I use my talents to fulfil a greater purpose.
“That purpose is to act as an agent of change and to positively influence the greater public. The positive influence I can have on other people’s lives inspires me to race and train to the best of my ability.”
Keeping this in mind helps to alleviate the pressure on her to perform, says Moolman-Pasio. “I don’t see performance as a pressure but rather a blessing!”
Of course, being SA’s only female elite representative at the road world champs makes her job a little harder against stronger cycling nations who field big teams.
“This will be my third time representing SA. It’s really unfortunate that I won’t have team-mates this year, but I’ll do the best I can with what I have.
“To prevent this from occurring again in the future, it is important that Cycling South Africa and the local women’s teams encourage and support riders to race more extensively in Europe, something which my current team Momentum-Toyota has done over the past three years.”
With between 100 and 200 women starting every race, and more opportunities to race long tours, the competitive European is a lot tougher mentally and physically, she says.
Moolman-Pasio, who divides her time between the Western Cape town of Riebeek-Kasteel and her European base in Serinya, Spain, concedes that the dual schedule can however be gruelling.
“It is a challenge racing two full seasons in the southern and northern hemisphere. It becomes particularly tough towards the end of the year, after a long and hard European season.”
What keeps her motivated, she says, is the great vibe at the South African races.
“Racing on home soil is always special and I love interacting with the fans who have supported me throughout the year.”
Although her local race schedule has not yet been confirmed, Moolman-Pasio hopes to defend her title in the Bestmed Jacaranda Satellite Classic near Hartbeespoort on October 19.
“I’ve only raced Satellite Classic twice in my career and I have won it on both occasions. The first time was in 2009, my first year racing for the Cycle Lab-Toyota outfit.
“It was my first ‘big’ win in South Africa, so the race has a special place in my heart. I won it last year for the second time.”
She says the tough Hekpoort climb, which looms towards the end of the 114km event, is usually the defining point of the race.
“I think it is about 30km to the finish after Hekpoort, so even if the race splits up on the climb, it is possible for it to come together again before the finish line. But the effort any dropped riders have to put in to chase back will cost them at the end.
“Last year the sprint was after a sharp turn and on an uphill drag. It is a tough finish, so anyone who has spent too much energy leading up to the line will pay for it in the sprint.
“My advice is to conserve where possible in the first part of the race, so as to save energy for the final 50km.”
Moolman-Pasio says her local team-mates, Heidi Dalton and Leandri du Toit, would also be strong contenders for the win, along with Bestmed rivals An-Li Pretorius and Linda van den Biggelaar.
But before Moolman-Pasio turns her thoughts towards home, one more challenge stands between her and the world champs – the UCI 2.2-rated Tour de l’Ardèche, in which she finished second overall last year.
Whatever the outcome (not known at the time of writing), Moolman-Pasio will keep on blazing new trails in her chosen sport.
“I believe that life is all about choices; you choose to win or to lose in life. When things don’t go right, there is always a left.”
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