Going for Gold
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio didn’t grow up dreaming of success in a professional cycling career. In fact, she only took up competitive riding in her second-last year at varsity, yet she is now ranked in the top 10 female cyclists in the world, and is South Africa’s big hope for a cycling medal at the upcoming Olympics in Rio.
There was a time when Ashleigh dreamt of making it big in running, and then triathlon and duathlon, but in the end, cycling won out, and today she is the leading female rider in SA, flying the flag proudly for her country as a professional rider on the European cycling circuit. Born in Pretoria and schooled in Bloemfontein, Ashleigh had a sporty childhood, doing everything from hockey to horse-riding, even trying a bit of soccer while studying Chemical Engineering at the University of Stellenbosch (where she also met her future husband, triathlete Carl Pasio). It was during a varsity holiday that Ashley joined the family on a cycle, in her takkies and tracksuit pants, initially she had difficulty keeping up, but by the time they got to the first climb, she had found her rhythm, and the rest is history.
Ashleigh began racing competitively in 2008, and turned pro in 2010, the year after she finished her studies. Success came quickly for this naturally gifted sportswoman, and she can now claim an impressive list of victories on SA soil: “I’ve won a fair number of races here, including most of the big ones – the Argus, 94.7, Amashova, OFM and EP Herald,” says Ashleigh, who has also done well at both SA and African Champs in recent years. She later moved to racing in Europe, initially riding for the Lotto-Belisol team, later joining the Hi-Tech Products team, and now finds her home on the Bigla Pro Cycling Team. Her list of honours includes numerous podium finishes in Europe, including a second place in the Giro dell’Emila Internazionale Donne.
Ashleigh is now based in Gerone in Spain for eight months of every year, and besides being there for the great weather that makes Spain one of the best places in the world to ride a bicycle, her decision to be based in Europe is due to the level of riding in Europe, says Ashleigh. “The level of competition here is way higher than in South Africa, so with my ambition to be an international contender, it was a no-brainer to be based here, competing with the best in the world.” With bigger, faster fields and more tactical riding, Ashleigh has been given able to improve and learn from the best in the world. “The level of racing in the women’s peloton is high, it’s becoming more exciting to watch, there are more bunch tactics, the speed is faster, and the power of the girls riding in the front and attacking is getting bigger every year,” says Ashleigh, adding that it’s a world that constantly evolves and she is seeing the evolution in her riding, notably in the stats she measures her performance by.
Opportunities for Women
It took Ashleigh a solid five years of hard work and dedication to get into the top 10 in the world, and she believes that women’s cycling can no longer be seen as ‘a tea party,’ where the women chat much of the way and then speed for the line. The level has climbed markedly, and this can not only be seen in the salaries the women now earn, but also in the impact it has made on the field, shown clearly when looking at those that have left the sport and then attempted to come back. For example, Britain’s Emma Pooley retired from cycling after a glittering riding career, to focus on triathlon, then attempted a comeback this year in hopes of competing at Rio, but found that the level of competition had risen to such a level that she was being left behind. “She is really struggling,” says Ashleigh.
This knowledge is what drives Ashleigh to work harder, making sure she is always at the top of her game. “Things don’t just happen. Women demand better salaries and better exposure, but you can’t just demand, you need to go out and create it for yourself!” Through her experience in Europe, she says she has also realised that success on the bike is only part of the challenge, and that riders also need to build a successful brand: “We need to start marketing ourselves better. Gone are the days when you just ride your bike. We have to be more creative.”
Secrets to Success
It has been said in cycling circles that some South African cyclists who leave our shores with the aim to make it in Europe go there with an idea that since they have multiple national titles and race victories behind their name, it should be easy. However, when they enter the European circuit, they often quickly realise how much they have to learn. Ashleigh was different in that she didn’t arrive thinking that she was going to win, she arrived already knowing how much she had to learn. “The key to my success was coming over and acknowledging I was a nobody,” says Ashleigh, adding that acknowledging at every point that she had a lot to learn opened doors and helped her build vital relationships with other riders who had a lot to offer. Like a sponge, she absorbed knowledge and experience, and used it to better herself.
Now she is the lead rider on her team, Bigla Pro Cycling team, and she is in a position to pass down the knowledge she has accumulated. However, being a pro cyclist is not the glamorous life some may think it is, she says. Sure, they get to ride every day, get the best equipment, see the most beautiful places in the world and more, but this seemingly idyllic lifestyle comes with its costs. A lot of cyclists fall in love with the dream of riding full time, but few have the tenacity to go the full mile and make it work, and Ashleigh puts this into sharp focus when asked what it takes to be a full time cyclist: “I love getting onto the bike every day, but I suffer, I crash hard, and I have scars, both mental and physical, that I have had to overcome.”
Another factor in Ashleigh’s success has been her support network. Many riders try to tackle the pro cycling life alone, packing their bags and sacrificing everything to pursue their dream of one day making it big and being selected to ride for a big team, but it can be daunting to do it alone, and for many the task proves too much. From the start of her pro career, Ashleigh has had the support she needed to make it, with husband Carl walking the entire journey with her, and as an experienced athlete himself, he is able to give her advice, feedback, comfort, or criticism when she needs to be pushed. “Carl is a huge part of my success! After every race we reflect on what I did right and what I did wrong,” says Ashleigh.
When asked about the opportunities for female riders in Europe, Ashleigh is the first to say that more SA riders should go there and give it a try, but she adds that there is a need for more structure in SA to support the riders. “There needs to be a national team infrastructure, giving the girls guest ride opportunities, and somewhere to go.” While this doesn’t exist now, it is something Ashley would like to work on in the future. “I see myself as an ambassador, and the plan is to drive women’s cycling to develop and give back on a global scale!”
Road to Rio
This August Ashleigh will be in action at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, representing Team South Africa in the women’s road race alongside An-li Kachelhoffer of Team Lotto-Soudol Ladies, and then she will also compete in the time trial event. “I am going for Gold,” she says, “I dream of winning on the biggest stage for women’s cycling!” The course in Rio plays to Ashleigh’s strengths and suits her riding style, as it has a little bit of everything, including cobbles and short sharp climbs, “it’s a rough course, but I am looking forward to it,” says Ashleigh.
When asked if she feels at a disadvantage because other countries will have four riders in the road race while South Africa will only have two, Ashleigh immediately looks at the positives. “They are used to riding as a team of six and not four, so it’s not about being stronger, it’s about being smarter.” Therefore, while she doesn’t feel that she will be able to control the race, she is confident there will be places on the course that suit her strengths and style. She quickly adds that strategy is one thing, but anything can happen on the day, and it comes down to being able to ‘roll with the punches’ on race day. As Ashley says, “It’s up to God.”
While the Rio stage awaits, and then hopefully still more success in Europe, Ashleigh has already achieved something many only dream about: She is living her dream of cycling on an international team, competing with the best in the world. However, this has definitely not gone to her head, and she maintains her endearing humility, making her a true ambassador for women’s cycling and someone that other riders can look up to and try to emulate.