Last year’s events had unexpected consequences for pretty much everyone on Earth, and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio is no exception. On her second season with CCC-Liv, the South African national champion was hoping to find her feet with the team and finally score the WorldTour win she’s been circling for years.
Instead of standing on WorldTour podiums, however, Moolman Pasio found herself stuck indoors, and — in strict lockdown in Spain — unable to even train outside. “I wasn’t really into indoor training” she says, but it was her only option. Rather than rail against her circumstances, the 35-year-old embraced the new challenge. Nine months later — in December 2020 — she became the first ever eSports cycling world champion.
“For me it was really special to win the Zwift world champs, especially because of the way that I embraced Zwift during a really challenging year,” she says. “I’m very proud of the way that I managed to turn a really negative situation into something positive.”
Ashleigh's took the eSports World title – Photo credit: SWPix.com
It was the mental boost Moolman Pasio needed after a road season marred first by the pandemic, and then by pure bad luck. “Zwift has played quite a big part in my confidence,” she says. “When I lined up on the start of the world champs race I felt like there was no-one else that could beat me up that final climb.”
The confidence that her virtual successes brought have carried over into the real world already, “having had that success on Zwift and that feeling of confidence has reminded me that it has been missing from my road racing, at least in the past two years,” she said. “Racing on Zwift and having the success on Zwift has helped me to get in touch with that feeling again so I’m hoping that creates some success this year.”
Moolman Pasio’s 2020 road campaign didn’t run quite as smoothly as her virtual one. She began the year by taking double national championship titles, but at the restart of the truncated season she missed the first two 1.1 races in Spain when her team pulled out due to Coronavirus fears.
A 6th place in Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria showed signs of the form she had mustered through her indoor training but a week later, the day before the first WorldTour race — Strade Bianche — she found herself in a Siena hospital, eventually needing 60 stitches after crashing hard on the gravel roads due to a mechanical.
“I came into Strade last year feeling confident after all the hard training and hard work and the productive time I’d had during the lockdown,” she says. “I really felt confident in my preparation and was super motivated so to have crashed like I did the day before the race was a really hard pill to swallow.”
After missing out last year on one of her favourite races (“I absolutely love Strade”) in such circumstances, Moolman Pasio will take to the startline on Saturday with renewed determination, “I definitely feel like there’s unfinished business.”
“I’m coming into Strade this year again feeling really confident with the preparation I’ve done in the off season,” she says. “There’s nothing more I can do in terms of preparation. I’m really looking forward to racing Strade and hoping to have good luck in the race this time.”
‘Luck’ might be hard to quantify but a more tangible advantage for Moolman Pasio in 2021 is her new team: SD Worx. Strade Bianche will be her first race with the squad, and after their dominance at the two opening races of the season she’s right to feel confident in them.
Ashleigh on training camp with SD Worx
“Just seeing how the girls backed each other up with attack after attack was really impressive,” she says. “I felt really inspired by their performances in both the races to join the team and to get stuck in to making the racing hard like they have.”
“One of the big reasons why I joined the team — other than the fact that it’s a super professional, really successful team — is that I really admire Danny’s [Danny Stam, SD Worx team manager] way of making the most out of a really strong team,” she says. “He often has a stacked roster but he manages to get the best out of all of his riders and everyone has an opportunity at some point. That was one of the big reasons why I signed.”
It would be natural for Moolman Pasio to take a few months to settle into the dynamics of a new squad, but while she has yet to see how she gels with her new teammates in a race, she is already feeling at home.
“I really had a super smooth transition to the new team,” she says. “I’ve been on two training camps in early January and then again in February and it felt like I’ve automatically just fit right into the team environment,”
Under the wrong management, a team full of current and former national and world champions — each with their own chance of winning any given race — might breed internal competitiveness and turn sour. Stam, as Moolman Pasio points out, instead manages to create a supportive and collaborative environment that allows the team to dominate.
“We have a really nice vibe in the team,” she says. “I think all the different nationalities and different personalities actually come together really well so we have a really great team environment.”
Of course, having the current double world champion, Anna van der Breggen, as a team mate must boost morale. “I really do respect and admire her as an athlete and a person. She’s a fierce competitor but she’s also just a really genuine, humble person,” says Moolman Pasio. “I’ve had the privilege of sharing a room with her in the first training camp and just getting to know her better.”
According to Moolman Pasio, the reserved van der Breggen that comes across in post-race interviews belies her true nature. “She’s really bubbly and has got such a nice energy and in general is just a really nice person to be around,” she says.
The Dutch rider wasted no time in dispensing some constructive feedback to her new team mate, pointing out to Moolman Pasio where she had gone wrong in the past and could even have beaten her. “That’s really amazing, that someone of her calibre can share that kind of information so openly,” says Moolman Pasio. “And of course I believe it will be very valuable in terms of getting the best out of myself.”
As for what her season looks like beyond Saturday’s race, Moolman Pasio’s ambitions square with the majority of her competitors. “As usual I will be targeting the Ardennes classics in particular so all of these races now are the races I’m using as preparation for that,” she says.
Image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com
“Then there’s quite a full race schedule in May but June will be a quiet month for me on the racing front, so that would be used as preparation for the Olympics and the Giro. I see them coming as one peak.”
Despite the 10-day Italian race being demoted from the WorldTour it still poses an attractive challenge for the peloton which many are viewing as a form-finder for Tokyo. “The Giro will be a preparation race for me for the Olympics,” says Moolman Pasio. “But it’s still a target because I believe that I can have good form or at least ride into form at the Giro and then carry that form to the Olympic games.”
As for the latter part of the season: “We’ll have to see how taxing the Olympics and the beginning part of the year has been,” she says. “But of course I’m quite excited for the world championships in Flanders. I think it’s going to be super special and I think it's going to be a pretty hard race so that would also be a target for me.”
With the confidence that having her SD Worx team behind her brings, and the myriad opportunities it looks likely to present, maybe 2021 will be the year that Moolman Pasio turns her luck around and takes to the top step of a podium, either in the WorldTour or on the world stage.
Title image: Ashleigh in her previous life at CCC-Liv (Photo Credit: Oriol Batista)