‘A sense of relief from the greater women's peloton’ - Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio on what it was like to ride away from Van Vleuten and next year with AG Insurance-NXTG

The South African rider secured her first WorldTour victory at the Tour de Romandie by breaking away from Tour de France Femmes winner and World Champion Annemiek van Vleuten on the Queen stage, and she thinks it was a long time coming

It has been a little over two months since Annemiek van Vleuten won the Tour de France Femmes by nearly four minutes. It has been five weeks since she took victory in the Certazit Challenge by La Vuelta after riding away from the peloton to win the Queen stage by over two minutes. It has been 30 days since she won the World Championship Road Race in Wollongong with a surprise attack in the final 500 metres before the finish line. And it has been just ten days since Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio changed everything.

During the Tour de France Femmes, I remember writing about the sense of flat disappointment at the top of Le Markstein after stage seven – the first mountain stage of the race. Van Vleuten had obliterated her competition, riding solo to cross the finish line three and a half minutes ahead of the peloton. “I did everything that I could and I think the rest of them did also, she was just stronger. So congrats to her,” Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig said wryly at the finish line. “Annemiek is beyond our capacity, let’s say,” shrugged Kasia Niewiadoma.

There was a sense of impending doom about the Tour next year, and if it would, once again, be dominated by the 39-year-old Dutchwoman who simply is a cut above in the mountains. To an outsider looking in, it seemed that some of the peloton were resigned to Van Vleuten winning. She was stronger, she always will be, and there was nothing they could do. It’s for this exact reason that Moolman-Pasio’s win in the Tour de Romandie Féminin (the final Women’s WorldTour race of the season) was so important.

Moolman-Pasio in the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift stage seven

Moolman-Pasio in the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift stage seven (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

“There was almost a sense of relief from the greater women's peloton, like, thank goodness, someone has finally beaten her,” Moolman-Pasio tells me a few days after taking her victory. “I've been building myself up to believe that it is possible, but I haven't really, in the past couple of years, had the opportunity where I've been able to unlock my full potential one-on-one with Annemiek. There was an element of doubt that was really starting to creep in my mind. I was watching rider after rider hanging onto her wheel and then not being able to stay with her and being dropped.”

“The day after I won the Queen stage, in the peloton, there were a lot of congratulations from the other riders, saying they're just so happy to see me win because it's my first WorldTour win and then also to have beaten Annemiek in such a dominant fashion. It gives me a lot of confidence going into next year, especially into the off-season, that I can beat her and that I need to hold on to that belief. I will go into next year with that memory and really give her a challenge.”

Moolman-Pasio’s win was even sweeter when you look back at some of the bad luck she’s suffered this season. After being on what she describes as “great form” going into the Tour de France Femmes, she picked up a gastrointestinal bug which forced her to leave the race after stage seven. At the Simac Ladies Tour, she had a crash which left her with a back injury that hindered her training in the lead-up to the World Championships. In the Worlds road race itself, Moolman-Pasio was clearly one of the strongest, but she, like the rest of the peloton, was surprised by Van Vleuten’s last ditch attack which saw the chance of the rainbow jersey disappear from her grasp in a flash of orange.

“The performance that I had at the Tour of Romandie is what I imagined happening at the Tour de France Femmes,” explains Moolman-Pasio. “I have to be honest, the Tour was a really hard, disappointing time to come back from. I'd gone through this process of  imagining myself at least being on the podium at the Tour de France Femmes, and it didn't materialise.”

“I managed to muster up the courage and that's where having a community around me was great, I realised that with women's cycling fans, with female fans, it's not always about winning, it's about that relatability, it's about being stronger together. I didn't achieve what I set out to achieve, but I'm still an inspiration to them. I'm still their hero, or their queen of the mountains. That's what helped me to get the courage back up again, and prepare for the latter part of the season.”

Moolman-Pasio before attacking Van Vleuten in stage two of the Tour de Romandie Féminin

Moolman-Pasio before attacking Van Vleuten in stage two of the Tour de Romandie Féminin (Image: Getty)

Moolman-Pasio’s mindset and resilience paid in dividends when she secured that first WorldTour win in Romandie, and it was a result that even she could scarcely believe. “I wasn't really sure what to expect from myself," she says.

“I decided to race to my strengths. I stuck to my guns, I stuck to my race plan. As we hit that last part of the climb I did what suits me best and that's to change the pace, so to surge and then slow down and then surge and then settle down. I think that's what, from the word go, got Annemiek out of her comfort zone. It meant that I took control of the race rather than her.

“Annemiek was going for it on her attacks all over her bike and I was like, this is not too bad. There were even times when I couldn't actually believe what was happening. I was like: is she blowing? I'm gonna give it a go. And the next thing I was on my own and it was really incredibly satisfying and a great way to end my season.”

Her Tour de Romandie victory also marks Moolman-Pasio’s last race with Team SD Worx, who she has ridden for during the last two seasons. As cycling’s number one ranked Women’s WorldTour team, Moolman-Pasio’s decision to move on from the squad was a surprise to many. Next year, she will ride for AG Insurance-NXTG Team, an outfit focused on helping to develop younger riders. The South African will be a mentor figure to the up-and-coming talent on the team, a role which she expects to relish.

“It's always difficult to move on. But at the same time, I am also excited to try something new and to go somewhere different and especially to go back to a team where there's a very strong focus on developing those around me,” says Moolman-Pasio. “Cervelo-Bigla [the team that Moolman-Pasio rode for from 2015 to 2018] was a team that I thrived in because we always used to refer to it as a small team, but with big hearts. We would really always be the underdogs, not necessarily the strongest team on paper, but we'd always out perform what people expected from us. I'm almost looking forward to going back to that sort of environment again, because that works really well for me.”

“I love helping others to unlock their full potential by being a mentor. I will go for those top results, but I believe we rise by lifting others. That's my philosophy.”

The podium at the 2022 Tour de Romandie Féminin

The podium at the 2022 Tour de Romandie Féminin (Image: Getty)

Moolman-Pasio explains that in SD Worx, which is known as one of the women’s peloton’s biggest super teams, it’s not easy to play the role of a mentor figure. “It's a highly competitive environment. And that's great, I've learned so much, but now in the final years, I'm looking forward to going back to what sits a little bit more naturally for me, and that being in a more mentorship role rather than this super team environment.”

The 36-year-old says that she has been watching some of the current AG Insurance-NTXG riders in road races so far this season, so she has a unique perspective on what the team needs to do to improve and develop. Riders such as Lotta Henttala (née Lepistö) are also going to ride for the newly-formed Dutch WorldTour team as other experienced riders to help guide the younger athletes. Later this month, the team will head to Belgium to meet each other for the first time.

“It will be a great opportunity to interact with the team and all the new teammates. I can't say that I know any of the current AG Insurance-NXTG younger riders all that well. I've been paying attention to them in the peloton, even before I actually got approached by the team,” says Moolman-Pasio. “It did stand out to me how they really ride very well together. They are very united. That stood out to me from the very beginning.”

The current Team SD Worx rider is quick to confirm that she will still go for her own results despite playing a mentor role in her new team, with the Tour de France Femmes a big target once again next season, as well as the Ardennes Classics earlier in the year. “Everything I do now and in preparation for next season will be with the Tour in mind as the ultimate goal,” says Moolman-Pasio.

I wonder if having a younger, less experienced team around her will be a hindrance as the South African rider aims to go for victories in the biggest races on the calendar. She will have less support around her and fewer cards to play in the finales of big races.

“There are plenty of races where SD Worx has taken advantage of their numbers towards the final parts of the races by attacking and counter attacking but in the longer stage races, and definitely on the longer climbs, I don't think that that necessarily has materialised that often,” replies Moolman-Pasio.

“We've seen time and time again that Annemiek has performed at a very high level without necessarily having a team of stars around her. She has a strong team, and they're all committed to one goal, and that's to deliver Annemiek to the point of the race where she can make the difference.”

Moolman-Pasio has every faith that her young teammates on AG Insurance-NXTG next year are going to be able to support her when she needs it so she can get more impressive wins like that at the Tour de Romandie a few weeks ago.

“It unlocks a deeper sort of purpose and strength when you've had that team commit absolutely everything to delivering you to a certain point in the race, it gives you that responsibility and purpose to follow through on their hard work. I’m confident we can do that.”

Cover image: Getty