Ashleigh Moolman Pasio © Gallo Images
South African road race champion, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio’s third place finish at the La Fleche Wallone Women’s Cycling World Cup in Belgium this week was a benchmark achievement for both South African and African cycling.
Racing for the Belgian-based Lotto Belisol team, the 27-year-old Chemical Engineering graduate was unfortunate to be given third place in a photo finish with Italian Elisa Longo Borghini. The pair were less than a bike length behind winner, Dutchwoman Marianne Vos, the current world and Olympic champion. They were all given the same finishing time for the 131-kilometre race.
It was the first time a South African road cyclist has ever finished on the podium at an International Cycling Union (UCI) Elite World Cup road race – male or female. That in itself is an impressive achievement and it elevates Moolman Pasio to another level in the women’s professional peloton, where she has enjoyed a rather rapid rise through the ranks over the past three years.
“I finished fifth here last year and my goal this year was to finish on the podium. My team was superb, especially my Australian teammate Carlee Taylor, who took a lot of pressure off me to ensure that I was at the front with the big names at the start of the final climb to the finish,” explained Moolman Pasio.
A strong climber, the South African, found herself kicking a little too soon for the finish line on the steep 1.3 kilometre ascent of the Mur de Huy. First Vos and then Longo Borghini closed her down with Vos edging ahead to secure her fifth win at one of cycling’s most celebrated annual one-day races.
“I think it was a combination of inexperience and excitement, but I feel if I’d timed the finish better, I’d have been able to challenge Marriane for the win,” said Moolman Pasio, who now finds herself lying 10th in the 2013 World Cup rankings and likely to move into the top 20 in the UCI World Rankings when they’re updated next week.
‘Challenge Marriane for the win’ is a statement very few will venture to make. The prolific Dutchwoman is considered the world’s most complete cyclist, certainly of the current era and possibly of all time.
“Marianne is such a dominant rider. She wins most of the races she starts. She’s achieved a level of respect that must give her loads of confidence. But she has been beaten and I think the balance of strength in the women’s peloton this year is more even, which will hopefully see more close finishes like this one.”
For Moolman Pasio, achieving her goal of finishing on the podium required her to adjust her attitude to the race from early on.
“It wasn’t easy for me, but I had to really be patient in order to finish on the podium. I usually want to get into the action earlier in a race but as the protected team leader, I had to stay out of trouble and make sure I was never far away from Vos and Emma Johansson. That kind of approach ensured I was strong for the last push to the finish and it’s something I’m going to have to incorporate more into my racing, especially one-day races, where I have had my best success.”
Stage racing success has been Moolman Pasio’s primary focus in the past, but her top finishes in one-day races have given her more of an allrounder status and led to a shift in attitude.
“I suppose I will start to put more emphasis on one-day racing now that I’ve seen what I can achieve. One-day races carry more UCI rankings points and the major titles like World Champs and Olympics are one-day races.”
Moolman Pasio, who races for the Momentum Toyota team when in South Africa, said that her podium place at a World Cup race made her proud.
“I have to say that I’m feeling proud of this achievement. Besides being a personal highlight, it’s a milestone for South African and African cycling I want to dedicate it to the upcoming young talent in Africa, both young women and men. I’d like it to be a source of inspiration to show that hard work and commitment do pay off.”
When asked about the improved awareness being given to women’s professional road racing in relation to men’s road racing, specifically the significant differences in prizemoney between the genders (La Fleche Wallone paid 14 times more to the men’s winner than what Vos received), Moolman Pasio was unruffled.
“Look, obviously I’d like to see better rewards for women. But while the general public and media focus on gender equality issues, I think we first have to focus on the inequality that exists within the women’s peloton. A few riders are earning a good living in pro racing with good salaries and amazing team support.
“Some of the women racing in the pro peloton aren’t even getting paid a salary. That makes a real difference to how riders perform. The better-paid and supported riders tend to be more successful. It’s a playing field that needs leveling first before we focus on prizemoney in relation to what the men get.”
Speaking from Girona, Spain, where she is training in the warmer weather, Moolman Pasio, said that her next major race is the Luxembourg Festival, a three-day stage race in Luxembourg starting on 26 April.
“That will be a fairly hilly tour, and a good form-builder for the bigger stage races coming up in the next few months. We have a very good team dynamic this year. I still believe I can improve my form and I look forward to hopefully adding more benchmarks to inspire African cyclists.”