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The Women's Sports Alliance


Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio: South African cycling star on leaving a lasting legacy

"I feel like this cycling is a vehicle to empower African women and help them build confidence and find a way out of poverty," Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio tells the WSA.

Women's sport cycling Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio
Image courtesy of @ashleighcycling

WSA Sports Editor

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio is a three-time Olympian, who has won major World, Commonwealth and African Championship honours during an incredible career which has helped her attain ‘legendary’ cycling status homeland of South Africa.

She has also embraced new approaches to the sport and in 2020 became the first-ever woman to win a UCI Cycling eSports World title.

Now at the age of 37 she is still not only active, but highly competitive, finishing an impressive sixth at the Tour de Femmes this summer.

Her influence extends well-beyond the elite end of her sport though and Ashleigh continues to develop the ‘Rocacorba Collective’ which she established in 2021.

It aims to revolutionise the e-cycling experience by creating an ‘inspiring, uplifting and safe space’ for women to come together and cycle, regardless of their proficiency.

The Women’s Sports Alliance (WSA) was delighted to be granted time with Ashleigh to discuss her astounding career and future missions ahead of what is likely to be her final season as a professional in 2024.

Q – By your own admission you were quite a ‘late starter’ in elite sport, so tell us a little bit about your journey and discovering not only your talent, but achieving cycling success…

“Growing up I always loved sport,” Ashleigh tells the WSA.

“I had dreams of going to the Olympic Games and always strived to be the best I could possibly be, but at school, I just never really found the sport that suited me. 

“I played field hockey, tennis, athletics and I was always very good, but I was never the best so after completing school I thought it was the end of my Olympic dreams and I went to university to study engineering.

“It was there that I met my husband, Carl, who was a triathlete representing South Africa and I wanted to spend more time with him so I decided to get into it as well.

“I very quickly discovered that I'm not a very fast swimmer and I suffered injuries as a result of doing too much running too soon, so I realised I had to focus on cycling.

“We then went to Carl’s hometown for a holiday and borrowed his mum’s old bicycle. 

“I was in normal trainers and clothing when we went up a really steep climb and afterwards I overheard his father say “she’s really talented and had so much power.”

“That’s where it kind of all started; Carl recognised my talent and encouraged me to pursue it.” 

Q – How quickly were you able to convert that potential to elite performances once you – and others – realised what you were capable of?

“It’s interesting because when I look back, cycling really changed the person that I am.

“When Carl recognised my talent, I was pretty insecure and didn’t have a lot of self-confidence, but he said ‘you can be a world champion’.

“I did think to myself ‘is he crazy?’ I’m just this humble girl with no real sporting background, but I then went on a quite fast trajectory; from novice to winning university championships, taking parts in local leagues and winning those too against veteran men.

“I was approached by a local professional team (Toyota Cycling Team) in my last year of university and it was clear from the testing that I had an exceptionally good power to weight ratio and as someone who studied engineering, I was fascinated by the data.

“I had the opportunity to race a tour with my club team in France and that’s when I really realised that I wanted to be a real pro and not just race in South Africa, but across Europe where the challenge was just on another level.

“So I began in around 2005, I won my first races in 2008 and by 2011 I was an African champion; before claiming my first major international wins in 2013.”

Q – Traditionally women’s road cycling has struggled to gain levels of investment anywhere near that of the men’s side of the sport. How have those funding challenges impacted you?

“I haven't had the challenges that the woman faced in the 80’s and 90’ and can’t really comprehend that, because this is now my 14th season and I’ve been around for a while now, but at the beginning it was super frustrating.

“I came from an upbringing where I never really felt the inequity.

“In my own home environment, I had really prominent female role models and I knew my opinion mattered. Even when I went to university and studied engineering, which is male dominated, I never felt a lack of equality as male and female colleagues worked together.

“Then I came to Europe to pursue a professional career and that’s when it really hit home that there was absolutely no equality here.

“There was a general mentality that ‘women don’t deserve to be professional, they’re not good enough, fast enough or strong enough.

“That was the first challenge to overcome and it felt so unfair, like we were being cheated, but I learned that this ‘victim mentality’ wasn’t the most productive.

“I started to be creative, because I was used to those early days in South Africa with no salary, so I’d seek local endorsement deals through storytelling while I was in Europe, like blogging or sharing experiences and trying to inspire others.

“It was hard work because as soon as I was finished with a season in Europe I’d have to go back and give exposure to the local sponsors in South Africa, but it began to work.

“Over time we’ve gained more suppport from the men involved in the sport and exposure has started to come from TV coverage, but even now it’s not always live streams or very consistent.

“The UCI (international governing body for cycling), pushing new rules around exposure has helped and we’ve taken massive steps, so there is real progress in the sport, but still a way to go also.”

Q – How it the Coronavirus pandemic impact women’s cycling?

“I actually really feel that the Covid pandemic was the turning point for women's cycling,” Ashleigh reveals to the WSA.

“There was a lot of negativity going around that woman's cycling would suffer and take some steps back as a result of the COVID pandemic, because of the lack of racing and men's racing would be given the priority. 

“It was actually the contrary and that's all really thanks to the virtual world. 

“I really champion Zwift and the virtual world because I really do believe that it's paved the way for women's cycling.

“Before Covid I didn’t really enjoy indoor training, but I quickly realised I could either sit on the sofa and watch people (other cyclists) take advantage of it, or embrace it myself.

“We also had a business in Spain where we would take people cycling and obviously no-one could travel so I would host Zwift rides and people could join us for virtual rides from home.

“Then I started to do some races and the great thing with Zwift was that they stated from the beginning that everything they did would be 100% equal (between women and men).

“It was the first time that the women's peloton had ever experienced 100% equality with men and it came during a virtual Tour de France. 

“We still haven't achieved that in the real world, but we're very close now.”

Q – What did becoming a virtual cycling, or e-cycling, World champion mean to you?

“Racing in the first-ever eSports World Champs, on Zwift in 2020, was very meaningful for me because I was really proud of the way I'd managed to create opportunity from adversity. 

“Then secondly, it was, for the first time I’d really felt it might be realistic that I could win a world title.

“It’s difficult out on the road where you need the support of a big team to help you get into strong positions and therefore it’s not always possible to achieve those childhood dreams.

“Carl said I’d be a world champion one day and I’d almost accepted that it would never be possible, but he was right, the virtual world unlocked a new opportunity for me and it was really, really special.”

Q – Tell us about the ‘Rocacorba Collective’ and how the idea came about?

“I’ve always been a ‘purpose-driven’ athlete and what really motivates me is being able to pave a way forward or to inspire others to be the best version of themselves.

“I couldn’t always chase those top-end results at the World Championships or Olympics, but being South African and making it in Europe shows how you can fight for opportunities.

“Rocacorba Cycling came about by my husband I were looking at ways to stay involved beyond our (athletic) careers and so we found a Catalan farm at the base of the climb of ‘Rocacorba’ which I have used regularly for my training.

“I created the ‘Rocacorba Collective’ to bring people together and my focus has initially been on prioritising women with our projects.

“We started with female racing teams on Zwift, which creates a really nice connection between the professionals and the everyday cyclists in their different categories.

“It’s a really cool community vibe, but also it helped with the aspiration I’ve had to pave the way for women within Africa for a long time.

“I feel like this cycling is a vehicle to empower African women and help them build confidence and find a way out of poverty.”

Q – What are your hopes for the future with the project and where do you want to take it?

“My longer-term goal is to create an e-centre for underprivileged communities in South Africa.

“It would be an indoor cycling facility, with good Wi-Fi and computers screens, with the idea being that they finish their school work before they can have fun in the virtual world.

“We’re still trying to attract sponsorship, but that’s an end goal.

“Now though we’re making small steps and together with partner Khayelitsha Cycles, we’ve identified 30 girls that didn’t have bikes, or had very poor second-hand ones, and we’ve started kitting them out through GoFundMe to get them out on the Cape Town Cycling Tour.

“It’s on a small scale for now, but we’re building all of the time and it’s great to see the community of women really growing and getting behind one another.” 

Women's sport cyclists pose for a photo
Image courtesy of @ashleighcycling

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