Ashleigh Moolman Pasio is heading to her third Olympic Games a wiser, stronger rider.
Having been based in Europe for the past few years, the team SD Worx rider is in the prime of her career, however, the Commonwealth Games Medalist and multiple South African National Champion knows it takes a lot more than form and experience to be successful on the highest stage.
With everything you’ve accomplished in your career, are the Olympics still important? The Olympic Games are the pinnacle and remain super important! I grew up watching the Olympics and always dreamed of competing in them. Funnily enough, my early motivation as a child watching the Games was always around riding horses (I grew up on a horse farm, riding all the time). I used to watch National Velvet and International Velvet (films about a young woman breaking barriers in equestrian and eventually going to the Olympic Games) and just dream. To get a medal at the Games would be that dream come true.
Tokyo would be your third Games, you’re obviously approaching it differently to the previous two? In my first Olympics in 2012, I was super green. I’d had just a tiny bit of exposure in Europe but broke my collarbone three times in 12 months, so 2011 was really the first time I represented SA at the World Champs. I made some mistakes as a result but I’ve since learnt quite a lot over the years and in Rio, and I do believe that I’ve come into myself as a rider in terms of strength and experience. I feel like I am at the peak of my career and am much more prepared for the Tokyo Games, even coming through a very challenging period with the COVID pandemic. All of these things have obviously formed me as a person and a rider and I’m really going to Tokyo putting it all in for that historic medal for South Africa.
Racing for the National team is obviously very different to racing on your pro trade team? Very. On my team (SD Worx) I get really great support in terms of strong team members, infrastructure and staff. So National Team events are always a little bit of a challenge for me, because the support I receive is not the same as what I am used to in a trade team. In particular, I don’t really have team support in terms of team members who are able to work with me well into the final stages of the race. Of course, Carla Oberholzer will be at the Games with me, and I know she will give everything she possibly can to support me, but the reality is that I will most likely be isolated toward the end. The reason is that it’s very difficult for SA women to make a full-time career out of cycling in Europe. Obviously, the men’s peloton is way ahead because of teams like Qhubeka NextHash which was previously MTN and NTT – there was a really nice pathway for SA talent to come over to Europe. We still have a long way to go in terms of development and growing the depth of SA women’s riders in Europe. For me, it was many challenging years of finding ways to position myself in Europe for an extended period of time. A lot of that has to do with Visas and it’s just very difficult for SA women to be in Europe for longer than three months to race. This is starting to change with the introduction of the World Tour, which means there are better contracts out there for women, which will also now hopefully pave the way for work visas and those types of things.
Things are starting to change though, right? They are yes. Things have come a long way in terms of National support, it hasn’t always been plain sailing when it comes to National Team events, but Cycling SA has put in big efforts over the past few years to try and improve the support and do what is best for the athletes. I am very grateful, they (Cycling SA) have stepped up to help meet my need for continuity in staff and team support. You really have to trust those you work with when it comes to the mechanics, managers and directors sitting in the car. You have to have a good relationship and trust everything they say and do. If those people are constantly changing then it puts you even further out of your (trade team) comfort zone. Fortunately this time there is continuity in terms of staff: We have the same mechanic as Rio – Gary Blem, one of the world’s best – as well as Carl Pasio as the director. My husband Carl was also the director in Rio and most of my World Champs races over the past couple of years. I’m super grateful for the team this year because it helps me to feel that much confident and calm.
Okay, so dish us some secrets – inside the peloton at a race like Worlds or Olympics is it 100% Nation vs. Nation or, is there occasional soft assistance between trade teams? We race for trade teams for 90% of the year and at these National Team events, we ride for our country, which is, honestly, quite weird. I feel that this needs to change in cycling – if we call ourselves a professional sport – then I believe a World Champs needs to become a trade team event, maybe not the Olympic Games as that is kind of unique. But World’s needs to be a trade team event, this will make it much more professional and make more sense because at the end of the day if you win a world title for your country it is actually your country that benefits the most out of it. The challenge for national federations is to raise the funds to continue to support themselves if they don’t really have access to the riders all the time. Also, there is often a conflict of interest if there are sponsors that a national team secures that are not the same as our trade team sponsors. Having said that, at something like a World Championships, it is possible that there is some sort of soft assistance between members of trade teams. Especially on the smaller nations who are outnumbered from the start and perhaps have very little chance to medal anyway. Those riders from the smaller nations might as well help out the trade team, teammate. It is quite a difficult one though because if you are competing for your national team there is that national pride at stake. Also with regards to trade teams, it might not be that we formally work together but on my current trade team we’ve had the discussion around the table and it is accepted that the Dutch team riders don’t chase down their trade team members. That doesn’t mean they’re ‘working’ for us, but there is kind of this unwritten rule that they won’t chase if there are teammates (from other countries) in a breakaway.
That Olympic medal is obviously a goal, but you’ve always been a super highly driven athlete, where does that motivation come from? I’ve always been a hard worker that strives for the best and to give the best. I was a top student and always strived to be a top athlete, but to be honest, at school I never found the sport that suited me so well. I played hockey, tennis and did athletics and I was good but never the best. I would get so close and then crack under the pressure, especially in tennis where I would get so close but then not win. I’ve had to learn to deal with that and I think that comes a lot from my husband Carl, he has played a very instrumental role in building my confidence. I guess that is what it all boils down to: I’ve always been a hard worker and strived to do my best, but I haven’t necessarily believed in myself, especially in sport. Carl was the one who identified my talent for cycling at University and he is the one who has really nurtured it through the years. He’s taught me how to believe in myself, but it’s been somewhat of a process for sure. Today what continues to motivate me is that I’m a very purpose-driven athlete – I like inspiring others and influencing change. I have carved this reputation for myself as being a pioneer in the space of women’s cycling and for inspiring others and driving change. That continues to motivate me – to move the sport forward and to inspire others to overcome and challenge themselves. An important part of what I do is talking to people and sharing my experiences over the years.
What’s currently your favourite training route in Europe? Rocacorba – a famous and challenging climb, nearly 10km long with an average gradient of 7% outside Banyoles in Girona. It’s been a significant one throughout my career. I currently have the QOM with quite a convincing time, but I would still like to improve that time to crack 30-minutes. (I’m now at 31). We live at the base of the climb and our cycling business is named after it and I do a lot my interval training there. I really like to do my intervals in a controlled environment – using the same road for the same intervals throughout the season – that way you are not just using power output files to track progress but also see it physically in terms of progress on where you finish on a climb.
What South African route do you miss the most? The Cape Peninsula loop – the Cape Town Cycle Tour route basically – it’s just so iconic and special and shows off the beauty of South Africa. I can never get bored of that route.
| INTERVIEW: Jazz Kuschke |