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Cyclist’s 31 Inspirational Women No12: Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio

Maria David Sponsored
12 Mar 2021

Africa's most successful female pro rider, who went from hating indoor training to become UCI Esports World Champion

Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women

To celebrate International Women's Month, we have partnered with Zwift to tell the stories of 31 inspirational women across 31 days

Words: Maria David Photography: Getty Sport

South Africa’s Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio got into cycle racing effectively through a process of elimination. After trying triathlon at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape, she found that swimming was not her forte and running caused her various injuries. Which left cycling.

After graduating with a degree in chemical engineering, Ashleigh and her triathlete husband Carl Pasio moved to Europe to pursue their dream of being professional athletes.

The couple loved life there so much that they settled near Girona, Spain and set up a cycle touring business, Rocacorba, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. 

As a pro bike racer Ashleigh regularly finishes on the podium, particularly in hilly stage races. She is also a four-time African Road Race Champion, six-time South African Champion, and a Commonwealth Games Bronze medallist.

An additional feather recently added to her cap is the rainbow jersey as inaugural UCI Cycling Esports World Champion. Held in December 2020 on the Zwift online cycling platform, the event saw Ashleigh beat top racers including 2020 World Road Race Champion Anna van der Breggen and the 2019 champion Annemiek Van Vleuten over an undulating 50km route through Watopia. 

I really embraced the opportunities of the virtual world, and now I’m a proper convert

Not bad considering she didn’t use to like virtual cycling. The SD Worx rider talks about how she got into it:

‘I used to hate training on Zwift, but then I had to find a way to embrace it when we were no longer allowed to exercise outdoors in Spain during the pandemic.

‘It’s a different kind of stimulus on your muscle; as it’s an unnatural resistance you’re working much harder to hold the same numbers on an indoor trainer than you would on the road. So that was one of the biggest obstacles to doing indoor training.

‘When I changed to a new coach at the end of the 2019 season, I was really motivated to work with him [Dan Lorang], and take on the training he scheduled for me.

‘We talked about the challenges of indoor training and he helped to motivate me by first dropping my numbers a little bit, to make them more achievable.

‘There’s nothing worse than getting on an indoor trainer, trying to execute a session and you just can’t hit the numbers.

‘At that time the Olympic Games hadn’t been cancelled so that was also a motivating factor, and if I didn’t adapt I would fall behind.

‘The more I used Zwift the more accustomed I got to it, and as the virtual world opened up to me, I really started to enjoy it.’

Find the rest of Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women here

Through the lockdown period Ashleigh found that Zwift also helped with getting involved in cycling communities: ‘One of the big motivating factors was that I learned the social and community aspect of Zwift. So my training became more social than it had ever been, with meet-ups, and chatting on Discord.

‘I really embraced the opportunities of the virtual world, and now I’m a proper convert. Even if the weather is good outside, I still do my usual two Zwift sessions a week. One is an intervals session, and the other is a community-based social ride.

‘The reach of a platform like Zwift is massive. You are riding with people from all around the world so easily.’

Furthermore, Ashleigh can see how Zwift could increase women’s participation in cycling and can even be a way to identify future racers – something much needed in her native South Africa.

‘I identified Zwift as a great platform for talent ID and development. I hosted a women's-only ride every Monday during lockdown, and started to realise how Zwift seemed to create this environment that really motivated women to join, especially novices.

‘Suddenly, from the safety of their own home they felt more confident and safer. Coming from South Africa I recognise the obstacles to growing women’s cycling there because safety on the road is a big factor, and visa restrictions making it difficult to come to Europe.

‘I would like to use these last few years of my career and the future to try and help get more girls over [to Europe]. I’ve managed to get a spot for a talented South African rider, Frances Janse van Rensburg, on the UCI Women’s Continental Team.

‘There are riding programmes in South Africa to help uplift people from disadvantaged backgrounds in the squatter camps, but I can’t say I can identify one rider that really stands out.

‘I think it would be good to set up virtual cycling platforms in rural settings in South Africa where riders could come to an indoor centre, train on Zwift and then hopefully take part in talent ID programmes.

‘Being a professional cyclist myself I’m a bit limited in what I can do now, but I hope in the coming years to be able to play a more hands-on role. And that’s where I think E-Sports cycling can be a big opportunity.’

For more from Zwift this International Women's Monthvisit here.