Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio Q&A: A role model for change in women's cycling

Cervelo Bigla leader pushes for cycling growth in Africa, women's development and Olympic medals

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo Bigla Pro Cycling) went down in history last season as the first South African rider to grace the top-10 overall UCI world ranking. The strides she's made in both her cycling objectives and in the development of women’s cycling will be tough to top but she intends to continue to push her career and sport in an upward trajectory.

It’s a new year and Moolman-Pasio is excited about the prospects of accomplishments and improvements to come. In an interview with Cyclingnews, she spoke about her intent to compete for a medal at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and her spring preparations for that target. She also expressed her gratitude for her team’s new title sponsor Cervelo, along with her other sponsors, and the supportive environment that has allowed her to stretch toward success in cycling.

One of her long-term and most important endeavours is to continue to work with the sport’s governing body on ways to develop women’s cycling, both internationally and in Africa.

Cyclingnews: You had a great season in 2015 starting with the African Continental and South African Championships, where you won both titles. Will you be starting your season off with the same events, to defend those titles?

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio: It's always a great honour to wear the South African flag while racing in Europe, so of course, I will be defending my titles at the South African Championships in February. With regards to African Champs, I have made the difficult decision that I won’t be going to Morocco to defend my African Continental titles. Being an Olympic year, my focus will be on the Spring Classics. Doing altitude training at the end of February will better suit this goal and my Olympic ambitions.

CN: You had strong performances in the one-day Classics and hilly World Cups last year, will those be targets for you again?

AM: The classics and hilly World Cups are always a big focus. The short climbs and tough circuits suit me well as a rider, and of course I would love to win one of these races this year. Fleche Wallonne is by far my favourite one-day race and with top-five finishes for four years running, I would love to win this race in the near future.

CN: One-day races aside, you had a series of successes in the stage races like Elsy Jacobs, Radsportage, Euskal Emakumeen Bira and the Giro Rosa. Will you look for winning performances in those events?

AM: An Olympic year is a strange year, it only comes around every four years and everybody wants to be on their best form for the Games. The stage races I will take part in in 2016 will very much depend on what suits my Olympic preparation best. The plan is to get through my Spring Classic campaign first and then to make final decisions regarding which stage races I will target in 2016. Bira is much earlier this year, falling in April, so depending how the spring goes, I would like to race there again this year.

CN: In what area of racing do you hope to improve on most this year?

AM: I’m always looking to grow and improve in all aspects of my racing, but if I had to specify, I suppose I would really like to improve on my time trial performances and my sprint finish from a small group.

CN: What are your thoughts on the structure of the Women’s WorldTour, will you and Cervelo Bigla put some focus on these events?

AM: I think that the introduction of a Women’s WorldTour is a great step forward for women’s cycling. I believe that the introduction of stage racing into the series will help to diversify women’s cycling. In the past, it has been predominantly sprinters/all-rounders that have dominated the former World Cup series and top 10 in the UCI world ranking. But with the introduction of stage races into the new series, it gives the pure climbers more opportunity. This will make the battle for the overall title more interesting and exciting.

With regards to the team’s ambitions in the Women’s WorldTour, in 2016 our focus will be on targeting specific races rather than the overall title. A big focus for the team this year is the Olympic Games.

CN: Can you talk about the changes at Cervelo Bigla for 2016, the new title sponsor, the strengths of the team that has been put together and what your primary role will be?

AM: This is an exciting year for the team. We have a new name this year, with Cervelo becoming a title sponsor. At Cervélo Bigla Pro Cycling, Thomas Campana [manager] does his best to create a professional, high performance environment where riders can perform and grow. Cervelo’s added commitment to helping us achieve this is awesome, and we are just so grateful to be able to strive to perform at our best on such a high performance bike in an Olympic year. Other innovative partners who help us achieve a high-performance structure are Enve, Endura, Rotor, Kask, Ceramicspeed and Vittoria to name a few.

The team has become a bit smaller this year with the intention to streamline our structure and focus on the Olympic Games in Rio. We have a great core team in Lotta Lepisto, Carmen Small, Joelle Numainville, Nicole Hanselmann and myself who have stayed on from last year; our super talented youngsters Lisa Klein and Clara Koppenburg, and then new signings in Stephanie Pohl and Gabrielle Pilote.

I believe the strength of our team lies in a great combination of people and partners who all share the same vision. My objective in the team is to perform to my best ability alongside my teammates, and to guide and lead the younger riders to help them to learn and grow.

CN: Tell us more about your aspirations in the time trial and road race at the Olympic Games in Rio?

AM: The Rio Olympic Games is definitely a big objective for me this year, both road and time trial. One of the main reasons I joined Bigla was because I believe it is the best place for me to learn and grow as a rider in the build up to the Games. I’m very happy with the progress I made in 2015 and I’m looking forward to the year that lies ahead.

CN: What does your participation in the Olympics depend on?

AM: As the highest ranked South African rider, I am confident that I will be selected to represent my country in Rio. It is however important to have a good Spring Classics campaign to continue to accumulate points to ensure our country ranking remains in the top 15 nations, in order to qualify slots for both road race and time trial at Rio.

CN: You made history as the first-ever South African to finish in the top 10 of the UCI world rankings in 2015. How important was that for you? And how important is the growth of women’s cycling in Africa to you? Can you talk about your specific work to improve and build women’s cycling in Africa, and internationally?

AM: Finishing in the top 10 world ranking in the year preceding the Rio Olympics is great for my motivation and confidence. I feel that my consistent performances through the 2015 season and the lessons I learnt along the way will be a great boost this year, as I continue to strive to push boundaries and grow as an athlete and person.

It is not easy as a rider from the Southern Hemisphere to make a career of cycling in Europe, and I hope this achievement can inspire other South Africans and Africans to realise that with hard work, determination and sacrifice anything is possible. I also hope that in the years to come, the path that I have followed as a cyclist and the lessons that I have learnt can act as a type of “blue print” to help other South Africans and Africans to make a career of cycling internationally.

At this point in time, it is hard for me to play a hands-on role in growing women’s cycling in Africa, as I spent long periods of time in Europe competing. Currently I do my best to share my experiences and knowledge to inspire others, but in the near future I would like to give back in a more hands-on way. African women’s cycling has experienced great growth over the past two years and this is very much due to the great work of JP van Zyl at the World Cycling Centre Africa and Lise Olivier at Cycling South Africa Women’s Commission, and I commend them for their work.

The growth of women’s cycling is very important to me, as a passionate promoter of women’s sport in a testosterone-driven industry. I was very fortunate to be involved in some important conversations last year with the UCI, around the growth of women’s cycling and the introduction of the Women’s WorldTour, and I hope to continue to play a small part in pushing our beautiful sport forward in the years to come.

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