Four years ago Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio got an insight into what it would take to win Olympic Gold when she finished 16th in her debut Games in London. With the women's road race in Rio fast approaching, Moolman-Pasio has put that knowledge to good practice as she aims for glory this Sunday.
In the intervening period, Moolman-Pasio has shot to the forefront of women's cycling and has secured her place as one of the big favourites with some strong mid-season performances. "London was my first Olympic Games. It was quite an overwhelming experience because I had only represented South Africa one time before that at the World Championships in Copenhagen," Moolman-Pasio told Cyclingnews.
"Going from one World Championships experience into an Olympic Games was quite mind-blowing more than anything else. I learned a lot from that, and crossing the finish line in London I realised that if you want to stand a chance of winning a medal at an Olympic Games it takes a four-year process. Having had a Commonwealth Games experience in the middle of it and winning a medal in Glasgow was a great experience for me and another great learning curve. Going into Rio, I'm really confident and I'm going for gold."
As a rare climbers' course, the Rio road race has caught the attention of quite a number of riders in the peloton. Moolman-Pasio sees a large number of rivals for that gold, including Lizzie Armistead (Great Britain), Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) and Megan Guarnier (USA), among others. However, it is one that plays to her strengths and on seeing the parcours Moolman-Pasio couldn't help but have a smile on her face.
"I'm a classics rider as well as a climber so it really suits me well," she said. "I've got the short, steep climbs with a technical nature and then the longer climb, which is great, and a really technical descent. I like to descend. I don't want to be too confident but I'm looking forward to it.
"I think it's a really challenging course, and it's got a little bit of everything. It's a mix of flat riding on exposed coastline, a circuit further out of Rio that contains some classic-style climbs and a tough cobbled section. Just before the finish line, as we enter Rio again there is a really steep climb which just keeps going and going. It's a mix of everything, and I think that it's going to be an exciting race."
Channelling adversity into victory
Moolman-Pasio's season has largely been disrupted by illness, forcing her to miss the defence of her national time trial title in February. Her first race in Europe, Strade Bianche, ended in disqualification after she was deemed to have gone through a level crossing when the barriers were already coming down. After some more struggles with illness, things started to turn around for the 30-year-old with stage and overall success at the Auensteiner – Radsporttage at the beginning of June.
She backed that up with a commanding performance at the Women's Tour. She chose to bypass the Giro d'Italia in favour of a training camp with her final preparation race the Internationale Thüringen Rundfahrt culminating in a sixth place finish overall.
"It was quite a struggle but now, I suppose, it is a case of channelling adversity into victory. I suppose all the challenges make me stronger, and it was just to continue believing that was one of the challenges. I'm really happy that things are starting to come together now," she said to Cyclingnews.
Unlike some of her main rivals, Moolman-Pasio will only have the support of one other rider. Thanks to the points earned by Moolman-Pasio, the team actually earned three spots in the peloton, but that was reduced to two when individual rankings were taken into account. Alongside Moolman-Pasio on the start line will be Lotto-Soudal rider An-Li Kachelhoffer, the reigning South African road race champion.
"We still need to do a lot of work in South Africa in terms of the depth, and I don't feel that we have that many riders to really make a difference in the race so I'm happy with the two spots," she explained. "It will be quite a tactical game from the countries with more riders so it's just about being patient, staying calm and using my strengths when they count.
"The Olympic Games is very different in that the maximum number of riders is four, so it's strange because, usually, we have at least six riders in every race. I feel that your chances as an individual are a bit easier in the Olympic Games because the teams are thrown off. They're used to having six riders, and now they've only got four so they already have a little bit of an obstacle to overcome."