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Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio blog: Out in the cold at Strade Bianche

What to wear? What to wear? It was a big event and the clothes were an important part. Perhaps the most important part. I couldn’t remember the last time I had ever thought about an outfit so much. My wedding, maybe? I’ve worn a uniform for a lot of my life and my lack of clothing-related decision making was showing. I ran through the options in my head. Picking a wedding dress was easier.

Strade Bianche was very much going to be a winter race. All week I had been diligently checking the weather and cringing every time. Thanks to social media, I didn’t even have to imagine the snow-swept roads. Spring Classics are known for testing conditions but testing spring conditions. In my books, snow fell under the winter category. Consequently, I arrived in Italy with every possible piece of cycling kit imaginable. Best to have and not need than need and not have.

On the morning of the race, unlike choosing my wedding dress, the clothes weren’t speaking to me. While the official team meeting was about race strategy and logistics, the unofficial meeting was all about what we were going to wear. How many layers? What type of jacket? Maybe a vest and arm warmers? Leg warmers, knee warmers, or just shorts? It became a discussion. The opinions were numerous but, eventually, I decided.

Five minutes into the race and I was frozen. After sign-in I had even put on a few more items but it wasn’t enough. The snow had melted and left icy cold water on the roads so, not only were the roads now sticky and muddy, but there was freezing water spraying up at us. I had slathered heat cream all over bare legs, figuring leg warmers would just be wet anyways, but bare legs were a bad idea. I just had to warm up, I unconvincingly told myself, praying a hill would come sooner rather than later.

I just wasn’t warming up. Neither was my crank. The most horrendous noise was coming from my bike, no doubt because of the mud slicked road. I couldn’t see behind my fogged glasses either and I was slipping back in the bunch. After a lengthy mental debate, I took off my glasses, radioed in for a bike change, and decided to take back control of my race.

The race heated up—figuratively—with the first break of the day, but it wasn’t until the second breakaway was caught that I was able to get my bike change. With 92km of racing done and the last three gravel sections to go, it was the breaking point of the race. I was still incredibly cold. It was almost all I could think about but I knew everyone was cold. The new bike under me felt amazing, however, so I thought, screw the cold, I’m in this.

I was there when the perfect final move went. Anna van der Breggen was up the road, Elisa Longo Borghini was chasing, but I knew Kasia Niewiadoma had come second so many times she was ravenous for a win. I tried to follow but my legs were like clumsy blocks of ice. Plan B was to race for fourth, helping Mitchelton—Scott chase and limit losses. With 10 kilometres to go, I was well placed but when the rider in front of me slammed brakes after turning the wrong way, I crashed hard.

I got up in a haze. I was woozy and hesitated to get back on my bike. I didn’t realise until after but my helmet was smashed. Adrenaline seemed to warm me up and, even though my gears were damaged, I could see the group just up the road.

I rolled in for eighth place but I kept riding. The finish line wasn’t my final destination. I needed heat. Our soigneur found me and passed me a vest. Was he kidding?! “Warmer!” I pleaded with him as he dug in his bag for a jacket. My jaw was chattering. My hands were shaking. My eyes were red and swollen. I just needed to get to the team camper. I just needed heat.

After we were all warm and the race debrief was done, I realised what a traumatic day it had been. It took a massive toll on everybody. You don’t often see people celebrate for just crossing the line, that’s usually an action reserved for winners; but, today was a war and everyone who made it to the finish line knew they had survived something incredible.

And the clothes? Forever stained with mud and the icy-cold memories of Strade Bianche 2018, I knew, just like my wedding dress, I was never going to wear them again. Our soigneur had put my soaking wet grimy clothes into a garbage bag. And there they stayed.

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Ashleigh-Moolman-Pasio is a world-class climber and the newest member of CCC-Liv (formerly Waowdeals). She has written a regular blog for Cyclingnews since 2016, touching on topics of gender equality in women’s and men’s professional cycling.

From South Africa, Moolman-Pasio turned professional with Lotto Ladies Team in 2010, spent one season with Hitec Products in 2014 and the last four seasons with Cervelo-Bigla. She made a move to CCC-Liv in 2019 and will race alongside her long-time mentor Marianne Vos.

She’s a versatile rider who was second at Flèche Wallonne, fourth at the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastonge-Liège, and second behind Annemiek van Vleuten at the Giro Rosa in 2018. This year, look for Moolman-Pasio at the front end of the peloton, and on the podium, during the Spring Classics and at the most mountainous stage races on the Women’s WorldTour.