Interview: Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio Part 1, previewing the Emakumeen Bira, South African cycling, and so much more!

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio

When Ashleigh Moolman relocated from South Africa to join the women's peloton in 2010, she wasn't just breaking new ground in terms of internationalisation, she also brought the excitement of a fan, promoting the sport while training and racing. The first race she went to with Lotto Belisol was the Emakumeen Bira, which starts on Thursday, and she tells us all about it, how her season with Hitec Products is going, the challenges and possible solutions facing South African riders into the peloton - and much more!

This interview is also available as a podcast - if you want to listen to the full thing, go here

PdC: We're about to come to your "home" races, with you living in northern Spain - I know they're the other side of the country, but they're the nearest to you.

Ashleigh: They are, almost - and the racing in Spain has a special place for me, because when I first came over to Europe in 2010, they were the first European races I did with Lotto Belisol.  The Valladolid World Cup now no longer exists, but Durango-Durango and the Emakumeen Bira are special races.

PdC: They're quite different races aren't they - can you tell us about them?

Ashleigh: Durango-Durango is a tough race, it's not traditionally a sprint - maybe a sprint from a small group, but it could also be a solo victory.  It starts with four laps, which aren't that tough, it's got a little climb in it, but nothing too big, but then we head away from the local lap, and we go up two climbs which are quite big.  They're not too long, the longest is maybe 5-7 kilometres, but they're decent climbs.

Last year, for example there were five of us that had got away at the top of the climb - Evelyn Stevens, Elisa Longo Borghini, Emma Johansson, Marianne Vos and myself - and funnily enough as we were going down the descent, I almost crashed going round one of the corners, and realised there was something wrong, and later realised it was a slow puncture, so I had to let go of the four, and they rode away to contest the sprint for the win, and I managed to hold on for fifth before the bunch caught me.

PdC: That must have been bitter-sweet.  On the one hand, not being able to make it to the end-game because of a puncture, but on the other hand, knowing you were up there, and it was only a mechanical that stopped you.  How does that feel?

Ashleigh: Cycling is a tough sport in that way, you can do all the preparation, all the training, but there are obviously certain aspects that are out of your control, and it's about learning to handle that as well.  Last year's Durango-Durango and Emakumeen Bira have a bitter-sweet feeling for me because like I said, they're special races to me, but also from the beginning I did well in the Emakumeen Bira, because there used to be an uphill time trial, so even from the first tour that I did, I think I finished 7th in the ITT, which was quite good, considering it was my first Tour in Europe.  And it was also the first UCI podium experience, because I won the polka dot [Mountains] jersey in 2011.

So there's been a fair amount of success in the Tour, but then I've also had some really bad luck with illness in 2012, which eventually forced me to abandon the Tour, and then last year I ended up having to abandon the Tour, because I had a really bad crash.  There's obviously a lot of rain associated with the Basque region, and I had a really bad crash on a very steep descent, and I fell really hard on my glute, which I later realised I'd done some damage or bruising to the sciatic nerve,  so I completely lost all the power in one leg, which was quite a disturbing experience.  Suddenly you just don't feel like the same rider, you're suddenly dropping from the peloton on the climbs, whereas before you'd be up in the front.  I've had some really bad experiences but also some great experiences, so I just hope this year will be a good experience, with good luck!

PdC: The Emakumeen Bira is such a beautiful race - I long for the uphill time trial again, but could you describe it a little bit, for people who don't know it?

Ashleigh: It changes slightly from year to year, but more or less in the same area and similar terrain.  No uphill finishes, but a fair amount of climbing.  Again, it's not terribly long climbs, it's more in the range of 3 to 7 kilometre climbs.  It's a nice tour, it's generally exciting, leaders' jerseys can change, it can be solo victories, but it can also be sprints from small groups to big bunch sprints, so it caters for all the different riding styles.  It's a good tour to come with a good team, including a good sprinter, good climbers, good breakaway riders, and very often there's a lot of rain!  The Basque region is renowned for that very fine rain, which can be quite annoying, having to motivate yourself to have to go out there and race in the wet conditions, and there's also often a lot of oil on the roads, so it is quite dangerous in that aspect.  But it's exciting racing, rolling terrain, with some slightly longer climbs.

PdC: Last year you couldn't finish Stage 4 because of the crash, but then a couple of weeks later you were racing the Giro Rosa and you were the first rider from Africa and South Africa to get on the podium there, weren't you?

Ashleigh: Yeah, I finished third on Stage 4

PdC: and that was such a beautiful finish, that last uphill sprint - that makes it sound too easy!

Ashleigh: That was almost exactly what it is!  It was really exciting - obviously Spain is a good preparation tour for the Giro, where you start to see who's on form, who's coming to form and test the climbing legs out a bit, and having not finished the tour because a minor injury, it was a little bit hard for me. I wasn't sure how long it was going to take to get back to full power in my leg.  It's about staying calm, as a cyclist there are always challenges that face us, and it's about trying to stay positive.

Luckily the bruising around the sciatic nerve wasn't too bad, so I managed to come good for the Giro, and it was great to get a podium there, and to eventually finish 8th on GC.

PdC: And you've been getting better and better on the Giro GC by a couple of places every time, so that's good for this year!

Ashleigh: It's interesting, because I made huge leaps in improvement at the beginning.  My first Giro ever, I finished 17th, which was good, considering it was my first Grand Tour - and the step in 2011 was to 13th, which was still a great improvement from 17th, and then from there, the next year it was 10th, so every year it's been an improvement, but what I did realise in 2012 was that the improvement from 13th in 2011 to 10th, although it seemed like less places numerically, it was actually a big jump - and then once you start to hit the top ten, numerically the jump looks smaller, but it takes that much more.

I was lying 5th on GC last year and then bad positioning [changed that], hitting one of the major climbs, Mount Beigua on Stage 5. I'd had a great finish with the podium on Stage 4, and feeling wow, this Giro's going my way, lying 5th on GC, and then just a silly mistake changed that.

It's hard for us, the men go and do route recons for the Tour de France, for example, but it's not that easy for the women, we have to be racing regularly, because World ranking is important to us.  Obviously there are one or two riders, like Mara Abbott, who target one tour, but generally, our value is determined by World ranking.  So there's not necessarily always enough time to go and do proper recon of our big Tours like the Giro.  So not really knowing the course properly, only from the race profile on paper, I misjudged the descent, and I was positioned too far back as we hit quite a long descent, and straight from that we went up this really steep Mount Beigua.

So I found myself in a bad position, tried to move as much as I could on the descent, which wasn't really much, it was quite technical, and then I hit the climb on a back foot.  I put in a really big surge to try to get there, to contest the attacking, and later on I realised that was a big mistake, because Mount Beigua was one of those climbs that's consistently steep, it never let up. I got myself into the red at the base of the climb, just to get to the front, and then never managed to get out of the red, which was a challenging experience, because there was no time to recover.

Had I maybe let them all go and started climbing more consistently, I probably would have finished better, but at the time it was the panic, "get to the front", so it was a hard lesson I learned there. It was from a high to kind of a low because I slipped down on GC at that stage, and from there it was hard to make up the positions.

This year, moving teams, being in Hitec with Elisa Longo Borghini, we both are strong climbers, so this year's Giro will be fun.  Elisa being Italian, essentially the Tour is for Elisa, we will be supporting Elisa for GC aspiration.  For me, I'd just like to go in there and use it as good preparation for the Commonwealth Games, to help and support Elisa as much as I can, and to maybe get a stage win or two, that would be great, maybe a slightly different focus this year.

PdC: Didn't Elisa design one of the stages?

Ashleigh: Yes, obviously last year was very tough for her, having had that really serious crash before the Giro.  It's going to be the same as Stage 5 last year - Elisa was on the sideline on that day in a wheelchair that day, which was really hard for her, but this this year the stage is back, in her hometown and home area, so she's obviously really motivated for that stage - that will be Stage 8, if I remember correctly, so that will be really exciting as well.

PdC: Racing with Elisa - poor Elisa last year - she'd been targeting the Giro, she'd been definitely one of the favourites, for stage wins if not for the big monster climbs.  Does it put a lot of pressure on the team to try to make it better for her?

Ashleigh: The team's really motivated to support Elisa, especially since her disappointment last year, and she's riding really strong this year, and it will be interesting to be on an team with an Italian.

PdC: It's such a crazy race, such a beautiful, incredible race, some of the British riders must have felt what it's like for the Italians at the Friends Life Women's Tour this year.

Ashleigh: It's a really special race for the Italians.  It's always high priority on their list, and they're always in good form for it, so it's going to be really nice, we'll have a strong team.  I just saw the route, I got an email from Karl Lima today with all the stages on it, so now we have a better idea of what to prepare for.

PdC: You've been having quite a difficult season, you've said you've been suffering from allergies this year.

Ashleigh: Yeah, it's been a challenging season.  It's also been great - for me, getting into the sport much later in my life, it's always about continuing to learn and improve, and obviously experience is everything, and I don't have all that much time, so the faster I learn, the better.  I had a wonderful four years with Lotto, but I felt change was necessary to stimulate some more growth.

It started off on a high, winning the National Champs in South Africa, and then coming over to Europe, I had a really good Het Nieuwsblad, considering it was the first time I'd ever raced a cobbled classic, and I finished 8th, and then getting a podium at Le Samyn - and then things started to go downhill a little bit downhill from there.  As the spring and the pollen exploded, so did my legs, almost literally!

So on top of all the other changes - a new team, new bike, new shoes, all sorts of new things, I also had this challenge of allergies, which I've had before, I've struggled a bit with allergies, but never as bad as I did this year.  Obviously it's been hard mentally, because you're travelling to all these different countries to race and the pollen count, and the maturity of the spring differs wherever you go, so you're never quite sure how you'll respond when you get there, so it's about going into the race and seeing what you can do.

So it's been a challenge, but challenge is also good. Last year I had a really good start to the year, and then I had a bad finish - I also broke my hand in the Route de France, which played a huge role in the latter part of my season not going as I would have liked.

So this year the aim was to finish off good - so maybe fate is playing into my hands, I've had a hard start, but maybe that's prepared me better  for a good finish to the season, so that's sort of the plan, and hopefully things can only get better from here!

PdC: That's so typical of you!  Whenever I think of you, I think about your blogs and your twitter - you always have a very upbeat approach to life - or maybe it's always that you try to look on the positive side?

Ashleigh: That is sort of my philosophy, to try to see a positive in everything, because like I said, cycling is a sport where you can never really predict or plan things, you've got to go with the flow, and the best way to deal with disappointment is to try to see the positive in it.  So that's the life philosophy, and it's working for me!

And I enjoy sharing the stories, and all the lessons I'm learning with people.  Professional sport can be seen as quite a selfish career, it's all about winning, and yourself, and performance, but I like to see a different side of it, where through all my lessons, and my journey in sport, I can share with others, and hopefully inspire them to pursue their own passion, whatever it is.

PdC: I remember when you first came to Europe, and you had your FemmeVelo website, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, it was almost like watching a fan become part of the sport.

Ashleigh: That was it.  It's always been a little bit hard for me, because for me, it's more than just performing or winning races, it's about the experience, about the journey as a whole.  I'm very passionate about women's sport in general, and in seeing women's cycling get more recognition, and seeing it develop in Africa and South Africa, so it was about finding a way of doing that, but also being competitive as well.  It's a journey I'm still trying to figure out, to be honest, because there's a part of me that still gets really excited about promoting the sport and thinking of ways of improving it, and getting more South Africans and Africans over to Europe, and in general just making the world  a better place!

But then I have to tap myself on the shoulder and say "Wait!  You can't do everything! You need to focus one one thing at a time, and maybe in time things will all fall into place".  So I often have to hold myself back and say "Hey wait! Focus on your riding first, you're an athlete, you need to perform", because obviously the better I perform, the more influence I can have in the future.  So it's always about finding the balance.

PdC: But you always manage to be a really good ambassador for South African cycling.  Last year, when you were the first South African and African on the podium of the World Cup and the Giro, that was a really impressive thing, and it made me feel that it wasn't just about yourself, it was about what it meant for the continent and the country

Ashleigh: It's really an honour to be flying the flag over here internationally, and I'm really enjoying the journey, but I would obviously like to see the sport grow more in South Africa and Africa.  The challenge of course is that it's not just seeing the sport grow on the continent, it's also about getting the girls over here, which is a big challenge.  I don't think the Europeans really always understand how much harder it is for us from the Southern Hemispere, not only us, but the Australians, even the Americans, though they're not from the Southern Hemisphere, but they're far away from European.

It's just that much harder for us, because I feel that the only way to be really successful is to spend a proper amount of time here, so for me, it works to base myself here, and I'm very lucky to have the support of my husband Carl, and he has an Italian passport, which really plays a huge role in helping me stay here for extended periods of time.  So that's the next challenge for African and South African riders, because we are usually limited to three-month visas.  And because cycling is not a very well-paid sport for women in particular - for the men it's ok, they can usually get working visas, or they can get residency because they have good contracts that are paying good money. But for the young girls who are just trying to be noticed, it's really hard.   It's a big challenge to just be noticed, it's a big challenge for our country and our continent.

It's something that will take time to overcome, and I'm just trying every year to do whatever I can do to help. It's good to see that there are three South Africans that have now come over to spend some time here, other than me, because unfortunately last year I was the only one over here, which is really not ideal.  Young Heidi Dalton, who's riding for Lotto-Belisol this year, she'll be riding in Spain as well.  Then An-Li Pretorious Kachelhoffer and Micayla Oliver are over in Holland, basing themselves there and trying to get rides, doing the crits and trying to get guest rides for whatever race they can.  So it's a challenge for us from the Southern Hemisphere, but every year we work on trying to make it easier for the girls.

PdC: What changes do you think would need to happen to make it easier to make it easy for the Southern Heisphere-ans?

Ashleigh: It's not an easy problem to solve, to be honest.  I don't know how one overcomes the visa problems.  Essentially I think we need to try to follow in the footsteps of Australia. I think they are a really good example, where they created a base here in Europe for their young riders.  The Australian Institute came over to sort of open the door for the youngsters to come over and get exposure, and I think that's really the only way to do it.

It's quite daunting for any young girl or boy to leave home and to come into the unknown, where often in Europe it's a foreign language, and to try to make it, it's really not easy, so the more support and stability and comfort one can offer them in that period, the better.  Essentially, that's the way to do it, to create a base in Europe with some funding, and to get the youngsters over here, to get exposure.

But the big challenge for South Africa and Africa in general is... No Federation is perfect, and we have a fair amount of challenges, and there isn't a lot of funding in the South African Cycling Federation.  My thought right now is, together with Carl and my dad and Robbie Hunter are involved in trying to find ways to get private funding, so instead of complaining about what our Federation isn't doing, we're trying to find ways of doing it ourselves.  I think private funding is the only way forward, to try to get big companies to back a national project and to eventually aim to to something similar to what the Australians are doing.

PdC: It's interesting, isn't it, especially in the context of African cycling, because you look at the UCI talking about diversification, and wanting to get bigger and better - but visa problems are a ridiculous thing.  But it's going to be interesting being a Commonwealth Games year, hopefully it can at least shine a light on it, make it a bit visible.  Obviously the Australians are going to be brilliant, but it'll be good to watch you, and the other Commonwealth nations that you don't normally get to see, having the chance to shine.

Ashleigh: I'm really looking forward to the Commonwealth Games, It is obviously very important for us as Commonwealth nations, it is an opportunity maybe to shine, in a slightly less competitive field, without playing it down. It will be my first Commonwealth Games, because I was selected to go to Delhi, but unfortunately I broke my collarbone just before, so I wasn't able to go - so it will be my first Commonwealth Games, and I'm looking forward to it.

***

Come back for part 2 tomorrow, when we'll talk about how Ash got into cycling, how her maths scores at university nearly scared away her (now) husband, how a catastrophic horse riding accident as a teenager helps her put everything into perspective, and of course, a lot more about her cycling.

Make sure you've bookmarked her excellent blog on her website, and are following her twitter - and keep up to date with her adventures on the Hitec Products team website, twitter and facebook.

Since I interviewed Ash on Sunday, the 2014 Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria was raced, and here are two videos with the action:


You can follow the Emakumeen Bira with our Podium Café friends, Babelia, Marcos and Saul - follow them on twitter through those links, and Babelia through the Road & Mud twitter account. Of course I've added them all to my live race tweeting twitter list, there's the #Bira twitter hashtag and we'll have a race thread here on the Café too.  There is information on the race website, and previews on

And Road & Mud has a history of the Basque races, in Spanish or via google.  And if you didn't see if last year, or want to be reminded of it, check out Saul's article on being at the race, right here on the Café!

Photos used with kind permission of Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio

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