This interview is also available as a podcast - if you want to listen to the full thing, go here
PdC: You started relatively late in cycling - was it while you were at university?
Ashleigh: I really only started competing in cycling in 2008, which is really not so long ago, in my twenties, which is quite late in professional sport.
PdC: You'd completed an Engineering degree, hadn't you, so how did you make that jump, to decide how to come over here?
Ashleigh: I've really always loved sport from a really young age, and at school I played hockey, tennis, all the traditional school sports, but I always had this challenge, where my birthday's in December, and the school year in South Africa runs January to December, so I was always really young in my class, always the smallest, and at hockey, I was fast, but I wasn't the strongest, and that always played against me. So I played for the A team rather than the first team, but I always had this desire to do sports more seriously.
But also being an achiever academically at school, I decided to study engineering, and when I first started studying at university, I really would never have imagined that this is what I would be doing now. If you asked me in 2005, when I started studying, I would really have thought I'd be in a high-powered engineering job now. So it really was the last thing on my mind.
I met Carl, my husband, at university, and he was really sporty, he came from a background with national colours in all sorts of sports, from hockey to squash, to swimming, and later in his life he focused on triathlon, and at the time he was really seriously in his triathlon, and preparing to represent South Africa at World Champs in Japan that year.
It's quite an interesting story, because me being the academic - I was really interested in sport, but I wasn't really the best in any sport in particular, and Carl being this avid, amazing athlete, who was also studying Engineering, and he hadn't necessarily developed the skills to study properly. So he was distracted with sport, and I was really good at university work, and we had our first test week, and we'd just started dating. It was quite funny, Carl loves to tell this story actually, and we got our maths marks back, and we were sitting in class, and the lecturer stood at the front of the class and said "the lowest mark in the class is 11% (or something) and the highest mark is 90-something percent, so whoever got 11%, you should really reconsider your direction of studies, and I think you should get out of this class - and whoever got 90%, you're doing incredibly well, and should be proud of yourself". She then invited us to come and get our papers and we went up, nervous, to go and collect them, and Carl went up to pick up his paper, and I still remember the blank look on his face as he looked at it sort of nervously said "What did you get?"
I was a bit embarrassed, but eventually he noticed I was the one with the highest mark and he was the one with the lowest mark, and he literally dropped his paper and ran. And thought "Oh my word, here we go - I've chased away my boyfriend!" So I set off to find him, and I eventually found him in his room, and I knocked on his door, and I said "You know what, we can do this together - if you teach me how to ride a bike, I'll teach you how to study and do well at maths" - and that's literally how things happened, so from then on, I was his maths mentor, and he was my cycling mentor.
I first dabbled in triathlon, and I'm actually a hopeless swimmer, and then I tried duathlon, and I'm not a bad runner, but I kept getting running injuries, and that's what eventually forced me to focus on cycling alone, and it was the best choice ever. So then by our final year, I was jetting off to the Tour of l'Ardéche, to go and get my first taste of European racing, and Carl was left behind in Stellenbosch, finishing of my thesis in the biodiesel lab, doing the practical work for me while I was away, so our roles completely switched!
We both got our Engineering degrees, him in Civil and mine in Chemical, but straight after that we just realised that cycling was something I had a talent for, and being young, we decided "Why not? Let's take on this adventure" - that's what got us over to Europe.
My first taste of racing in Europe was the Tour of l'Ardéche, and I just loved the challenge of it. I loved cycling in South Africa, but the routes and the competition are just not the same as it is here, obviously the level is not the same, and there's something about a challenge that excites me, and Carl, for that matter, so we came over to Europe in 2010, to see what it's all about.
PdC: I guess somewhere out there, there's an imaginary Ashleigh who never met Carl, who's a high-flying Chemical Engineer! People think about engineering as a male-dominated profession, and obviously cycling is male dominated - is that something you just don't care about?
Ashleigh: I seem to have always chosen male-dominated directions. It's been interesting, and it's been good for me. Growing up I was at a girls-only school, and I was quite shy, I never really dated boys - just uptight, perfectionist. And Engineering is considered one of the hardest degree, so I suppose that's what drew me to it in the first place.
People often bring it up, and they go "You've got this amazing degree, don't you think you're wasting it? Why are you cycling, there's no money in women's cycling - you could be earning so much more as an engineer", and my answer to that is my passion lies in cycling, and I'm young now, and it's something you can only do while you're young. But also, Engineering has never been a waste, because I learnt so much, study a degree of that nature, being in a male-dominated enviromnment, being a hard degree, you have to really find the motivation and perserverance to get through it all, so I think that my Engineering degree has made me a better cyclist, to be honest.
PdC: There are a couple of engineers in the peloton, aren't there? Obviously Emma Pooley's just finished her degree in Geo-technical engineering, do you ever have that little engineers' club?
Ashleigh: Yes, we've had the odd chat about it, Emma and I, but also in my own team, Cecilie Gotaas Johnsen
PdC: She's another PhD, isn't she?
Ashleigh: Yeah, she's a chemical engineer, and she's a practising chemical engineer, and that always amazes me, that woman is like super-woman, seriously, she splits herself into five! Not only is she a practising chemical engineer, she's a mom too, and she manages to come over and do all the racing. We have our chats about it. Obviously I don't have any experience working as an engineer, but it's interesting to talk to Cecilie, to get an idea of what it's really like. My engineering, my analytical skills are used every day in terms of the power data, and the cycling data, it fascinates me - sometimes I have to remind myself not to get too caught up in it!
PdC: I was going to ask you, as a perfectionist, how do you cope with something like cycling where there are so many variables, everything from the weather to mechanicals, to injuries, to bad positioning, to someone else crashing in front of you - how does perfectionist-you manage that?
Ashleigh: I could probably talk for ages, because another life event, which maybe changed me, so from being at school an academic performer-perfectionist to the T, an A-type personality...
I actually had a really bad horse-riding accident in my final year at school, where I had a really bad head injury. So halfway through my school year, I was just going on a casual Sunday ride with my dad and my uncle, and I hadn't been riding my horse for two or three weeks, because I'd been away on holiday, and my horse was an uptight strong horse, and I was a little bit nervous, because we were going for a ride with horses he didn't know. But I'd also made a huge mistake, I'd left my helmet at home, and at the time I said to my dad "I left my helmet at home, I don't know if I should ride", and both he and my uncle said "Don't worry, we're just going for a Sunday afternoon stroll, nothing will happen".
So we set off, and we turned into a field, and suddenly something flew out of a bunch, and my horse just got this massive fright and took off. He was really strong, and I just couldn't get him to stop, so I decided "Well OK, I'm just going to hang on, because he's going home, and when he gets back to the stables, he will stop". But as we entered into the stables there was a piece of concrete over a waterway, and I don't remember the details of the incident, but what I think happened, or what we managed to fathom, is that he didn't slow down, and he went across this piece of concrete with loose gravel way too fast, and he slipped. And as he slipped, I fell off with my head onto the concrete
It was quite a serious head injury, a basal skull fracture, but my dad and my uncle rushed me off to the hospital. There was a paramedic there riding his horse, luckily - he was stabling his horse there at the same place, so everything miraculously happened in the right way, and they got me to the hospital very quickly, and I was in a coma for about 10 day.
The prognosis was really bad, they said I wasn't going to finish school, and I'd never be the same person, and all those kind of things which I think neurosurgeons have to say, and I think I was really determined to prove everybody wrong. This happened in June, and by the end of the year, October, I had managed to make a miraculous recovery, and I wrote my final year exams, and I passed all seven subjects with Distinction. So it was really quite an incredible life-changing event.
As part of that, my parents said "You need to learn to relax, you need to take a year off, because this has just been too stressful". So I did a gap year, and I went to England and I stooged at a school just outside Oxford, and I think it was just through that experience, travelling a bit in Europe, and having such a life-changing event happen, that I learnt a little bit to relax.
And then meeting Carl - he's been an incredible force in my life. Not only has he been the one to get me over here and riding, and riding at the level that I am, he's just an incredible person. We've been such a great team - I've brought the disciplined side to our relationship, and he's brought the fun-loving side, and taking things as they come, and I really wouldn't be able to do the things that I'm doing without him.
And obviously cycling is so unpredictable, there are so many things that you have no control of, and that's once again been good for me, learning to let go, sometimes, and just to take things as they come. And like I said, trying to keep a positive spin on every situation also helps, and to think there is a bigger picture, or a bigger plan, it's all part of the journey.
PdC: That's amazing. I can't even imagine what that must have been like, for you and for your poor father to say no, ride anyway, and to get over that, and accept it, to think "I could have done it differently", but just accept and move on, that's a very strong thing to do.
Ashleigh: It was really hard for my dad to find me there, unconscious and convulsing, and it was a case of life or death. "What doesn't kill you makes you strongly" - it's a cliché, but it really is true.
PdC: And I guess after that, dealing with things like allergies - you know that the pollen will go away eventually, and if you break your hand, you know that your bones will mend again.
Ashleigh: It brings some perspective to life. Sometimes you have to remind yourself though, because you can get lost in the moment of "this is just terrible" - but it's about keeping that perspective always, and knowing it's small in the grand scheme of things.
PdC: How do you do that when it's going wrong, how do you remind yourself of that?
Ashleigh: It's my faith - I am Christian, and I believe that there is a plan and a bigger picture, and there is a power that's in control, and it's bigger than I am, and having faith that God knows my future and it's all part of the journey, and the challenges are what makes you stronger. It's about coming out of them, and using them to fuel you further, so I suppose it's a deep faith.
PdC: One last question. Obviously when you came over you were a really big fan, I remember your "Marianne Vos is fast" header on your blog. How do you feel, now that you're part of the peloton? You had that very good perspective of being an outsider looking in - how do you feel now, in your fourth season over here, do you still feel the same about it?
Ashleigh: I still think Marianne is incredible, obviously, but things have progressed, so from being the outsider, the admiring fan, the novice trying to break into the peloton, to now being one of them. Now it's like, chatting to Marianne, I know her, she knows me, whereas before you'd be nervous around them and think "this is an amazing multiple World Champion!". So things have changed, relationships have changed.
It's strange, I haven't really given it a lot of thought, to be honest, but I've always tried to come here and from the start to be friendly to all the riders, and that always helped. Instead of coming in and saying "I've got something to prove" I came in saying "I've got something to learn, I can learn from these girls", and I still do.
So now funnily enough now I'm sort of one of the, without sounding too arrogant, "respected" riders in the peloton, but I still make rookie errors, I still make stupid mistake, and once again that just happened recently. With Boels Rental Holland Hills Classic, I had a great win out there last year, and then coming back to defend, I made a stupid error. The season's been a bit challenging with allergies, and I maybe lost a little bit of confidence in the process because I was never really sure of how my body was going to respond, but now things are changing, and the training's been going really well, and I'm feeling good again..... But I went into Holland Hills in a way being more conservative, and thinking "I'm going to save myself for the second part of the race, I'm not going to go out too hard", and having done that I was sitting further back rather than being at the front where I usually like to be - I usually like to be at the front so I don't miss anything, but this time I was conserving, sitting further back, thinking I'll wait for my time later in the race, and doing that, I completely missed the move.
it came at the time I least expected it, the split happened on a descent rather than an uphill. There are fourteen climbs in the Holland Hills Classic, and the breakaway went on a downhill! It was so frustrating because this breakaway slipped off the front, and I saw it happening, but I was too far back, and the roads were narrow, and there was no way to come around the riders, and by the time I got to the front.... We were only four Hitec riders in the race, because we'd split our team over a few races, and so my team-mates, with all due credit, they did their best to chase, and on the next hill, I tried to bridge across, but it wasn't long enough, and the next thing, the breakaway had just disappeared down the road, and I felt so frustrated, because I felt like I'd let myself down and I'd let my team down.
That was a hard thing to accept, such a stupid mistake, why? Why do that? Why not be aggressive, be at the front where you like to be? So then I decided, for Gooik, I'm going to improve on that and I'm not going to race conservatively, I'm going to be up front where I like to be, and where I usually am.
And so I did exactly that, and everything was going amazingly, I got into the breakaway of the day, on the Kapelmuur, riding strong in the select group with Marianne, Emma [Johansson], Elisa [Longo Borghini] and myself chasing down Loes [Gunnewijk] up the road, and then made another stupid error!
I just underestimated the distance, 140 kilometres, and we were in a breakaway for half of the race, 70 kilometres, and I just didn't eat properly - I took three gels in the whole race, and one bottle of energy drink, and by the time we got to the last lap, I just felt like my tank was empty. So another rookie error. It was a great rider for Elisa, and it was great for her to finish third on the podium, but I sort of lost touch with the breakaway group at 5ks to go.
I managed to hang on to my fifth place. Essentially we should have won, either us, or GreenEdge, each having two riders in the breakaway. Again a rookie error, and you think 'Come on!" but these things happen, and you're always learning, and I think that's the important thing, to never think that you know everything, to be willing to continue to learn, and try not to make the same mistakes again!
PdC: And even with these errors, you were still tenth in the Hills Classic, and fifth in Gooik, so if you can make all these errors now, once we get to the stageraces and the climbing races, you'll be good to go! You'll have run out of errors, run out of bad luck, and everything will go right!
Ashleigh: I hope so too!
You can read the first part of this interview with Ashleigh here on the Café. 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.