Road to Rio: Will Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio be South Africa’s leading lady or lone rider?
We are now one year away from the start of the Rio Olympics. The opening ceremony will take place the evening of August 5, 2016, and just two days later, on August 7, the best female cyclists from around the world will tackle a challenging 130.3km road course in Fort Copacabana in search of the gold.
Selection for each national Olympic squad has already started and is extremely competitive. Even the biggest countries are only allowed to take up to four riders for the road race (two max for the TT), so the competition will be fierce and the selection process heartbreaking.
Olympic hopeful Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio started thinking about the Rio Olympics the moment she crossed the finish line of Olympic road race in London three years ago.
“To really stand a chance at the Olympic Games, you really need to use the four years in between the games as your build-up to the next one,” Moolman-Pasio said. “Since London, Rio has been a big objective for me, especially with all the talk about the road course being a good climbers’ course. Now that we are a year out, most of what I’m doing I am doing with Rio as the end goal.”
London: Moolman-Pasio’s first Games, first taste for more
In 2012, Moolman-Pasio was still relatively new to cycling. She had discovered her talent for cycling while at university, which she completed in 2009, and made her European debut in 2010.
“Twenty-ten was my first year cycling in Europe. It was quite a crazy year for me because I wanted to improve quickly and took a lot of risks. I ended up breaking my collarbone three times that year so that was a really tough and disruptive year. In 2011 I actually had a really good year and I started to realize that I had potential,” she recalled.
The months leading up to the London Games were even more successful as Moolman-Pasio was crowned as South Africa’s national road race champion, finished in the top 10 overall of the Giro Rosa, and came in fifth at the Flèche Wallonne, a World Cup race.
“I went from just dreaming of representing my country at the Olympics to actually wanting to perform,” Moolman-Pasio said. “South Africa actually put a lot of effort and money to get a team of riders qualified and ready for the Games. There was a lot of team building that went on and my team manager actually built up my hopes that I would have a team to support me in London. But realistically, we simply didn’t have enough experience.”
In the build-up to London, Moolman-Pasio was committed. She prepared herself for the course and for the riders she’d be competing against, but going to the Games was unlike anything she’d every experienced.
“There were certain things I hadn’t prepared myself for: the hugeness of the event, the crowds along the way…it just became so much and it was really an emotional and quite a big experience to deal with,” she said.
The race itself was active from the start and the bigger teams were attacking unrelentingly. Moolman-Pasio hung in there for a long time but…
“I missed the break away. I was almost there. I was with Emma Johansson (Sweden) and we were trying to bridge across just before the descent of Box Hill and we just didn’t make it on to their wheel,” Moolman-Pasio recounted. “After the descent, the rain poured down and they rode away. And then it came down to the sprint for the rest of the top 10 and I messed up the sprint a bit and ended 16th.”
“Top 20 in your first Olympic Games really is quite good but I realized I wanted more,” she said. “I want a medal.”
A completely different rider
Now, at 29 with five seasons in Europe under her belt, Moolman-Pasio is ready for the challenge of the Olympics.
“I have committed to racing a full season in Europe every year since London and really been improving as a cyclist. Before London, I was a newcomer to the Euro peloton. Now, leading up to Rio, I feel like it’s home to me. The girls that I’ll be racing at the Olympic Games are girls I race against on a regular basis,” Moolman-Pasio said. “I feel like a completely different rider now, and hopefully this second time around, I’ll be better prepared for all the other things that come along with the Games.”
A climber, Moolman-Pasio says she’s looking forward to road race, which looks like it’ll suit her. After finishing dead last in the Olympic time trial in London, however, she’s uncertain whether she’ll even attempt to partake in the time trial.
“After that time trial, I told myself I would never ever do an Olympic time trial again,” she said. “But my time trialing has really improved this year by being involved with Bigla. I’m growing a lot under their guidance. I am placing in the top 10 in prologues and time trials. So there is a temptation, I suppose, to perhaps take part.”
The selection process
“It’s not easy coming from a country from the Southern Hemisphere or from Africa. And there’s quite a bit of politics around the selection process,” Moolman-Pasio said.
Last time around, some eyebrows were raised when the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) did not select South African’s second-best ranked rider in the UCI rankings for its Olympic team. Moolman-Pasio and two other, lower-ranked riders were selected.
Even as South Africa’s best-ranked rider, Moolman-Pasio’s selection to the Olympic team for Rio isn’t guaranteed, nor has it been easy.
Moolman-Pasio had a tough year in 2014. She struggled with allergies, switched coaches and wasn’t comfortable in her new team. But a bike throw at the Commonwealth Games got her a season-redeeming medal. Or so she thought.
“Despite my bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games, my Olympic Committee dropped me. They had been supporting me for most of the year but in September they actually dropped me from their high performance program,” Moolman-Pasio said. “That was a bit of a shaky situation. And there was a point at the end of last year where I really felt uncertain.”
Moolman-Pasio however put up “a little bit of a fight” and successfully appealed the decision. This year she has been included once again in South Africa’s high performance program for the Olympic Committee.
“That has given me new hope again because I am pretty sure they wouldn’t put money into me if they didn’t believe that I was an athlete worthy of sending,” she said. “At the end of the day, I cannot be 100 percent certain whether they’ll send me or not but I feel quite confident. Of course it’s sport and you don’t want to count your chickens before they hatch but I’m preparing as though I’m going.”
Leading lady or lone rider?
After the controversy surrounding the selection for the 2012 Olympic Games, Moolman-Pasio said most riders lost interest in trying to qualify for the Olympics.
“Since then, I’ve been the only South African female rider who’s made an effort to race here and make a proper career for myself in Europe,” she added. “So we haven’t had much of a build up to the next Games.
Additionally, SASCOC’s selection around the Commonwealth Games last year was incredibly strict, allowing only the top five ranked riders to attend. For men, that meant no one was given the opportunity to go.
“So while South Africa has recognized me as one of its top athletes internationally and they do support me, I’m not sure if I’ll have the help of a team,” Moolman-Pasio said. “I know that Cycling South Africa will really push to have a team, because cycling is a team sport, and through my points and regular racing in Europe, I could potentially qualify an additional two or three riders. But whether South Africa will send those riders is questionable at this stage. I might be going on my own.”
You can continue to follow Moolman-Pasio’s road to Rio through the coming year in our Road to Rio series, in which introduce you to the Olympic hopefuls and keep you in the loop about interesting developments as we count down to August 7, 2016. In the meantime, you can read more about the Olympics, its women’s cycling history and the courses in our intro here.