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Few riders are as willing to put their head above the parapet as Ashleigh Moolman Pasio. Having started in the sport relatively late, the South African now has upwards of 10 years in the pro peloton under her belt and is as qualified as anyone to critique what she sees as the systematic successes and failures of professional cycling.
Speaking to reporter Amy Jones, the CCC-Liv rider gave her perspective on the demise of Equipe Paule Ka (a team she rode for previously), the UCI, and her bright future with SD Worx.
End of an Era
The recent announcement from Equipe Paule Ka explaining that the team will fold due to lack of funds from its title sponsor was a blow to the women’s peloton. Ashleigh Moolman Pasio knows the team well, having spent four years with the squad from 2015-2018 in its former iteration as Cervelo-Bigla. “It was a surprise and a bit of a shock, I think, to the whole peloton,” she says.
“COVID hasn’t helped the sport at all, both men and women but I get the feeling that the women’s peloton is maybe in a better position than the men’s peloton – I would have said definitely in a better position than the men’s peloton until I heard about Paule Ka folding.”
The South African revealed in a 2018 interview with Cyclingnews that, in 2015, she and her family put up their own money to prevent the team from folding. This time it looks like the Swiss outfit won’t have the same fortune.
The interview Moolman Pasio gave back then was centred around allegations made against the team’s manager, Thomas Campana, a controversial figure. Various former riders alleged that Campana, who also owns the team, had abused his power. He has denied all allegations against him.
Now, just as in 2018, Moolman Pasio is keen to play a pragmatic role rather than lambast her former boss. “I can honestly say that Thomas is a really good directeur sportif,” she says, “but he’s not a very easy guy to work with and that’s where the problems have happened in the past. It’s not so much that Thomas is the problem, it’s a combination of certain personalities that create this environment.
“As long as everything is going well with him, no problem. But if something goes wrong then … that’s the problem with him.”
She is confident, though, that statements from current riders around the conditions in the team are true. “I 100% believe that the team he currently has [has] a great team environment and that they’re all getting on incredibly well and that Thomas treats them well.”
Moolman Pasio was keen to extend her condolences to the riders. “I was really impressed with how the team was performing and how they were riding so well as a unit in the races since lockdown,” she says. “So in that way I’m really sad to see what’s happened because there’s a lot of really talented riders on that team and I hope they manage to find a ride.”
“Credit Where Credit’s Due”
The Equipe Paule Ka riders aren’t the only ones to whom Moolman Pasio wants to extend praise. The UCI is the governing body that the peloton and fans alike love to hate, so surprisingly, Moolman Pasio was willing to take to the record to defend it.
She has been as critical as any about what the organisation could have done better for women’s cycling in the past, however of their recent work she says, “I think credit should be given when it’s due.”
“I know the UCI gets a lot of flack about how they go about things and for sure they’re not perfect on all fronts,” she says, “but I do believe that the right intentions are there in terms of pushing women’s cycling forward.” She’s referring to the changes brought in at the start of the 2019 season which included a tiered Women’s WorldTour (WWT) and Continental system, and improved working conditions for the WorldTour riders including a minimum salary and maternity leave.
One such measure brought into force as part of the shake-up was mandatory live coverage for all WorldTour events – a rule which caused a stir during the recent Giro Rosa when the race, which had WWT status, failed to meet requirements.
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Moolman Pasio outlined her support for the UCI’s decision to demote the Giro Rosa on the 2021 calendar saying, “I think it was a good thing that the Giro Rosa was relegated because if not you’re just creating a scapegoat where they can say that for financial reasons they didn’t do it.
“Progress is not always comfortable or 100% attractive or pretty and a lot of people are like ‘oh well now you’re potentially losing another race,’” she says, “but we can’t keep allowing these races to get away with it just to try and save them because I’m sure at some point something else will take it’s place.”
In her view, it was the collective voice of discontent from fans of women’s cycling which gave the UCI the push to turn the spotlight onto the Giro Rosa organisers. “For the first time that I’ve really noticed, the fans really played an important role — they’re really starting to get tired of there not being live coverage.”
Moolman Pasio attributes her new-found faith in the governing body to it’s current president, David Lappartient, who took up the role in 2017. “How he executes might not always be perfect,” she says, “but I think we have to give him credit for where we are now in terms of the ASO and the things they are doing because I don’t think they would be doing it if they didn’t have pressure from a French UCI president.
“Paris Roubaix … and a women’s Tour de France is really great for women’s cycling,” she added. However she did emphasise the need to monitor progress. “We’ve always just got to keep holding people accountable for the execution. Now it’s just about keeping the momentum.”
Moolman Pasio recently signed a two-year deal with the SD Worx team (currently Boels-Dolmans), and she has great expectations both for the team and her own prospects as part of the squad. “The team is in such a way that everyone gets a chance,” she says. “At the end of the day we’ll be racing for the win and not necessarily one specific person to win and I think that creates a lot of opportunity in itself.”
It’s the team environment, however, that she is looking forward to most. “We had a kit fitting the other day and you can just feel the energy,” she says. “Danny [Stam – team manager] is super excited, he’s signed some really great names and I think it’s going to be fun.”
Stam and Moolman Pasio had a close call in the past with her missing out on joining the team by a hair’s breadth in 2013. The South African recalls how she had a breakthrough year riding for the Lotto Belisol team after which Stam got in touch to sign her up to Boels-Dolmans. She turned down his offer at the last minute, however, based on the bike the team was riding at the time. It’s a decision that weighed on her thereafter. “Ever since then it’s kind of been that feeling of like sliding doors … ‘where would I be now?’”
She also harboured concerns about whether she had scuppered her chances of ever riding for Stam’s team at all. “For a while I could see that he was really annoyed at me and so I thought I had destroyed my opportunities with Danny for life because of the way I’d gone about it,” she says. However, her fears were assuaged when, during the worst of the lockdown, she received a call from the Boels-Dolmans manager offering a two-year deal.
She is grateful to her outgoing team, CCC-Liv, where she shared leadership with cycling legend Marianne Vos. She’s learned a lot, but feels ready for the next step up. “Now I feel that I’m ready to go to what is going to be a super team next year,” she says. “If you look at all the riders on the roster, we’re stacked.”
‘Stacked’ is something of an understatement. The team will remain home to the current world road and time trial champion, Anna Van der Breggen, as well as myriad accomplished national champions and up-and-coming talent.
Moolman Pasio is looking forward to sharing a team with the rainbow jersey. “I really do respect Anna,” she says. “She is this amazing champion and she’s won so many races and she makes it look so easy, but I really respect her as a rider because, as accomplished as she is and as good as she is at delivering, I’ve seen her work for other riders and give opportunities to other riders.”
Along with teammate Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, Van der Breggen has already outlined her plans to stay with the team in a director role after she retires at the end of next season (Van den Broek-Blaak will continue until 2022). Moolman Pasio admires the Dutch riders’ commitment to women’s cycling.
“I think it’s a really nice message to put out there that they’ve made it clear already now that they will still ride but then afterwards work in the sport,” she says. “I think that’s a big thing that’s missing in women’s cycling — retired female athletes generally tend to just completely walk away from the sport and in men’s sport it’s usually people coming back and working in the sport so I think it’s really great to see that.”
For herself, she also envisages a role within the sport post-retirement, but is currently uncertain as to how that might look. “I do have intentions to stay involved in women’s cycling,” she says. “Whether it’s as a director I’m not 100% sure. I think for me my big passion lies in strategy and business strategy so I suppose I see myself maybe getting more involved in team ownership and strategy in terms of how to move the sport forward in a more active way.”
She does, however, point unequivocally to a full stop on her time as a rider after 2022. “After these two years I can quite confidently say it will be the end of my [racing] career.”