Q&A: Ashleigh Moolman Pasio on defending her Cycling Esports world title

... and the importance of embracing e-racing.

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With the UCI Cycling World Championships around the corner, I called up the defending champion Ashleigh Moolman Pasio to chat about the growth and importance of virtual racing and how she feels ahead of the race.

Abby Mickey: First of all, there are a lot of people out there who are sceptical about virtual bike racing, and we’ve talked before about the benefits of e-racing in terms of equality, live coverage, etc. But I was wondering if you could help me try to sell e-racing to the people.

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio: It is true that there are some sceptics out there, and I think that kind of speaks to road cycling in general. It’s very rooted in tradition, really. I think that’s part of the reason why there is hesitation to embrace [virtual racing].

I’ve just come from training camp with my SD Worx teammates and they’re intrigued and they listen and they ask questions. They watch me race, like last night they watched the [Premier League] race and they sent me messages afterwards. So, there is this intrigue from a lot of people out there, but there’s a hesitation to just let go and embrace it.

As I said, it’s just the nature of road cycling at this point in time. Cycling equipment, the brands, it’s evolving at a fast rate. Things are changing from year to year, yet the core of the sport remains very traditional.

The reality is, virtual cycling is growing on a recreational level, so there are thousands of people out there that are using Zwift on a day to day basis. On Tuesdays, the community league races have thousands of women and men who are racing and they love it. I think that’s actually more important than acceptance from the pros or from the more traditional cyclists because at the end of the day, critical mass is what makes things succeed and it’s what makes the sport what it is.

I think it’s it’s a matter of time. Everyone is aware of e-sports. They’re aware of it and they know that it has the potential to become something big.

For sure, it doesn’t have to be cycling fans that are converted into e-sports cycling fans. We are seeing huge growth of e-racing fans from the Zwift community itself.

Exactly, and I think that’s what I’ve realized when it comes to e-sports. It does create a community that brings people together because it’s so relatable to a lot of people. There are so many people out there that work full-time jobs that live in the cities. Getting out on the road bike every day is not an easy task, so it’s much easier to hop on the trainer for an hour. From there you can transition to racing the leagues because that’s something to use as motivation for their training. So those people can relate.

For me, there’s a lot of power in that and especially in women’s cycling, I really feel the way in which we convert more women to become fans of the sport and to actually watch the races is through that sort of relatable connection.

And we’ve talked before about the possibility for e-sports to also bring a lot more diversity to the world of cycling because it does break down a lot of barriers.

Definitely. And I think once again, that’s one of the big reasons why I’ve really embraced it and chosen to be active in the space is because I come from South Africa and I know how difficult it is for a young woman to make that step to get into the pro peloton in Europe. It’s not just the distance that needs to be travelled or leaving your home country, to go to another continent. It’s visas and finances – so many barriers that they have to overcome to be able to get to the races and even then they have to get noticed. It’s not easy at all.

That’s where I do see e-sports as an opportunity to globalize the sport. Professional cycling at this point in time is Eurocentric and e-sports takes all those barriers away. 

So back to the world championship road race coming up. How are you feeling, trying to defend your title?

I was feeling a little bit nervous and uneasy about it, and it hasn’t been the easiest start of the year for me. I had COVID-19 over Christmas, so that kind of caused a bit of an upset to my off-season training. I didn’t take too many days off the bike, but it did affect specific blocks of interval work. So the second and third round of the Premier League was the first time I had done proper high intensity. That was a massive shock to the system.

Also, a couple of things have changed in terms of e-sports racing. The 100% trainer difficulty has been introduced to the Premier League and will be at the Wheel Championships as well, so that was also quite a big shock. Now I need to be focusing on doing specific work on indoor training to prepare.

I was feeling pretty good and then went to training camp with my SD Worx teammates and had a shocker of a race in the fifth round of the Premier Series which, unfortunately, had a lot to do with technical issues and unreliable Wi-Fi. I think that was just an indication of the one thing that is quite important when it comes to e-sports. That you do need to have your setup running in a way that works for you.

To have had a good race in the final round of the Premier League and to finally win again in racing on Zwift felt really good, and it’s definitely given me a massive confidence boost. Now I feel really motivated. I feel like the form is coming at just the right time and I’m looking forward to defending my title.

Do you think that the course suits you?

I would say that climbing-heavy races do suit riders with good power-to-weight ratios so in that respect, that’s why e-sports has always worked for me because I do have a very high power-to-weight ratio.

The strange thing about road racing is that there’s so much else at play. Tactics and race savvy, it doesn’t always mean that the rider with the best numbers wins. Good numbers don’t always translate into the best results. Whereas in e-sports that is true, especially when climbs are involved in the course. When it’s a sprint finish or something like that and not a lot of climbing, then it’s a totally different ball game.

I would say that the course suits me really well because of all of the climbs in New York, and we do the main climb three times. We finish at the top and I feel really confident about that. It’s definitely going to be a hard race because there’s no real flat; it’s constantly up and down.

What about teamwork? You have some teammates lining up with you. Great Britain and the USA have 10 riders on the start line. Does that make any difference?

It can certainly make a difference, I suppose. It’s very much like it could be on the road with the bigger teams. It is possible for the bigger countries to send riders up the road and try and force me or other riders to work a bit earlier.

It’ll be interesting to see how much the teams use that to their advantage. I definitely have seen an increase in the level of professionalism in e-racing since 2020 and have definitely seen that teams are working better together. Especially because most of the racing in the Premier League is points-based, it means different riders going for four different sprint primes. But that element maybe isn’t so much there in the World Champs. It is all about the final and being the first person to cross the line.

So it’ll be interesting to see how the teams use their numbers. Generally, I don’t feel as intimidated by the numbers in e-sports as I would on the road. On the road when I line up on the startline against a team of nine Dutch riders it’s very difficult to play for the win, but in e-sports, it is still possible.

I have two teammates and I know that they are 100% committed to helping me in any way they can, especially in the early stages of the race.

Who do you see as your biggest competitor? 

This time around there are more of the e-sports pros, the women who race the Premier League. I think there are some really strong e-sports riders that will be racing the World Championships for the first time this time around. Not all of the e-sports-specific pros could race last time because it was very new and there were limitations.

Do you think that your virtual racing has any effect on your racing on the road?

This was kind of my ambition now was to try to demonstrate that just like cyclocross, e-sports is another cycling discipline, which I believe can complement road cycling. I’d say it’s actually very comparable to just cyclocross because it’s a short, really intense race. My intention was to use the Premier League in the early part of this year to prepare for the road season. There were times when I was feeling quite doubtful in the weeks before now. It hasn’t been easy trying to come back from COVID, but now finally I can see real glimpses of form coming.

Racing once a week in the Premier League gives you a really high-intensity session. Just like a VO2max session, instead of going and doing your interval session, I am using the Monday night racing as one of my high-intensity training sessions, and I believe that it complements road racing. My first road race will be Strade Bianche, so we will see how that goes.

Well, the race is live on the 26th, everyone who’s reading can watch. And I can’t wait to watch it. It’s going to be great! Thank you so much for your time!

Thanks, very much!

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