In a spacious upstairs room of a 400-year-old villa in Banyoles, southern Spain, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio is engaging in a thoroughly modern activity: Zwifting. In a country with strict lockdown, the South African has had no choice but to train indoors, and she’s taken to the platform with gusto, racking up over 2,400 kilometres, arranging regular group rides and topping it off by taking a win then a third place in two pro-am Zwift Classics, the Trofeo Bologna and Watopia Cup races.
This might not be your average pain cave setup, but Moolman Pasio isn’t your average pro cyclist. The villa in question is not a flashy show of wealth, but a family-run business venture Rocacorba Cycling, a safety net for her future.
That the 34 year-old CCC-Liv rider runs (and founded) a company alongside her cycling career is perhaps not so unusual for a female pro, but it is indicative of her restless mindset and her need for mental stimulation beyond turning pedals for a living. Having completed an engineering degree before turning professional, the Olympian and four-time African road race champion hasn’t stopped using her head since, a key example being voicing her frustrations with the inequalities in her sport.
We talk as she executes an interval session on Zwift, but the effort does nothing to slow her speech and the cadence of her delivery matches that of her pedalling. “Sorry,” she apologises, “I might not be able to talk much for a minute.” She pauses only briefly towards the end of one of her 10-minute efforts before continuing. She has a lot to say, soliloquising on the subject of her sport with indefatigable zeal.
Leading by example
“I grew up surrounded mainly by women,” she recalls, “and we were always encouraged to pursue our dreams and voice our opinions. I never experienced the feeling that my opinion was less important than my male cousin’s one. I went to a girls-only school and we were encouraged to be strong, independent women. So I came into cycling with that attitude, questioning everything like, ‘I don’t understand, I’m working just as hard as my male counterparts, why should I be paid less? Why do we have less opportunity?’” She recalls a feeling of futility at pro cycling’s bureaucracy: “It was a frustrating period because it meant that I spent a lot of time banging my head against a wall.”
Ten years in, and although still one of the loudest voices in the peloton calling for change and growth, Moolman Pasio refuses to lay her demands at someone else’s door just to sit back and wait for change to happen on her behalf. “As I matured, I started to realise that the only way to remain productive and positive in this whole process is to try to lead by example and try to inspire change rather than demand it.” As such, her approach has become more pragmatic: “I do believe there is an element of having to earn your spot and prove your value in this sport, and that’s the headspace I’m in now.”
Today, she’s critical of the collective pro cycling world’s response in the face of Covid-19 and an indefinitely postponed season: “I’ve been frustrated by how long it’s taking road cycling to catch up.” However, true to form, she’s also full of ideas about how her sport can improve, including utilising the very platform she’s training on as she speaks. “Since lockdown, the chance to diversify and create opportunities and revenue streams beyond sponsorship has become easier,” she says. “Because cycling has been opened up to a whole new world in the form of the virtual world.”
The virtues of virtual
Moolman Pasio is optimistic about the ongoing impact that eRacing could have on professional cycling, even post-lockdown. Zwift race naysayers such as Peter Sagan may want to look away now. “The online world is such an easy thing for teams to execute, all you need is three or four riders who are open to it, engaging online with fans and to e-racing because there is very little investment,” she says. “The rider just needs a good indoor setup and a strong WiFi connection – and the world is their oyster.”
Diversity within teams’ programmes and in race formats will be integral, she believes, to the future of the sport. “Now that I’ve had the experience of racing online, and winning, I find that super exciting,” she enthuses. “It’s managing to keep me motivated and has totally opened my mind to new opportunities in road cycling. If the sport wants to survive this and become more sustainable, we have to diversify, because at the moment pro cycling teams are relying too heavily on a very one-dimensional model.”
A model, she posits, which is long overdue an update: “The old-fashioned mentality of brands looking only for naming rights needs to be replaced by everyone investing in a really powerful brand. You need to have buy-in from an established and well-known household name to speed the process up.” She cites Team Sky, now Team Ineos, as an example: “We need to create something longer-lasting that doesn’t change name every year. Team Sky have a loyal fan base because for they had the same name for so many years – even now people still refer to them as Team Sky because it’s so ingrained.”
In pursuit of personal connections
According to Moolman Pasio, the sustainability of the sport lies in consistency. She suggests the emotional investment and fan engagement engendered by the likes of football clubs is another future avenue for cycling: “It’s really hard to get that kind of loyalty because there isn’t consistency in the name… You need to create a sense of belonging for your fans.”
How does she think women’s cycling in particular squares up to potential future challenges as a result of the Covid-19 virus? “Women’s cycling presents the perfect environment to innovate, to be creative and experiment,” she says. “I think that there’s always opportunity in times like this but you have to open your eyes to it and find it.” Echoing the words of fellow pro Tiffany Cromwell, she predicts that “women’s cycling has a greater chance of surviving this and coming out stronger because we’re open-minded, good at engaging, our teams are much smaller so the money that needs to be secured to create a successful women’s team is a fraction of the men’s, and the history and politics don’t pre-exist.”
She has high praise for EF Education First’s alternative race programme and sees it as a prescient shift towards a more diverse future for cycling. “The focus is really on content, storytelling, showing the personality of the riders and then engaging in the new trends like gravel.”
Moolman Pasio proposes a similar model to be replicated across the sport to drive up fan engagement: “Now, more than ever, pro cycling teams should look to diversify in terms of looking into adding other disciplines like gravel and eRacing … the emphasis is on winning races but there are so many other ways of engaging your fans and that’ are actually becoming more and more relevant.”
One of the biggest obstacles in the path to growth for women’s cycling has been a lack of sponsor exposure though televised racing. Women’s races on TV, with commentary and high-quality imagery, are a rarity and fans rarely know where to find them anyway. “People are always aware the men’s race is going to be on Eurosport, so you go and watch there,” she says. “Whereas with women’s cycling that changes from week to week – it might go from being on that channel one week to being streamed on Facebook the next, so how are you supposed to build a fanbase if your fans don’t even know where to find you?”
Zwift, argues Moolman Pasio, eliminates many of the barriers organisers face with real-life racing. “Before, the focus was on creating physical races and physical communities but now it’s all possible online. With very little investment, everyone can access it from the comfort of their own home.” If anything, the online platform offers viewers more, in her opinion. “People get to see things they’re really interested in seeing, like power to weight stats and heart rates.”
And it works. In the aftermath of her victory in mid-April’s Trofeo Bologna race, her phone blew up. “Crazily enough, my following and social media reach is the best it’s ever been in my entire career – from racing an e-race and engaging with the public on a virtual platform,” she says.
The recognition continued back in the realm of Watopia. “You win an e-race and the next day people can join you on a ride in Watopia. For instance, I joined Geraint Thomas’ fundraiser ride and I had a whole bunch of people congratulating me because they had seen the race.”
Of course, the popularity of the Zwift Classics is in part a by-product of race-starved cycling fans in search of pro competition of any kind. But their existence is not a given and the cycling world would do well to utilise their accessibility in the future: “Yhe virtual world creates a much easier, more interactive and accessible platform for the fans,” Moolman Pasio observes. “Pro cycling is already one of the most accessible sports but with these platforms it’s made it even more so. I’ve experienced riding with fans all around the world – in London, New York, South Africa.”
Those not so enamoured with watching pixelated avatars in place of real-life riders need not fear, Moolman Pasio has no plans to go full eRacer just yet. “I’m considering including Zwift in my programme going forward, to find a way of it complimenting the road, but the reality is I would never want eRacing or indoor training to replace road cycling because it is still special. There’s no way one could replace the other “
Nor has her newfound passion for gamified training dampened her real life ambitions. “The goals remain the same for me: I want to win a WorldTour race, I want to give it my all to go for an Olympic medal, I’d love to be world champion and right now I’m using the world champs [in Switzerland this September] as my motivation to keep training this year.”
But it isn’t long before her thoughts return to how the sport as a whole can improve. “I have a lot of ambition to play a role in working on women’s cycling and pushing it forward and being involved in the sport longer term. This period has really opened my mind to a lot of opportunities and different strategies – or ways of complimenting strategies that I’ve already been thinking about.”
The outdoors racing calendar may have temporarily ground to a halt, but Ashleigh Moolman Pasio’s gears are still very much turning.
Ashleigh Moolman Pasio is a pro cyclist for CCC-Liv and co-founder of Rocacorba Cycling, offering cycling accommodation, bike hire and guiding at the foot of the world famous Rocacorba climb, Girona.