As a cyclist, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio has always been inspired by the Tour de France. “Alberto Contador was the rider I resonated with the most”, the 7-time African continental champion says as she looks forward to the queen stage of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift 2023 on the slopes of Col du Tourmalet.
Now a leader of AG Insurance – Soudal Quick-Step, the 37 year old African star, who just signed a new contract for the next year, returns to take on “unfinished business” after illness caused her abandon in the maiden edition of the event that she had been dreaming of all her career. Hear from Ashleigh below in her interview the Tour de France Femmes press.
You’ve done a good part of your preparation for the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift 2023 in the Pyrenees, where the race will finish. What was your plan?
I’ve done altitude training in Font-Romeu, in the ski resort of Pyrenees 2000. Many riders go to Andorra but I prefer this location because I feel like 1800 metres is the perfect altitude for me and it feels familiar here. It gives me the right balance between adaptation to altitude and a good enough recovery to be able to train at high intensity. And it’s really beautiful.
I love the Pyrenees and the climbs around here remind me of the Tourmalet. I did a recon of that stage and I think it’s gonna be a really exciting queen stage. We have the col d’Aspin before, which becomes quite steep for the last 3 kilometres. It could already be an exciting point in the stage. Then we descend and straight after we climb the Tourmalet. I really like it, it’s nice, steep, consistent gradient. The day I was doing it, we climbed into the clouds, so it really felt like another world.
What did you learn from last year’s edition of the Tour de France Femmes?
It was a rollercoaster for me. All through my career I was waiting for this moment and fighting for this moment. To finally see the momentum with A.S.O. and Zwift was also really special because I’m one of the few riders in the peloton who have really embraced Zwift. I was the first UCI esports world champion and I felt like it was just meant for me to be on the podium of the first Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift… Maybe this pressure was a bit too much. And there were illnesses that went around. Annemiek [van Vleuten] had a stomach bug in the early days and unfortunately I got it on the day before the queen stage. And although my mind was 100% committed to still racing for the podium, my body let me down and it was probably one of the hardest days on the bike because my mind kept fighting – “you can do it, you can do it” – but my body wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do.
I felt very alone on that day, I didn’t understand what was happening. To pull out on the queen stage was a really tough one. I put in so much effort, I was in the best shape… It just felt so unfair. But as cyclists, we have to very quickly learn to accept because there are lots of things that are out of our control. I had to accept it wasn’t meant to be.
How did you bounce back?
Being very active on Zwift and having a community, the Rocacorba collective, was one of the ways that helped me to come through this disappointment. I got so many messages from my community members, I joined them for rides on Zwift and they kept reminding me that irrespective of whether I finished the Tour de France Femmes, I was still their queen of the mountains and their leader. That’s what really helped me to process the disappointment and then to go on to finish the year with at least winning the Tour de Romandie, which was again a reminder that I am capable of winning on a mountain pass against the best riders in the world. So that gave me of course motivation to prepare for this year’s Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. It really is my biggest goal this year. I feel I have unfinished business.
You’re facing it with a new team, AG Insurance – Soudal Quick-Step. What does it change for you?
I think this was also a really good move for me, the environment just suits me a bit better. It’s more of a team vibe, it’s about helping one another, it’s about building the younger generation, which is something that really inspires and motivates me. I also have a lot of faith and trust in the directors. We have Servais Knaven, who has a lot of experience with team Sky and Ineos for many many years. They are one of the teams that really showed how to win the Tour de France and he brings that experience and knowledge. And then of course Jolien D’hoore is an incredible directeur sportif, and I really enjoy working with her.
The whole team is preparing to give their absolute best to support me, to be on the podium, which is a bit different. It suits me better because it gives clarity. When I was riding with SD Worx, it was a race within the race, we were racing one another. I feel really relaxed in this environment. The way we raced in Valencia [Justine Ghekière and Moolman finished 1st and 2nd] to begin the season was a great example of how united we are as a team and how we can come together to get the best result together.
You got the best of Annemiek van Vleuten in Romandie and Valencia. And you know SD Worx inside out. Can you crack them?
Of course that’s the goal. But we’ll have to take it day by day, to see how it comes together. They’re also very motivated to win. I have some idea in my mind how I can try to crack them, that’s what I prepare for. I believe I can. That’s the most important thing, to believe that you can, and to give it your best. Whether you win or lose, at least you know that you left nothing. That’s my goal but I can’t give away mysecrets!
You thought you would retire at the end of 2022 and now you’ve extended your contract for one more year with AG Insurance – Soudal Quick-Step. How much of a part did the Tour de France Femmes play in this decision?
Seeing the big impact that it’s had, of course it brought a lot of motivation. It has influenced the economy of women’s cycling. We have a lot more exposure, a lot more attention. I see this every day, especially in Gerona with a lot of cycling fans. I see more than ever that people recognise who I am, which was not necessarily the case before, when we didn’t have so much TV exposure through a race like the Tour de France. Things have definitely changed, female cyclists are now becoming household names.
More men’s teams are motivated to do women’s teams as well as we see with Soudal Quick-Step. The salaries are higher. Of course, there was an economic reason to continue but more than that I felt I was at my best level, if not getting better as we saw in the Tour de Romandie, in what should have been my final race in my final year as a pro cyclist. And I also proved to myself that I was capable of doing more than one thing. I wanted to be more involved in Rocacorba, with the cycling tours, the business and the community. And I thought I had to retire in order to do this. I proved to myself that I’m capable of doing more than one thing, that I had the mental capacity and the maturity.