JOHANNESBURG – One of the pioneers of South African cycling, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, is changing perceptions of female sport one pedal at a time.
Moolman-Pasio is as hard as they come in proving that the measure of toughness is not dictated by the packaging.
Her 1.61m frame produces enough power to propel her forward at dangerous speed which has distinguished her as one of the world’s top female road cyclists.
Every time Moolman-Pasio gets onto the bicycle, she rides for a deeper purpose of inspiring women to believe in their abilities beyond the traditional constructs of a patriarchal society.
It is through cycling and overcoming barriers that she has found her voice.
“I’m also somewhat of an advocate for women’s cycling going forward, in terms of my opinions,” Moolman-Pasio told Independent Media.
“My personal growth, chasing this dream of competing at the Olympic Games, surpassing that and trying to medal at the Games and through all the obstacles I overcame, I feel I have become a stronger woman.
“I honestly believe that sport serves as a tool of empowerment to women, and that is something I’d like to keep pushing through the years.”
Moolman-Pasio has provided the golden standard for South African female cycling since she took up the sport at a relatively late stage in her life.
She made her Olympic debut in London 2012 Games, finishing in 16th place before winning the 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medal.
Becoming the first South African to finish in the top 10 of the UCI rankings in 2015, Moolman went into the Rio Games as one of the hot favourites for a podium finish.
The Games did not pan out quite as well as she had hoped despite breaking new ground with a top 10 placing at the global showpiece.
Fracturing her hip in October last year compounded her frustrations, but she managed to bounce back with aplomb this season after spending six months in recovery.
A dream year followed as she become the highest ranked South African road cyclist ever, climbing to a career-high third place on the UCI world rankings in June.
This season she regularly stepped onto the podium, including nine victories on the international circuit and second overall Giro dell Toscana title in September.
“If we look on paper, it has been my best season in terms of a number of victories. I won nine international races this year, which is the most I have won in one year in my career,” Moolman-Pasio said.
“South Africa is still somewhat of a developing nation in the sport of cycling, and to be able to say that as women I have achieved the highest ranking any South African has ever achieved is quite an honour.
“I am very proud of that and I think it is an indication of what is possible.”
Reaching the top ranking in the world represents the pinnacle for Moolman-Pasio as the lack of depth in South African women’s cycling makes winning a world title a tall order.
The Olympic Games demonstrated how tough it is for smaller teams like South Africa, where she could rely only on the lone support of An-Li Kachelhoffer as the domestique.
“For me to be able to win a world champs is always going to be a big challenge, because we don’t have the depth in women’s cycling to be able to send a strong enough team who will be able to support me,” she said.
“It is possible if things fall nicely into place and the tactics of the other teams suit me, I could maybe pull off a result but it is never something I can really write on paper that I want to be world champion this year.
“It is a bit sad, but that is why a world ranking is important to me and to be able to reach a No 3 world ranking and to maybe see it is possible to really aim for No 1.”
Although the pace of female empowerment in South African sport can at times be frustrating, Moolman-Pasio believes there is a glimmer of hope of women increasingly making their mark on the global stage.
The recent SA Sports Awards provides some anecdotal evidence that the country was making encouraging, albeit small, strides in promoting female participation,
Moolman-Pasio was nominated for the SA Sportswoman of the Year award, along with Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya and world lightweight single sculls rowing champion Kristen McCann.
“For me, it was really a turning point in terms of how South African women’s sport has come over the years,” Moolman-Pasio said.
“To be nominated amongst names like McCann and Semenya, where they are both world champions in their respective sports and competing and winning on an international stage.
“That was really big for me in terms of seeing the progress women’s sport has made in South Africa.”
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She believes apartheid and sports isolation had a significant influence in South African women’s sport lagging behind the rest of the world.
“We come from a country where the apartheid years delayed or slowed down the progress that we could make as South Africans,” Moolman-Pasio said.
“I think it has actually taken a long time to really sort of turn that corner because there has maybe for years been a mentality for our country where local competitions were more significant than international competitions.”
Local events such as the Comrades Marathon, the Cape Argus, and the 947 Cycle Challenge have been elevated above many international events due to isolation.
The 31-year-old said her recent victory in the Cycle Challenge and the attention it received served as a degree of proof that South Africans still placed a higher premium on local events in some of these sports.
“To a certain extent that still exists, if I just look for example at my recent performance at the 94.7 winning the race in South Africa and the huge exposure I get from winning a race in South Africa in comparison to the exposure I get from winning in Europe,” she said.
“It still sorts of shows that there is somewhat of a focus on local performances rather than international performances.
“I feel really positive that more and more women are taking that leap of faith or that next step of competing and performing internationally.”