Ashleigh Moolman Pasio on jumping — and staying — on the Zwift bandwagon

The South African will race in the first ever UCI eSports world champs on Zwift next week, but she's already committed to the platform for the long run.

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For all of us, there is life before the pandemic and life, well, during the pandemic. For many professional cyclists, the distinction can be distilled even further: life before Zwift and life during Zwift.

South African rider Ashleigh Moolman Pasio is all too familiar with the delineation.

“Like many road pros, I was not a virtual cycling fan before the pandemic,” Moolman Pasio told VeloNews. “In fact, if I’m being honest, I really dreaded indoor training and avoided it at all costs.”

Now, however, the SD Worx rider is a convert, both for what she sees as the platform’s benefits to her overall performance as a professional cyclist as well as its potential in advancing equality in the sport. On December 9, she’ll be one of 55 women ‘lining up’ at the first-ever UCI’s world esports championships hosted on Zwift, and she thinks that she’s got a decent chance at the rainbow stripes. Here’s why.

The first step is acceptance

In March, when Moolman Pasio’s adopted home country of Spain went into a strict lockdown, she was faced with an added injury to the insult of the pandemic: the dreaded indoor trainer. Like many other riders who live in beautiful settings with mild climates, the South African champion preferred to ride her bike outside, notably on the famed Rocacorba climb just outside her front door.

Furthermore, she said, working out on an indoor trainer was also just incredibly hard.

“I’m quite a perfectionist when it comes to training, so I become frustrated when I have a session I can’t complete or complete to the highest level,” Moolman Pasio said. “That was why I didn’t enjoy the sessions, I’d have to dig so deep to hold the numbers and usually couldn’t hold them. Then it’s like, ‘I’m just going to avoid it, it’s too difficult.'”

However, after a run-in with the local authorities on a furtive outing to do intervals on Rocacorba, Moolman Pasio figured she had better figure out riding indoors.

She had a heart-to-heart with her new coach (Dan Lorang of Bora-Hansgrohe), and they did some tweaking so that she could get the hang of using an indoor trainer while not feeling like she couldn’t meet her goals. They dropped her threshold by 30 watts/kilo and divided her heavy training load (18 hours/week) into morning and afternoon sessions to make it more tolerable indoors.

After about four weeks, Moolman Pasio finally hit her stride and was happy to do intervals on Zwift. As her numbers improved, so did her motivation. 

“Then the [Zwift] racing hit,” she said. “I actually started racing on Zwift with a Zwift racing league. It was pretty intimidating at first, and I needed a lot of persuasion. The numbers they were holding, I was like, ‘I can’t do that.'”

Moolman Pasio’s first race was on the Trofeo Bologna course, which suited her well.  She’d actually raced on the climb in real life, and noted how realistic the Zwift programmers had made the virtual version.

“In real life, I’d attacked on one corner, and I did the same thing in Zwift and I won the race,” she said. “Then, the bug really bit, and I suppose it was because I was successful.”

A pandemic later, and now there is a Zwift world championship

If last spring Moolman Pasio made her first foray into the world of virtual training and racing begrudgingly, this time she’s going in on her own terms.

The Girona-based rider says that she’s already incorporated one or two Zwift sessions into her training since the off-season ended, and she’d be doing that regardless of the upcoming UCI world esports championships.

“Beyond world champs, I think I’ll continue to do one session per week on Zwift,” she said. “I think there is value. It’s well suited to time trialing or sustained efforts.”

On Wednesday, December 9, Moolman Pasio will have a chance to show off her prowess in Watopia alongside current and former in-real-life world champions, some of whom have never engaged readily with the platform. Current world road and time trial champ — and Moolman Pasio’s future teammate on SD Worx — Anna van der Breggen will be there, as will last year’s road champion Annemiek van Vleuten.

Moolman Pasio said that van der Breggen’s relationship with virtual racing is a bit like hers used to be — begrudging — while van Vleuten rarely rides online.

“I spoke with Anna about this earlier, she was open to racing but she did admit to me that it was super hard and that she has to get herself into the right frame of mind to race,” Moolman Pasio said. “It will definitely be interesting to see how Annemiek does because she’s a very competitive person so I don’t see her as starting just to start.”

Moolman Pasio noted that the timing of the inaugural virtual worlds isn’t ideal; most riders are only a few weeks into their season and not focused on high intensity or heavy load. Ideally, she said, the competition would occur in February right before racing begins in earnest.

However, Moolman Pasio understands that, like everyone, the folks at Zwift are doing the best they can to provide a service during these tumultuous times. Furthermore, she says, they’ve already established themselves as invested in a principle that goes far beyond the racecourse.

Esports as a catalyst for Equality

Aside from the benefits to her training, Moolman Pasio says that Zwift’s commitment to equality between the sexes is reason enough to support it.

She first noticed Zwift’s undertaking for equality with the Tour for All, a multistage event that the platform hosted in May. The five-stage race dedicated equal time and coverage to the men’s and women’s races, which were also held on the exact same courses.

Then, Moolman Pasio said, Zwift’s virtual Tour de France took things to the next level.

“It was really the first time ever that women had absolute equality to the men with relation to the Tour,” she said. “Even with La Course, it’s really frustrating that the TdF brand never even acknowledged La Course. It had to be separate. The TdF never tweeted about it, never put it on their webpage. Then with the virtual Tour de France, it was all on the same webpage, social media. For the first time, the Tour de France name was related to women’s cycling. Having the exposure was massive.”

Moolman Pasio credits Zwift with demanding equality in its events and thus setting a precedent for other sponsors and corporate figures in bike racing. She also can speak from experience that when the people at the top (i.e., those with the money) commit to a cause, the ripple effect is set in motion.

After she won a stage of the July virtual TdF, Moolman Pasio was out riding in Girona the next day. A couple stopped to take a picture of her, and her husband commented that she was getting more stares than normal in the cafe. It was indubitably because of her virtual win the day before.

“There’s a bit of fame, people know who you are, but it’s not the same as the men, you never become real stars,” she said. “It’s because of the exposure. If we want to get to the level, have the same stardom, we need the exposure. So that was quite an eye-opener.”

“It’s a good reason to get behind eSports if we want equality in the real world as well, and I won’t give up that fight.”

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