Ashleigh Moolman Pasio’s long love affair with the Giro d’Italia Donne

The Giro has always been Moolman Pasio's measuring stick of success. This year's edition shows how she's a champion far beyond the race.

Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

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Ashleigh Moolman Pasio has a long history with the Giro d’Italia Donne.

The South African first forayed into cycling later in life when she was in university. At the beginning of her career, she was identified as a talented climber.

“I was put in that box – you’re a climber and the tours would be my strength,” she told VeloNews. “The Giro was something I aspired to take part in and do well in. It played an important part in my career in terms of ticking boxes that I was making progress. Then, 2010 was my first year racing in Europe and my first Giro. I finished 17th.

“To finish top 20, it was already a sign. That was the progression — 17th to 13th to 8th. It was always a measuring stick — you’re on the right track, you deserve to be a pro.”

In her decade-plus racing in Europe, Moolman Pasio has shown that her professionalism surpasses any result at the Giro. From her palmares and her steady presence in the peloton to her measured and constructive criticisms of the inequities of the sport to the way in which she seizes opportunities to grow, Moolman Pasio is one of the sport’s most inspiring riders.

Moolman Pasio is a six-time South African national champion. Due to the challenges of travel during the pandemic, she did not race for the title in 2021. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

However, while she has always used the Giro as a meter of success, Moolman Pasio hasn’t ever won the grand tour. Her best result was in 2018, when she finished second to Annemiek van Vleuten. Now, as she nears the end of her 12th appearance at the race —  her second-to-last before retirement in 2022 — she is honing in on second place again, as she and her SD Worx team work to protect defending champion Anna van der Breggen.

Is the 35-year-old bitter that she’s come this close again only to know that the plan doesn’t include her going for the win?

“Bittersweet,” she said, “but it feels really good to be in this position right now.”

‘I race to inspire a country and continent’

The fan ‘mail’ Moolman Pasio has been getting during this year’s Giro is different than in years past. As a professional cyclist from a continent that is severely underrepresented in the sport, Moolman Pasio serves as a de facto ambassador for Africans.

With COVID-19 continuing to rage in her home country of South Africa, Moolman Pasio says that any position on the podium this year will help her inspire people back home.

“I’ve received messages from people saying ‘you’re giving us hope, it’s wonderful to watch, you help motivate us,'” she said. “Those are all things that are significant to me and probably my biggest motivation as an athlete.” 

Knowing that she has the ability to inspire people in South Africa and on the continent at large is another way that Moolman Pasio keeps her 2021 Giro experience in perspective. This year’s edition of the race isn’t an isolated event; it’s the last tune-up before the Tokyo games.

And that’s where Moolman Pasio could have an even greater impact on Africa.

“Irrespective of what the end result is, being on the podium at the Giro gives me a lot of confidence going forward to Tokyo which will be a big objective,” she said. “A result in an Olympic race, the road race or the time trial, would be even more significant to my country and my continent.”

Moolman Pasio’s performance in the Giro thus has an ulterior motive. This was on display during stage 6, when she went out in a long-shot breakaway with Elisa Longo Borghini. While the riders knew they would likely be pulled back, Moolman Pasio said that the decision to put in the effort in Italy was more so to bank the training for Tokyo. 

“It’s a bit of a balance now, holding onto to a podium in the GC but also keeping my focus very much on my longer-term goal, which is Tokyo, and using the racing as preparation for that,” she said. “As I said, I race to inspire a country and continent.”

Experience makes all the difference

In addition to helping her look forward to the Olympics, Moolman Pasio said her performance at this year’s Giro is also an important commentary on the past.

“I’ve had two relatively tough years in a way for various reasons,” she said “I just didn’t find my flow or my groove, or I just didn’t really manage to get my best form. I think a lot of the time it had to do with bad luck, illness, crashes, small injuries.

“Although, of course, the COVID pandemic year was very successful for me in the virtual world, it was in the virtual world and not in the real world, so bringing that confidence that I gained in the pandemic year and the character I built during the pandemic year has really formed my character and made me a much stronger and way more robust cyclist.”

Moolman Pasio’s resilience has resulted in a performance at this year’s Giro that is perfectly on par with where she set out to be. Early in the year, as she was adjusting to the new team and equipment, Moolman Pasio’s results —  a breakaway at Liege or a top ten in a spring classic  —  may not have mirrored all that she was capable of.

However, she says it was always the plan to save her best form for the Giro and Tokyo.

“It’s coming at just the right time and that’s quite an achievement in itself,” she said. “It’s not always easy to plan your form when we race quite often. So I’m really happy. It shows that experience makes all the difference.”

With this year’s Giro, Moolman Pasio has met some major and important goals — peaking in form ahead of Tokyo and continuing to inspire legions of cyclists and athletes back home. However, there’s no denying that she has the potential to do even more in Italy.

Is the fact that her teammate might be what’s standing between her and the top step of the podium an elephant in the room?

“I think it’s difficult when you’re in the same team to really challenge one another,” Moolman Pasio said. “But I do believe I have it within myself to win a Giro. So, next year I have another chance, one more year in the pro peloton before I retire.

“It will be interesting to see how it works out with the Tour and the Giro all in the same month. But yes, it would be a dream come true to win a Giro. It’s where it all started for me as a cyclist.”

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