How Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio is using virtual cycling to change the narrative for African girls

‘The bike is the equalizer that brings people together but the virtual cycling world is the web that connects us,’ says the WorldTour pro

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (AG Insurance Soudal Quickstep) with riders from the Khaltsha team
(Image credit: Max Sullivan)

Occasionally, an extraordinary athlete comes along who, despite their immense talent and success, isn't satisfied by victories and results alone. A cyclist driven by purpose, fueled by the potential to impact the world off the bike, and whose life experiences guide their perspective. 

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio is such a cyclist who, nearing the end of her own successful career, is using her experiences and platform to help the next generation. Initially slated to retire at the end of 2022, Moolman-Pasio extended her career to help others on and off the bike. 

"My leadership and mentorship is the reason why I'm still around," the South African told The Virtual Velo Podcast.

Moolman-Pasio extended her contract with the Belgian AG Insurance - Soudal Quickstep through 2024, which was recently promoted to the Women's WorldTour. Through its NXTG project, the team hopes to create a sustainable approach to women's cycling by supporting a U23 team to bridge the gap between junior and elite. Moolman-Pasio is undoubtedly a valuable mentor. 

Out of the saddle, the South African is using her professional road racing success and distinction as the first UCI World Champion in Cycling Esports as a platform for change, building centers in her homeland to empower African women through e-cycling and computer learning. 

On the Bike Success

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (AG Insurance Soudal Quickstep)

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Currently 37, Moolman-Pasio continues to be one of the peloton's best climbers. She won the inaugural Tour de Romandie Féminin in 2022, becoming the first African to win a stage race on the UCI Women's World Tour. She finished solo across the line in the Queen stage, beating then-world champion Annemiek van Vleuten on the final climb, proving to herself that she could still win at the highest level while also devoting time to make an impact off the bike. 

Moolman-Pasio's palmares is impressive and includes multiple Olympic and Commonwealth Games appearances, countless South African and African Continental titles, and podiums at the Giro Rosa, La Flèche Wallonne Féminine, and La Course by Le Tour de France.

Moolman-Pasio came late to professional cycling, picking up the sport while attaining a degree in chemical engineering from Stellenbosch University at the urging of now-husband and semi-professional XTERRA triathlete Carl Pasio. The couple owns Rocacorba Cycling, a cyclotourism business in Girona, Spain, located at the base of the Rocacorba climb, where Moolman-Pasio holds the Strava QOM

From Brain Injury to Purpose

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (AG Insurance Soudal Quickstep)

(Image credit: Max Sullivan)

An unfortunate life experience instilled a sense of purpose early on in Moolman-Pasio. She suffered a severe traumatic brain injury during a horseback riding accident in her final year of grade school in South Africa. Doctors told her family that after emerging from a ten-day-long coma, she would have severe brain damage. 

With speech slurred and inadvertently skipping words, she relied on her faith, reciting the Lord's prayer each night until she finally got it right. Overcoming the adversity of a prolonged recovery made her realize that she was on the earth for something bigger. 

"I had a strong sense of purpose, and then I was introduced to cycling, and it became clear," affirms Moolman-Pasio.

She fully realized the vision during the COVID-19 pandemic when the hard lockdown in Spain opened her eyes to the potential of the virtual cycling world and the connection with a worldwide community of female cyclists it provided. Moolman-Pasio hosted weekly virtual group rides for her Rocacorba Cycling clients, which grew into much more. She found that the attendees asked intimate questions they wouldn't otherwise address in the real world. Moolman-Pasion realized that women were more open to expressing themselves while riding online when one of the ladies said, "My avatar has no shame."

"Virtual cycling creates an opportunity for growing female participation and empowerment because they feel safer and more confident interacting with other riders on a trainer in the comfort of their home," Moolman-Pasion says. 

That's how the Rocacorba Collective was born. It's an extension of Rocacorba Cycling, the cycling tourism business based in Girona, a global virtual community. While Moolman-Pasio was building on the momentum of her global influence, female road cycling was experiencing an evolution.

Turning Point For Women's Cycling

Scenes of the 2022 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift

(Image credit: Getty Images)

"The pandemic was a turning point for women's cycling because of the racing in the virtual world," she asserts.

When Zwift hosted the Virtual Tour de France in July 2020, it marked the first time that the race had pure gender equality. The women's field raced the same stages and course lengths and received media coverage similar to men's. It elevated women's cycling to an equal level with men's cycling for the most iconic road race in the world, and it was the first time that the Tour de France put its name on women's cycling.

Moolman-Pasio says her life forever changed after winning the Queen stage following a hard-fought battle up the virtual Mont Ventoux against her now-teammate Sarah Gigante. When the lockdown lifted, fans and the general public noticed her; people stopped her for pictures and autographs during training rides. The real-life Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift came in 2022.

"It's a real game-changer," she says. 

When racing resumed following the pandemic, Moolman-Pasio reclaimed her position as one of the best in the world. Despite her success, she acknowledges that the odds are against a rider from South Africa winning the World Championship. When the UCI and Zwift made it accessible, she seized the opportunity.

The First UCI Cycling Esports World Champion

ashleigh moolman pasio trains indoors

(Image credit: Rocacorba Collective)

Moolman-Pasio became the inaugural UCI Cycling Esports World Championship in 2020, edging Australia's Gigante again on the virtual roads of Zwift. 

"All of the pros in the peloton respect the world title and the ability to get esports results because they all tried it during the pandemic and know how difficult it is," she says.

Moolman-Pasio is proud of her Esports World Championship title and for being a pioneer in the space. She is confident the sport will get to the Olympics and distinguish itself as a unique cycling discipline. 

"Virtual cycling is more relatable and accessible than road racing, which causes a stronger connection and inspires me as an athlete," she shares, and "the impact fuels me to keep going."

Moolman-Pasio uses her status in the pro peloton and virtual cycling world to break down barriers for women in her home country of South Africa. 

Creation of E-cycling Centers in Native South Africa

Riders from the Khaltsha Cycles team

(Image credit: Max Sullivan)

The next step in activating the Rocacorba Collective's purpose involves collaborating with Khaltsha Cycles, a bike shop operating out of shipping containers in Khayelitsha Township. The partnership aims to make cycling more accessible to underprivileged communities by reducing barriers, including safety concerns related to traffic or crime.

In Cape Town, South Africa, Khalscha Cycles identified 30 girls from Khayelitsha township and, with the support of the partnership, enabled them to participate in the Cape Town Bike Tour, the largest timed cycling event worldwide. jump-started her career by winning the event in 2012.

It paved the way for plans to establish E-Centers, which are indoor training and computer learning centers, serving as a blueprint for outreach to more underprivileged communities throughout the continent. The initiative provides essential resources such as a strong Wi-Fi connection and computer screens, making virtual cycling accessible and facilitating education and fitness.

In Khayelitsha, riding a bike is not the norm, but it provides confidence that translates to other areas of life, and Moolman-Pasio wants to offer a platform and opportunity. She aims to change the narrative for African girls by ensuring the circumstances they were born into don't dictate their future or define them through their current environment. The ultimate vision is to forge a pathway for African women to compete in Europe. 

"The bike is the equalizer that brings people together," she says, "but the virtual cycling world is the web that connects us."

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