Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio won the mountain stage at the Tour of Romandie on Saturday, bagging the first WorldTour victory of her career.
In what was a surprise win, the 36-year-old South African out-classed Annemiek van Vleuten on the climb to the Thyon 2000 ski resort at the end of the Swiss race’s second stage.
The two women had been alone for the final 3.5km of the 104.5km stage which began in Sion, in the valley below the finish resort. Riding on her 40th birthday, Van Vleuten attacked repeatedly in characteristic style, but though the Movistar rider dropped everyone else, she could not shake Moolman-Pasio.
“I just had the focus that I’m not going to let the wheel go,” she told the post race press conference. “I’ve had a lot of bad luck this year and was looking for the opportunity to see where I stand, and as we went on and on and on I thought I had good legs.”
The moment she made the conclusive attack was redolent of a similar move during stage three of the Tour de France Femmes aves Zwift. There, with Van Vleuten clearly suffering on the hilly run into Epernay, the South African looked across into her rival’s eyes, saw weakness and attacked. On Saturday in Switzerland, as Van Vleuten realised her stinging moves were not enough to distance Moolman-Pasio the latter looked and saw the same thing.
“I did and it was really quite satisfying. Usually when she gets out of the saddle she just drops everyone, but this time she was out of her saddle and all over the bike, and I just stayed in the saddle riding next to her, I kept breathing down her neck, like saying ‘I’m right here, this isn’t that hard you know,’ and that was super satisfying.
“Then at that one moment when she actually sat down and it was like ‘huh!’ I could feel ‘now I’ve really annoyed her and she’s got nothing left,’ and that was the moment.
That moment came with 2.5 of the 17.3km climb remaining, and over the ensuing minutes Moolman-Pasio managed to put 26 seconds seconds into the Dutchwoman, time bonuses meaning she will begin the third and final stage with an overall advantage of 30 seconds.
Not only was the victory one of personal fortitude and race craft, it was a triumph of strength in small numbers. SDWorx arrived at the season’s final WorldTour race with just four as opposed to the normal six riders. However, that quartet were among the the best climbers in the sport and set up the win with aplomb.
With a two woman breakaway up the road, the pressure came on the day’s second classified climb at Suen, 57km into the 104.5km stage. With the break caught and the bunch whittled down to 20, three women attacked, including Moolman-Pasio’s Swiss team mate Marlen Reusser.
“She really set things up because she put in a great attack before the last climb and that put the pressure on other teams to chase,” she explained. “Of course Annemiek had a team mate with Marlen, but she dropped back.”
While Moolman-Pasio is one of the sports preeminent climbers and has an enviable palmarès, Saturday was her first top tier victory, either WorldTour or World Cup. Early in her long career there were insufficient races that really suited her, and as mountains have become more prevalent she has been forced into the shadow of others.
She has often played second fiddle to Van Vleuten, notably finishing a close second to the Dutch rider on Monte Zoncolan in the 2018 Giro Rosa. Then at last year’s Giro she finally won a mountain top finish, though the race had been relegated to ProSeries that year.
“This is my 13th season and finally at the end of the 2022 I get my first WorldTour victory,” she said with equal hints of bitterness, relief and joy.
At 147.6km, Sunday’s final stage between Fribourg and Geneva might be the race’s longest but it does not provide too many opportunities for anyone to overhaul Moolman-Pasio’s general classification lead.
“Of course we are very motivated to keep the leader’s jersey and to win the tour overall, it’s only one more day we are a very strong team, unfortunately a very small team, but already my team mates demonstrated how strong they are and I’m very happy to have them on my team tomorrow to help me win the jersey.”
If GC victory should come it will be a second WorldTour win in two days. You wait 13 year then two come along at once.
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