It requires a “leap of faith” for a South African woman cyclist to properly establish herself in Europe, said Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.
Moolman-Pasio, 32, has been in top form this year with her WorldTour Cervelo-Bigla Pro Cycling outfit. She has achieved top-10 placings in six of her last seven classics as well as a second overall in the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana in February.
Her recent achievements have seen her rise to third on the UCI Elite Women’s world rankings.
However, it has taken Moolman-Pasio seven years of hard work in Europe to achieve major success. She said initially it had been incredibly difficult to make a name for herself on the world circuit.
“When I first came to Europe [in 2011], I came over as a South African full-time professional, or [rather] as an amateur full-time professional. We cannot even call ourselves full-time professionals if we just race in South Africa,” Moolman-Pasio told In the Bunch from her home in Banyoles, Spain.
“At that time I had to make a plan in order to make it work, because I was not even being paid by a European team.
“I was riding for the Cycle Lab-Toyota team and thanks to them and key people such as Andrew Mclean and Roy Gershow they helped pave the way for me, which made it possible for me to come to Europe.
“It was quite a challenge earning South African endorsements for a South African team while riding in Europe.”
Only three years later, in 2014, was Moolman-Pasio able to earn a full-time salary in Europe.
“It took a lot of creativity from brands such as Biogen, who have been involved pretty much in my entire cycling career in terms of sponsorship for me or for the team. Biogen still support me today.
“It was brands like that who managed to see the potential in South African cycling and who stuck their necks out in order to make it possible for us. That went a long way [towards helping me].”
Moolman-Pasio said things were starting to improve in women’s cycling worldwide.
“Salaries are getting better and the contracts are becoming more formal and concrete. That should help a lot in terms of getting work visas.
“But of course as a female cyclist it requires a leap of faith in the beginning. It means just coming here and maximising the first three months available to you in order to make a good impression.
“You would then have to be smart as to how you use your visa, while going back to South Africa for a period of time and then coming back. It is important to realise how best to make your time and effort worthwhile.”
Continuity, she said, was essential in terms of making a mark.
“Racing in Europe is completely different to South Africa,” she said. “The dynamics are completely different – the roads are smaller, there is more traffic furniture and you go from wide roads to super narrow ones.
“It requires a very different skill set which takes time and a special mindset in order to adjust. You are going to have to want to adjust because, after all, you will be taking a risk.
“The longer you can continuously stay in Europe, the quicker you can develop and grow. Moving back and forth from Europe to South Africa and vice versa will prevent you from getting that much-needed continuity.”
She added that it took a “special type” of desire and motivation to make it happen.
“There are times where it [racing in Europe] can be scary, but it can also be quite thrilling.
“It can be daunting being in a European peloton, often consisting of up to 150 strong women.
“As a South African you would have to come over with the mentality to learn, while accepting that it will be completely different here [in Europe], not just the racing but the lifestyle too.”