Q&A: Ashleigh Moolman Pasio on defending her Cycling Esports world title

As the UCI Cycling World Championships approached, I called defending champion Ashleigh Moolman Pasio to discuss the growth and importance of virtual racing and how she feels before the race.

Abby Mickey: First off, there are a lot of people who are skeptical about virtual bike racing, and we’ve already talked about the benefits of e-racing in terms of equality, live coverage, and so on. But I was wondering if you could help me try to sell e-racing to people.

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio: It is true that there are skeptics, and I think that speaks to road cycling in general. It’s very steeped in tradition, really. I think that’s part of the reason there’s a hesitation to kiss [virtual racing].

I’ve just come back from training camp with my SD Worx teammates and they’re intrigued, they’re listening and asking questions. They watch me run, like last night they watched the [Premier League] race and they messaged me afterwards. So there’s this intrigue from a lot of people, but there’s a reluctance to just let go and embrace it.

Like I said, that’s just the nature of road cycling these days. Cycling equipment, brands, it evolves at high speed. Things change from year to year, but the heart of the sport remains very traditional.

The reality is that virtual cycling is growing on a recreational level, so there are thousands of people using Zwift on a daily basis. Community league races on Tuesdays have thousands of women and men racing and they love it. I think that’s actually more important than accepting the pros or more traditional riders because at the end of the day critical mass is what makes things successful and that’s what makes the sport what that it is.

I think it’s a matter of time. Everyone knows esports. They are aware of it and they know it has the potential to become something big.

For of course, it doesn’t have to be cycling fans converting to esports cycling fans. We are seeing a huge growth in e-racing fans from the Zwift community itself.

Exactly, and I think that’s what I’ve achieved in esports. It creates a community that brings people together because it’s so connected to a lot of people. There are so many people working full time in cities. Going out on the road bike every day is not an easy task, so riding the trainer for an hour is much easier. From there, you can move on to racing in leagues, as that’s something to use as motivation for their training. So these people can identify themselves.

For me, there’s a lot of power in that and especially in women’s cycling, I really feel that the way we convert more women into becoming fans of the sport and watching the races is through that kind of connection.

And WWe’ve already talked about the possibility of esports also bringing a lot more diversity to the world of cycling, because that breaks down a lot of barriers.

Absoutely. And I think again that’s one of the main reasons why I really embraced it and chose to be active in space is because I’m from South Africa and I know how difficult it is for a young woman to take that step towards entering the professional peloton in Europe. It’s not just the distance you have to travel or leave your country of origin to go to another continent. It’s visas and finances – all hurdles they have to overcome in order to get to the races and even get noticed. It’s not easy at all.

This is where I see esports as an opportunity to globalize sport. Professional cycling these days is Eurocentric and esports is breaking down all those barriers.

So back to the upcoming world championship road race. How do you feel trying to defend your title?

I felt a little nervous and uneasy about it, and it hasn’t been the easiest start to the year for me. I had COVID-19 over Christmas, which upset my off-season training a bit. I didn’t take too many days off, but it affected specific blocks of interval work. So the second and third rounds of the Premier League was the first time I had a good intensity. It was a huge shock to the system.

Also, a few things have changed in terms of esports racing. The 100% manager difficulty was introduced in the Premier League and will also be at the Wheel Championships, so that was a big shock as well. Now I have to focus on specific indoor training work to prepare.

I felt pretty good and then went to training camp with my SD Worx teammates and had the shock of a race in the fifth round of the Premier Series which unfortunately had a lot to do with technical issues and unreliable Wi-Fi. I think that was just an indication of something that’s pretty important when it comes to esports. That you need to have your setup running in a way that works for you.

Having a good run in the last round of the Premier League and finally winning again in a race on Zwift was really good, and it definitely gave me a huge confidence boost. Now I feel really motivated. I feel like the form is coming at the right time and I can’t wait to defend my title.

Do you think the course is right for you?

I would say high climbing races are suitable for runners with good power to weight ratios, which is why esports has always worked for me as I have a very high power to weight ratio.

The weird thing about road racing is that there are so many other things involved. Tactics and good racing sense don’t always mean the racer with the best numbers wins. Good numbers don’t always translate to the best results. Whereas in esports this is true, especially when climbs are involved in the course. When it’s a sprint finish or something and there’s not a lot of climbing, then it’s a totally different ball game.

I would say the course suits me very well because of all the climbs in New York, and we do the main climb three times. We finish at the top and I’m really confident about that. It will certainly be a difficult race because there is not really any flat; it’s constantly up and down.

What about teamwork? You have teammates accompanying you. Great Britain and the USA have 10 runners on the starting line. Does it make a difference?

It can definitely make a difference, I suppose. It’s a bit like it could be on the road with the biggest teams. It is possible for bigger countries to send runners on the road and try to force me or other runners to work a little earlier.

It will be interesting to see how well teams use this to their advantage. I have certainly seen an increase in the level of professionalism in e-racing since 2020 and I have certainly seen teams working better together. Especially because most Premier League races are points-based, that means different runners go for four different sprint bonuses. But this element is perhaps not so present in the world championships. It’s about the final and being the first person to cross the line.

So it will be interesting to see how the teams use their numbers. Generally, I don’t feel as intimidated by numbers in esports as I would on the road. On the road when I line up on the starting line against a team of nine Dutch riders it is very difficult to play for victory, but in e-sport it is still possible.

I have two teammates and I know they are 100% committed to helping me in any way they can, especially in the early stages of the race.

Oho do you consider your biggest competitor?

This time around there are more esports pros, women racing in the Premier League. I think there are some really good esports racers who will be competing in the World Championships for the first time this time around. Not all of the esports specific pros were able to race last time because it was very new and there were limitations.

Do you think your virtual races have an effect on your road races?

It was kind of my ambition now, it was to try to demonstrate that, just like cyclo-cross, esports is another cycling discipline, which I think can complement road cycling. I would say it’s actually very comparable to cyclocross because it’s a short, really intense race. My intention was to use the Premier League at the start of this year to prepare for the road season. There were times when I felt quite skeptical in the previous weeks. It hasn’t been easy trying to come back from COVID, but now I can finally see some real glimpses of the form coming.

Running once a week in the Premier League gives you a very high intensity session. Much like a VO2max session, instead of going for your interval session, I use the Monday night run as one of my high intensity workouts, and I think that complements running on road. My first road race will be Strade Bianche, so we’ll see how it goes.

Well, the race is live on the 26th, anyone reading can watch. And I can’t wait to watch it. It’s going to be awesome! Thank you very much for your time!

Thanks very much!

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