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Q&A: The state of women’s pro racing with Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio

The South African national champion says women's pro cycling shouldn't always follow the lead of the men's side of the sport, that it should be free to experiment.

Women’s professional road racing has taken strides forward in 2019, but there’s still plenty of room to improve.

That’s the overall opinion of South African rider Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, a veteran and outspoken rider who keeps her finger on the sport’s thumping pulse. VeloNews caught up with Moolman-Pasio at the finish line of the Tour of Flanders. Her kit was tattered from a crash, and she was exhausted from a frenetic race. Yet Moolman-Pasio was happy to discuss the state of the sport.

VN: What’s your overall assessment of the health of women’s professional road racing in 2019?

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio: I definitely think that we’re moving forward. This year has been a big step in that every race has had good exposure and many have had broadcast, and that is good for women’s cycling. We need to continue in this story because when there’s haphazard coverage — one race is televised and one race is not — then it’s very difficult to build a fanbase. You also have teams like Trek-Segafredo coming in, which shows that a big sponsor is making a stand and making an effort to put women on equal footing as men’s cycling. That is a great example.

VN: We’re here at the Tour of Flanders, and the model used by Flanders Classics is to run the women’s race alongside the men’s, to generate more crowds and attention. What are your opinions of this model?

AMP: The Ronde van Vlaanderen is a special event because it’s holy week here in Belgium. It’s a huge cultural event for the Belgian people, and we always have amazing crowds. I’m still a big believer in creating our own races, and not necessarily always relying on the men’s races. Of course, it’s really special to race these monuments. The only reason they are so special for us is because they have this special history that everybody knows about. I think there’s a lot of potential for women’s cycling to create our own monuments that become just as special as the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

VN: Which stand-alone women’s races do you think have the potential to become women’s cycling’s monuments?

AMP: The [OVO Energy] Women’s Tour is a really good example of a race that does a very very good job of making a spectacle around women’s racing, and it’s a standalone [race]. Its also a men’s race organization, but they do ours separately from the men’s race. I think that is the best example of a women’s race that is doing an incredible job of promoting the sport. There’s also [Trofeo Alfredo] Binda in Italy, and I think they’ve done a great job of growing with the times. They’re one of the oldest races, and the live exposure they’re giving us now is great.

VN: Which races still need to improve?

AMP: I think as much as the Giro [Rosa] is a special race for me, they are the furthest behind. They automatically get the status of being our grand tour because they are our longest tour. I don’t think they’re doing enough to bring exposure to the riders and the racing. They don’t have live coverage, and I’d like it if they brought us to the center of towns where people are on holiday. We’d like to make new people aware of women’s cycling, and that means racing in front of them. At the [Giro] we’re often on the outskirts of a town.

VN: In your opinion, what are the drawbacks of attaching women cycling too closely to men’s cycling?

AMP: I am and have always been worried of the model for men’s cycling acquiring and taking over women’s cycling. I don’t want to see women’s cycling going down the same road as men’s cycling, and making the same mistakes as men’s cycling. Because men’s cycling isn’t necessarily in the best place as it is right now. There’s no sustainable business model around men’s professional cycling. Coming from my background, where I’ve studied the business side of sports, I’d love to bring a new business model to women’s cycling, and it’s something I’d push for. And maybe, we can even be an example for men’s cycling. They have so much red tape and history and culture, that it can be difficult to break through when you’re trying to do something new. For us, we’re not necessarily governed by all of that red tape, and I think there is more opportunity to experiment and try new models.

VN: Where do you see the most room for improvement across women’s pro cycling?

AMP: I think a problem for women’s races is that it’s not well marketed by many of the races. There’s a misconception that the crowds will automatically come if there is a race. They will only come if they know about the race. The [OVO Energy] Women’s Tour is a great example of a standalone women’s race that does a great job of drawing the crowds in. It takes us to the center of London where the people are. You can’t just expect the crowds to show up.

For me, it’s great to see big bike brands getting behind women’s cycling. I think that we need some big and powerful companies getting behind us to help us create stand-alone racing with full live TV or streaming coverage that allows us to model it differently with the TV rights. That, for me, is what will ultimately change women’s cycling. And maybe that will also change cycling as a whole. Right now, I’m still a pro cyclist. But maybe when I step away I can work more on that.

VN: What happened in your crash today?

AMP: I’m always so careful with the gap in the middle of the road. I don’t know how, but my wheel ended up in there. I lost control and crashed. I got up and as I was rejoining the group on the Taaienberg I had damage to the bike, and my derailleur went into the wheel and snapped off. I had to wait for a new bike and that was pretty much race over for me.