It was a fitting birthday present for Ashleigh Moolman Pasio of South Africa, who took a dramatic victory in Wednesday’s inaugural UCI esports world championships on Zwift on her 35th birthday.
Moolman Pasio attacked from a front group of 25 riders at the base of the final climb to the finish and then held off Sarah Gigante of Australia to take the win by digital inches.
“It was really awesome,” Moolman Pasio said after the win. “I wasn’t a fan of virtual training before the [COVID-19] lockdown, and now to win the virtual world champion’s jersey — I’m really proud.”
Moolman Pasio was one of the favorites to win Wednesday’s race, as the South African is one of the few riders to straddle the dual worlds of WorldTour road racing and elite Zwift competition. For years Moolman Pasio has been one of the top climbers in the UCI women’s WorldTour peloton, and earlier this year she jumped into elite Zwift racing, winning multiple races against veterans of virtual cycling.
Yet victory was hardly guaranteed for Moolman Pasio during the 50km race, which included multiple hard, punchy climbs, including the steep kick to the finish. The start list of 54 riders included a smattering of WorldTour stars, among them Annemiek van Vleuten, Lisa Brennauer, and reigning world champion Anna van der Breggen. Also in the race were top Zwift riders like Cecilia Hansen, Tanja Erath, and Lou Bates.
The race started fast and a front group of 30 separated itself early. Absent were van Vleuten, van der Breggen, as well as WorldTour stars Kristin Wild and Brennauer.
A flurry of attacks during the race’s midpoint saw several riders dropped, and as the front group of 25 rumbled toward the finish teams from Germany and the United States had a numerical advantage. The U.S. saw Lauren Stephens, Jacquie Godbe, Laura Matsen Ko, Kristen Kulchinsky, Kristen Faulkner, and Shanya Powless all make the front selection.
Moolman Pasio attacked used a featherweight PowerUp just before the final climb, and her move strung out the front group, which eventually chased back on. The South African kicked again, generating 10 watts-per-kilogram on the climb’s steepest slope, and the move drew her three seconds ahead of the group. As Moolman Pasio chugged toward the line Gigante went clear of the main field and drew alongside the South African, and it appeared the race would be decided in a two-up sprint. But Moolman Pasio kept the power on the pedals and eked out a small gap on Gigante at the line.
Behind, a surging Cecilie Hansen won the sprint for third ahead of Lauren Stephens and Jacqueline Godbe.
Moolman Pasio, who is set to join the SD Worx team in 2021, said she had spent the last five weeks preparing for the race. She took three weeks off after the Tour of Flanders and then began training specifically for this event.
“I was feeling quite confident. My coach and new director, Danny Stam, said to me, ‘Go for the race but don’t kill yourself,'” Moolman Pasio said. “As a very competitive person I find it very difficult not to go all-out. This part of the season I’ve been doing quite a lot of Vo2 work and over-efforts, and I did quite a lot of it on Zwift and on the course. So I felt very confident.”
Moolman Pasio becomes the first ever UCI world esports champion, which means she will wear a rainbow jersey during all virtual game play. She said she plans to debut her rainbow kit during a team training ride with her new SD Worx teammates later this week. She also won an actual rainbow jersey for riding outside — or on the trainer.