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As it turns out, there’s real value in winning virtual bike races.
After winning Wednesday’s inaugural UCI esports world championships on Zwift, South African rider Ashleigh Moolman Pasio said that her accolades on the virtual cycling platform earlier this year helped her secure a two-year pro road contract amid the worst transfer market in recent memory.
Moolman Pasio, 35, is set to join Team SD Worx (formerly Boels-Dolmans) for 2021 and 2022 after her CCC-Liv team became one of several pro outfits to shutter at the end of the season. Moolman Pasio said SD Worx and other teams began offering her job opportunities in the spring, as she began to win pro Zwift competitions.
“I got my contract [offers] because of my results in the virtual world — I got all my contract offers in May, before I had even raced on the road,” Moolman Pasio said. “In such a strange year, without having raced outside once, I already had my future tied up for the next two years. That was really cool.”
Moolman Pasio became the first WorldTour star to crossover to pro Zwift racing after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the road season in mid-March. In early April she won the Trofeo Bologna round of the Zwift Classics pro/am series while racing for the Rowe&King indoor team. Then, Moolman Pasio won three stages at the Zwift Tour for All, before winning the Queen stage of the Virtual Tour de France.
She scored these victories despite having not participated in an international road race since October of 2019.
Along the way Moolman Pasio became an outspoke proponent for virtual cycling, often repeating the story of her conversion to Zwift racing, and the benefits that indoor training had given her on the road.
“I wasn’t a fan of virtual training before the lockdown, and lockdown really converted me, and now to win the virtual world champion’s jersey — I’m really proud,” Moolman Pasio said on Wednesday.
She also began to operate her own regular social Zwift rides for female riders with the CCC-Liv team and her own Rocacorba Cycling touring company. Moolman Pasio said the feedback she has received from sponsors throughout the year confirmed the value of racing on Zwift and also cultivating a community of online riders.
“Brands like Specialized are looking for athletes who are diverse and can race in more than one discipline,” Moolman Pasio said. “I think the value of riders who are able to perform in more than one discipline will be bigger and bigger in the years to come. To be able to race road and esports, or road and gravel, or mountain biking — all of these disciplines are now important to brands that are active in these fields.”
Moolman Pasio’s experience pens a new chapter into the ongoing dynamics between the virtual and IRL (in real life) worlds of competitive cycling. For several years Zwift racing has funneled riders into the pro road racing ranks through the Zwift Academy program, which awards spots on the Canyon-SRAM and now Alpecin-Fenix pro teams to top finishers. Top pro riders have used Zwift for training, and to ride alongside fans in a virtual setting.
Zwift racing has not, to the knowledge of VeloNews, boosted the job stability of a veteran rider before.
And Moolman Pasio believes virtual cycling could give her a future in cycling beyond her road cycling career. Moolman Pasio has raced full-time since 2010 and has scored 40 professional victories throughout her career. Her time in pro road racing is nearing its end, and Moolman Pasio said she intends to retire from WorldTour racing following the 2022 season.
Moolman Pasio and her husband, Carl, hope to start a family.
“The two-year contract will be the end of my career on the road, but my career in esports has only just started,” Moolman Pasio said. “The reason I would stop racing on the road is I want to be a mother.”
While her pro road career may be drawing to a close, Moolman Pasio said she intends to race virtually long after.
“The beauty of esports is you can race from the home,” she said. “I do have quite a long future ahead of me in esports.”