Bittersweet Argus win for Moolman Pasio
Newly crowned South African Elite women’s road race champion Ashleigh Moolman Pasio claimed her first ever victory at the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour on Sunday. But it was a victory marred by the horrific finishing sprint crash that took down and injured all three of her Momentum Toyota teammates.
Just eight days after claiming the national championship title in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, Moolman Pasio lined up with more than 35 000 other cyclists in the pre-dawn darkness in the centre of Cape Town, Western Cape. Her new white, green and gold South African championship jersey still crisp and her slim shoulders carrying the pressure of pre-race favourite.
The Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour is a 110km race around the scenic Cape Peninsula, starting and finishing in Cape Town, a city that shuts its streets and highways on the second Sunday of March each year to host the world’s biggest road cycling race. Also riding the event were international cycling legends and former Tour de France winners, Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain and Eddy Merckx, as well as South African politicians Fikile Mbalula, the Minister of Sport and Recreation and Hellen Zille, the Premier of the Western Cape.
The feared south easterly wind that’s crushed many a spirit and scuppered many a personal best time in this race before was conspicuous by its absence and the clear skies and hot sun made for perfect racing conditions for the early starters.
The Elite women started at 6:30am along with the Racing Veteran Men (40-49 years) and the Racing Master Men (50-59 years). With so many riders to accommodate, batches numbering between 200 and 600 are set off every few minutes. As a result it’s become virtually impossible for the Elite women to race in their own bunch without getting caught – or catching – male riders, which causes on-the-road mayhem.
The result was a huge starting pack of more than 200 riders – super-fit veteran and master men, many of them former professionals and South Africa’s best females and a few internationals. This format favours the stronger women as the race becomes less about tactics and more about being able to hold onto the front men. For the leading women this wasn’t a problem as they regularly race with the veteran men. Despite numerous attacks throughout the race, which has a moderate total ascent of just over 1000 metres, a large lead pack remained intact for the approach to the finish along Cape Town’s world famous coastline.
Three collarbone breaks in the space of 18 months gave Moolman Pasio the wisdom to stay out of trouble, opting to accept the challenge of the additional effort required to venture outside the shelter of the huge bunch and ride near the front for most of the race. Ultimately, it was this approach that gave her the perfect position from which to launch her finishing sprint.
In the final flat kilometre the huge pack spread virtually across the entire width of the broad road, fuelled by a mixture of adrenaline and testosterone and motivated by the possibility of a podium finish in one of three categories.
As the static finish line TV camera focused on the front women, Moolman Pasio and Great Britain’s Catherine Williamson (Team bizhub FCF), a rider in the background hit the tar with force and created a dramatic domino-like effect that saw more than 20 riders crash, including Moolman Pasio’s Momentum Toyota teammates, Cherise Taylor, the defending champion, Robyn de Groot and Joanna van de Winkel.
Oblivious to the devastation behind her, Moolman Pasio punched the air in jubilation as she realised she’d won South Africa’s most popular race, ousting Williamson by more than a bike length and adding yet another significant domestic race title to her growing, glowing, CV.
“I didn’t even hear the crash behind me. I was so focused on the finish line and there was a lot of usual finish line sounds like music and commentator and crowd noise. It was terrible to hear shortly afterwards about the crash. A truly bittersweet victory for me,” said the 26-year-old, who heads to Europe on Friday to join the Belgian based Lotto Belisol team.
“This race in particular is always a race where safety is an issue. But the fact that there wasn’t much wind, not much climbing and three categories all racing for podiums made it even more dangerous. I could feel the tension in the bunch early on and decided to rather ride near the front and avoid any potential problems,” she explained.
Taylor, De Groot and Van de Winkel were all taken to hospital. Taylor (neck and shoulder strain) and Van de Winkel (water on the knee) were both discharged after being treated, while De Groot, who has at least one broken rib, will spend night in hospital for observation.
“Any one of us could have won today. There was a strong veteran behind Cherise and I was on his wheel in the last couple hundred metres. When he kicked for the line, I was perfectly positioned and we moved around her. It turned out to be good timing. I’m sad for my teammates, but I’m happy to have gone one better than last year and won this race,” smiled Moolman Pasio.
Moolman Pasio clocked a winning time of two hours 52 minutes and 24 seconds. Williamson was given the same time for her second place with former South African and African champion, Lynette Burger (Cycle Lab Toyota Academy), rounding out the podium places in third. Sweden's Jennie Stenerhag and South Africa's An-Li Pretorius (MTN Qhubeka) were fourth and fifth respectively.