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Ashleigh Moolman Pasio. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BRYN LENNON
Ashleigh Moolman Pasio. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BRYN LENNON

Last Saturday, celebrating a day when years of work and dedication finally paid off on a mountain in Switzerland, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio remembered a time when a moment such as that seemed an impossibly long way away. 

A near-fatal head injury after a horse-riding accident in her final year at school left her in a coma for days. Doctors said she wouldn’t finish school. Her mother believed she would, and would do much greater things. 

“My mom gave me a bookmark many years ago when I woke up from a coma after a near fatal head injury with the Winston Churchill quote: ‘Never, never, never, give up!’” she posted on Instagram. 

She had just won the queen stage of the Tour of Romandie, the first World Tour victory of her career, at the age of 36. It was not just any stage win. Moolman Pasion had to beat Annemiek van Vleuten, the multiple world champion from the Netherlands, to do so, seeing off attack after attack on the climb to the Thyon 2000 ski resort. 

Moolman Pasio did not let go, she could not be dropped, and with 2.5km left of the climb, the South African attacked and dropped Van Vleuten, winning in style and with a roar of joy 13 years in the making. 

“Usually when [Van Vleuten] gets out of the saddle she just drops everyone, but this time she was out of her saddle and all over the bike, and I just stayed in the saddle riding next to her, I kept breathing down her neck, like saying ‘I’m right here, this isn’t that hard you know,’ and that was super satisfying. Then at that one moment when she actually sat down and it was like ‘huh!’ I could feel ‘now I’ve really annoyed her and she’s got nothing left,’ and that was the moment.

“It’s taken 13 years, moving to a different continent, hard work, sacrifice, sweat, tears, dedication, disappointments, victories, crashes, injuries, lessons. Not to mention a community of people behind me, an ever supportive family and most importantly a husband who has always believed in me and stood by my side every step of the way ... through it all, we never gave up and we kept our faith.” 

A day later, on Sunday, Moolman Pasio took her second World Tour victory on the final stage from Fribourg and Geneva when she finished safely in the bunch to take the overall win at the Tour of Romandie.

A double celebration for a truly great South African athlete. And yet, sadly, it was an achievement that received little to no coverage in SA mainstream media.

Moolman Pasio has, like many of SA’s cyclists, fought for space and lost to stories along the likes of “Five things you need to know about how Damien Willemse does up his shoelaces” and “Mzansi has its say on Pitso’s pesto recipe”. 

SA cyclists punch above their weight in a sport where victories are hard to come by. They do not, quite simply, get the kudos they deserve. For example, mountain biker Alan Hatherly won the overall UCI Cross-Country Short Track (XCC) World Cup overall title in September. All season he has been at the sharp end of the XCC as well as the XCO (cross-country), pushing and beating the likes of world champion Nino Schurter. 

In August, Louis Meintjes won the ninth stage of the Vuelta a Espana, just the third South African to win a stage on one of the three Grand Tours. At the age of 40, Greg Minnaar raced in the colours of the downhill world champion, putting the skids up the youngsters all season until a big crash ended his year.

Daryl Impey took second on the fifth stage of the Vuelta, recovering after a crash on stage two. Earlier in August Impey had won silver at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. 

Hatherly and Meintjes have distance yet to run in their careers. Minnaar, Impey and Moolman Pasio may be a year or so away from the end, but the fire in all three still burns bright.

Impey has unfinished business with the Tour de France. Minnaar is simply just showing off as he builds on his immense legacy. Moolman Pasio had planned to retire at the end of 2022, but will be back for one more year. She wants another chance to take on Van Vleuten, to be able to look her in the eyes on a climb, hear her say “huh” and remember a book token that told her to never give in.

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