I recently had the pleasure of speaking with South African professional cyclist Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, who competed in the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift–the first women’s Tour De France in over 30 years–and was also the first UCI Esports World Champion. You can read part one of the interview here, where Moolman-Pasio discusses what it was like to compete in such a monumental race and the highs and lows of her thrilling race experience. In this second part, we discuss the future of cycling, how technology is transforming the sport, and Moolman-Pasio’s community-building and entrepreneurial endeavors off the course.

Elting: Early in the pandemic, you embraced virtual cycling. How do you think virtual cycling has impacted the sport, particularly for women? Where do you see it going?

Moolman-Pasio: Zwift, and virtual cycling in general, plays a very important role in growing female participation because it provides a safe and welcoming starting point for women. Cycling is a very intimidating sport. It is male-dominated, and there are many barriers to entry, especially for women. With Zwift and virtual cycling, women can ride in the safety of their own homes, without having to worry about their image in tight lycra, getting a puncture or into a crash, or the varying safety elements which are a big issue for many women in different parts of the world.

I really believe that the Covid pandemic was a turning point for women’s cycling, the power of the virtual world and the racing that we did on Zwift was an eye-opener to the ASO. I really do believe that this is the reason we had the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift this year.

In late 2020, I was very happy to see virtual cycling being recognized as a new cycling discipline and that an official UCI Esports World Championships was introduced. I was very proud to be the first UCI Esports World Champion. It was a particularly special victory for me because I was very proud of the way I managed to turn adversity into opportunity in a really, really challenging year, and also to win a world title as a South African. It is very difficult to win a world title on the road as a South African, as cycling is very much a Eurocentric sport. I don’t have a big team to support me because there are many barriers to entry for women from South Africa to become a pro in Europe. This is another reason why esports is very important, as it will help globalize cycling.

I believe esports cycling will become an important and popular discipline in cycling, just like track, mountain biking and cyclocross. I also believe it has the potential to be an Olympic sport in the future. This will be important for the globalization of cycling and the growth of women’s participation in cycling.

Elting: In addition to being a professional cyclist, you’re also an entrepreneur. Can you talk a bit about Rocacorba Collective, its mission, and what the transition from professional athlete to entrepreneur was like for you?

Moolman-Pasio: I got into pro cycling later in life. I only discovered my talent while studying chemical engineering. After completing my degree, I set off to Europe to pursue a career in cycling. So from the beginning of my career, I’ve always had a problem-solving mindset and have always dreamt of positively influencing cycling and being an agent of change. I noticed very early on in my career that cycling is a disconnected industry where the different parts of the industry function quite separately. So I’ve always had the ambition to bring it all together under one umbrella company or structure–that was the first motivation to start Rocacorba Cycling as a cycling tourism business. I wanted to create a closer link between the everyday cyclist and the pro-side of the sport, and I wanted to bring the cycling specific brands closer to the consumer. I launched Rocacorba Cycling in 2018, and with the help of the amazing team I have around me, it has grown even with the challenge the covid pandemic presented for the tourism industry.

During the covid pandemic, I very quickly realized the potential of the virtual world to act as a web to build community and to connect the different parts of the industry. In January this year, I expanded my Rocacorba Cycling project to include a virtual community through the Rocacorba Collective.

The mission of the Rocacorba Collective is to empower women to become the best version of themselves through cycling and cycling esports. It is a membership-based women’s indoor cycling community with the goal to encourage and inspire women to cycle, whatever their level or experience, by developing a safe, welcoming space that women want to be part of. Currently the enabling platform is Zwift, and the Collective consists of a Premier League Team, community teams across all the categories (A, B, C and D), and non-racing community members. We offer weekly Zwift rides, weekly workout plans, coached workout rides on Zwift, partner discounts, and monthly virtual events. Currently, the Premier League Team is made up of seven pro league athletes, including myself. These athletes are being prepared to be the next Esports World Champions and to become future IRL (in real life) cycling stars. In turn, they are the leaders and mentors for the rest of the community.

I am really happy with the growth of the Collective so far–it is super cool seeing the interaction between the pro team members and the community. The community racing leagues for all the different categories is one of the stand outs of Zwift. At Rocacorba Collective, the Premier League Team cyclists are the directors for the community team, so you really create these meaningful interactions between the professional and everyday cyclist–and that is how I believe we grow the female fanbase. By forming meaningful interactions and more personal relationships, these women are more inclined to watch pro-level racing, as they feel they know the pros or that they can relate to them. The female fanbase is a bit different from the male fanbase where they are more interested in the story or the person behind the athlete, rather than just the performance itself.

Since I came from an academic background into pro cycling, it’s always been difficult for me to only focus on my cycling. I’ve found that having balance in life and keeping my mind active is best for my performance. However, I rely very heavily on having a great team of people around me who believe in my vision and help me execute it. Being an entrepreneur and a pro cyclist are only possible through teamwork.

Elting: La Course by Le Tour de France, which the Tour de France Femmes superseded, was a demonstrably lesser competition: a much shorter (ranging from 55-75 miles), single-day race that was not promoted in the way that the men’s race is and was very much separate from the Tour de France. Elsewhere, I’ve read about how institutional sports have historically promoted a vision of the ideal female athlete as “white, pretty, and inferior to men,” with examples including how, after the first time a woman took gold in skeet shooting (Zhang Shan of China, who won the gold medal in 1992 and broke the Olympic record by hitting 200 shots), women were immediately barred from shooting against men and not allowed to compete at the Olympic level until 2000, when a separate women’s division was created (women and men had competed together from skeet’s first Olympic inclusion in 1968 until 1992). As a woman and an athlete, do you think that separation reinforces wrong ideas about biological inferiority that continue to contribute to discrimination against women in sports? Could e-cycling and the Tour de France Femmes be precursors that pave the way to more equitable treatment in international cycling?

Moolman-Pasio: I strongly believe that women’s cycling is a unique sport. It shouldn’t be compared to men’s cycling. We need to create our own identity and our own story. Direct comparison is what leads to inferiority messaging and discrimination. Of course, there is value in having women’s cycling competitions that benefit from the reach of men’s cycling, like the Tour de France Femmes, but in more recent years, I’ve decided it’s best to rephrase things–we don’t need to strive for absolute equality, but rather for equal opportunity. Women deserve the opportunity to race the biggest cycling race in the world (i.e., the Tour de France), but it doesn’t have to be the same length or over the same parcours. What’s more important is that we are afforded the same professionalism of organization and equal exposure. Women will never be exactly like men; we are different in so many ways, so we need to celebrate our differences and tell the right narratives. But I do believe esports can help grow female participation and therefore the female fanbase. The Tour de France Femmes is definitely paving the way to a bigger and better future for women’s cycling, as it creates the stage/platform to get the exposure we need to attract the sponsorship deals that will push the sport forward.

Elting: The best avenue to change is always by bringing up the next generation. How would you encourage young women to take up competitive cycling?

Moolman-Pasio: My advice to young women is that you really need to have a passion for cycling, as it is a very hard career. It is a grueling and often very unforgiving sport. The challenge with cycling is that you put in so much effort and preparation to be at your best, but at the end of the day, when you start the race, there are so many things that are out of your control. Things don’t always go according to plan, there are a lot of ups, downs and disappointments, but if you really love what you do, and if you have a passion for what you do, then you’ll always be able to find a way through the challenges and to reach your full potential. First and foremost, find your passion, and then the other side of it is to have someone in your community who really believes in you and helps you grow. For young women, that is always very important, because girls and women don’t always have the self-confidence to back themselves to take the first steps. It doesn’t have to be a male figure, it could be a female figure, it could be joining a club or a virtual community like Rocacorba Collective where you are surrounded by supportive, like-minded women who can help you through the challenges and help you learn to believe in yourself. Then last but not least, don’t give up! Nothing truly worthwhile is ever easy, so work hard and enjoy the journey.

Elting: What’s next for you? And is there anything else you would like to share with readers?

Moolman-Pasio: My next big goal is the World Champs in Wollongong, Australia and of course to continue to grow the Rocacorba Collective. I hope to inspire as many women as possible to work hard, believe in themselves and to help them achieve their full potential through cycling and cycling esports.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.