When Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Momentum-Toyota) finished fifth in the Fleche Wallonne Femme (123km) in Belgium on Wednesday 18 April, it might well have been the best result ever by a South African women’s cyclist in a World Cup race.
Evelyn Stevens (USA) Team Specialized-lululemon caused quite an upset when she out-sprinted Marianne Vos (Ned), Stichting Rabo Women Cycling Team, to the line to win in 3 hours 26 minutes and 32 seconds.
Vos, who is currently the top ranked women’s rider in the world, was second, four seconds adrift.
Because Vos was victorious in four of the last five Fleche Wallonne races, it was generally expected that she would win.
Linda Villumsen (NZl) GreenEdge – AIS was third (20 seconds adrift) and Lucinda Brand (Ned) AA Drink – Leontien fourth (27 seconds adrift).
Moolman-Pasio, who rides for Lotto Belisol in Europe on loan from Momentum Toyota, was a mere 41 seconds behind Stevensen.
It could not be established with certainty whether, and when, a South African female cyclist had ever managed to achieve a top-10 finish at a World Cup event before. There is a possibility that Anke Erlank, a former local cycling legend, might have done it, but it is certainly not a regular occurrence in South African cycling.
Earlier this season Moolman-Pasio finished 10th in the Trofeo Binda World Cup in Italy.
These two top-ten finishes put her in the 13th position overall in the current World Cup standings.
After her 5th place finish, she is also one of the top-40 riders on the UCI rankings.
Ecstatic and slightly disappointed is how Moolman-Pasio described her performance in the Fleche Wallonne Femme.
“It was my goal to finish in the top five, so I guess it was mission accomplished.”
According to Moolman-Pasio she was caught slightly off-guard by one of Vos’ attacks during the last few kilometres, which meant that she had to race hard to catch up again.
With her never-say-die attitude Moolman-Pasio managed to pass quite a few riders on the legendary Muur de Huy climb.
Stevens and Vos battled it out up the final, impossibly steep, slopes of the climb that had been Vos’s territory so many times before, but the American managed to out-sprint her rival during the final 30 metres.
Stevens and Vos were the best of a five-rider break that had formed during the final 15km of the 123km race. They had bridged across the original group of Lucinda Brand (AA Drink-Leontien.nl), Linda Villumsen (GreenEdge-AIS) and Clara Hughes (Specialized-lululemon), and this led to a straight battle up the final climb to the finish.
Vos attacked on the steepest part of the climb. In previous years this would have meant ‘race over’ for the rest, but when the Dutch champion battled her way up the climb, Stevens defied history and fought back.
When Vos reached the final hundred meters where the gradient began to ease, Stevens put in another burst and gradually moved past the champion. Although Vos was all over the front of her bike, the four-time winner simply could not force any more speed out of her bike, and Stevens began to pull away.
Jo van de Winkel (Momentum Toyota also riding for Lotto Belisol) finished 43rd, 5 minutes and 12 seconds behind and Lise Olivier 72nd, 5:53 behind.
Some of the South African riders will be competing in the GP Stad Roselare on Sunday (22 April).