Everything was falling apart.
I got off my bike and it was dead quiet. I had just finished the individual time trial at the Giro Rosa and, I knew it wasn’t my best day, but was it really that bad? Being met with silence from my team affirmed my worst fears. I had finished three minutes off the pace, out of the top ten, and it was a really hard pill to swallow. At the biggest stage race of the season, as my teammates sacrificed themselves for me, I just couldn’t deliver. I rode back to the team bus, taking that silence with me.
I started to spiral. I’ve had tons of bad races but this felt like more. My period had arrived early, leaving me feeling completely flat and in pain. I had strange and severe stomach pain that was keeping me up at night. Even the skin was sensitive to touch. I couldn’t eat and I didn’t want to. I knew it wasn’t true but it felt like everyone else was having a perfect race while mine was a disaster. Nothing was going right this season, it was just obstacle after set back after bad luck, and now, as I slid down the GC from 3rd to 9th, I felt completely disheartened.
Of course, all of this was also happening in front of an audience. My teammates, the peloton, friends, family, and fans were all seeing me struggle and so the messages started. What was happening and why, I still wasn’t sure, but the support messages were clear: I had to find a way to keep fighting.
I made it through the next two stages, getting dropped, clawing back, and fighting for every single pedal stroke. Every time an attack went or the pace surged, I couldn’t draw on my physical abilities like I was used to. I had to really dig deep into my experience to keep it together. My mum called to remind me how I had overcome an eating disorder, a serious head injury and a hip fracture. My husband, who was thankfully there by my side, kept reminding me what I was normally capable of and what we had accomplished, although, really, just his presence was a source of strength. My team was incredibly supportive, fully understanding how much impact your period can have on performance, let alone stomach issues. My phone was also constantly beeping with encouragement from fans through messages on social media. I didn’t have the physical power but I was constantly reminded that I did have the strength.
By stage 9, the Queen Stage, the team doctor had helped get my stomach under control and I was over the worst of my period. I started to feel like myself again and Montasio, the big mountain top finish, was my chance to prove it. It was against the odds and the top riders in the world but, finally, my guts were saying let’s go for it.
The stage played out exactly as predicted. We hit Montasio and Annemiek van Vleuten attacked. All the favourites respond and—hallelujah—so did my legs. Anna van der Breggen, Lucinda Brand, Amanda Spratt and I chased hard. As we caught Annemiek, the pace was…you can’t even believe! I knew it was impossible to keep that power going without blowing up and, after Lucinda dropped off, so did I. Moments later, Amanda did too. While Annemiek and Anna powered on, I set my sights on chasing down Amanda.
I bridged to her strong and steady and as we hit the steep part together, I tried my best to get rid of her. I couldn’t shake her so when we hit the flat section, I slammed my gears into the big blade and punched the speed. I escaped from Amanda, crossed the line for 3rd on the stage, 4th in the GC, and I had never felt so relieved.
I received lots of messages after stage 9. The messages that recognized my low along with my stage podium were the ones that stayed with me. The people who noticed me struggle, saw me fight, and how I turned it around from such a low place, had seen something that felt vulnerable to me. The exposure of my difficulties had demonstrated, even to myself, a strength that went beyond watts and bikes.
We all go into big races as prepared as possible but reality constantly shows use that races, seasons, and life never go to plan. The lesson, however, isn’t that life is unpredictable but that we can be resilient and rise above whatever challenges come our way. I’ve learned that lesson over and over again but, still, I keep learning it because as we rise, the difficulty of our challenges rise with us. It never gets easier but our capacity to handle what we once thought impossible is unfailing if we have faith in our fighting spirit.
Ashleigh-Moolman-Pasio is a world-class climber and the newest member of CCC-Liv (formerly Waowdeals). She has written a regular blog for Cyclingnews since 2016, touching on topics of gender equality in women’s and men’s professional cycling.