By Gary Lemke
After 98km of cycling, it came down to two millimetres but Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio got her tyre in front when it counted to grab the bronze medal in an enthralling women’s road race on the final day of Commonwealth Games action in Glasgow.
The medal, South Africa’s first in cycling at a major championships since David George’s silver in Melbourne 2006, was the country’s 40th of these Games campaign. It sees them leave Glasgow in seventh place on the overall medals table, with 13 golds, 10 silvers and 17 bronzes.
Four years ago, in Delhi, Team South Africa returned with 33 medals, 12 of them gold, which placed them fifth. Here in Glasgow they fell one gold short of India and New Zealand, with Scotland, in fourth with 19 golds, rising to the occasion as hosts.
Moolman rode a gutsy, clever race, which was decided a long way from home over a seven-lap circuit around Glasgow when she joined a seven-strong breakaway group, which housed two Englishwomen, two Australians, a South African, New Zealander and Scot.
Moolman had gone into the race in a confident frame of mind, and raced up to her lofty expectations. ‘I finished midfield in the individual time-trial and anything better than that would have been a bonus. My legs were feeling good and I was ready for the road race, really looking forward to it,’ she said before lining up on Sunday.
Despite the poor weather, which has seen a blanket of rain cover Glasgow the entire weekend – although it only really started to affect the cyclists in the last 15km on Sunday – the 28-year-old kept her concentration. Afterwards she admitted that she was ‘tactically outnumbered’ and ‘tried to save as much energy as possible for the final push. I knew that it would cost me if I tried to race them. England are incredibly strong.’
She sat in the leading bunch and watched intently as the pair of Englishwomen (Emma Pooley and Lizzie Armitstead) and Australia’s duo of Tiffany Cromwell and Gracie Elvin tried to work as teams to break down the group.
Moolman, however, looked strong and stayed in the group, which only fragmented inside the last 12km when Pooley, the 31-year-old rider competing in her last event at this level, broke away. She was quickly chased down and caught by the pre-race favourite, Armitstead, and from 10km out gold and silver had been decided.
Credit must go to the cyclists for maintaining their concentration and grip around the tight corners of the city, while the rain came down, and inside the last couple of kilometres Moolman, Cromwell and time-trial gold medallist Linda Villumsen broke away. The hunt for bronze was on and it would be decided in a sprint.
Moolman and Cromwell then dropped the Kiwi in the final straight as Moolman led the charge. However, in the last few desperate metres Cromwell lunged and looked, for a split second to have her tyre in front, but the South African rallied in the last metre, with the photo finish showing that she had prevailed by a hundredth of a second, both being given identical times of 2 hours 39min 54sec.
They finished 1:11 behind Armitstead, and 46 seconds behind silver medallist Pooley.
‘I threw my bike at the line in what I knew would be a photo finish. I hope this is a turning point for South African cycling. We need to be competing with more team depth at major events like these and hopefully this shows that we have the ability to medal.
‘It is not an individual effort. I have been based in Europe since February and have had a whole team behind me. The management has been great and the support has been amazing, but I think it shows that we need the support to have more women in the system to be able to work together and grow together as a unit. It’s a great day for South African cycling,’ an elated Moolman added.
Moolman had ended 16th in the women’s road race at the London 2012 Olympics, but is a real force to be reckoned with internationally now and the winner of the 2012 Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour will make her presence felt at Rio 2016.
Of the other South Africans in the race, An-Li Kachelhoffer was never in contention and crossed in 2:51:00, while Heidi Dalton, Anriette Schoeman and Cherise Stander did not finish.
The good news continued for Moolman when she was named as the athlete to carry Team South Africa’s flag in the closing ceremony later on Sunday.
Image courtesy Wessel Oosthuizen