National champion Ashleigh Moolman Pasio became the first South African to finish in the top 10 at the Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile, the toughest stage race in women's road cycling, which finished in Bergamo, Italy on Saturday.
The 26-year-old, who rides for the Momentum Toyota team in South Africa, competed in the prestigious tour for the Belgian-based Lotto Belisol team and was joined by four compatriots - Robyn de Groot, Cherise Stander, Joanna van de Winkel and Lise Olivier - a sign that women's road racing in South Africa is at an all-time high.
It was Moolman Pasio's third participation in the Giro Donne. Previously she finished 17th in 2010 and 13th in 2011.
All of the world's top riders competed in the event, with victory going to Dutch star Marianne Vos, ahead of British rider Emma Pooley, with the USA's Evelyn Stevens in third. Fabina Luperini was the first Italian finisher in fourth place.
Moolman Pasio has proved herself as an all-rounder, but has always thrived on mountainous stage races. As a noted climber and stage race specialist, the team's goal therefore, was to ensure she was always protected and in a position to go with the important moves when it mattered.
The race-deciding moves happened on stages three and four, the stages with the highest percentage of climbing in this year's Giro.
On stage three, Moolman Pasio found herself climbing with the world's leading stage racers and her eighth place on the day saw her move into ninth overall. She was ninth on stage four and ninth again on stage seven, which was shorter than the others, but featured shorter, power climbs.
The tour was generally marked by aggressive racing, particularly in the final four days, which saw Moolman Pasio lose a small amount of time, leaving her in 10th place overall.
"I'm very happy with my result," Moolman Pasio said afterwards. "My goal was a top 10 finish and I achieved that.
"I must say that although it does not appear to be a significant improvement, the difference between a 13th place finish and a top 10 finish is huge in terms of effort, commitment and mental strength; you spend the full nine days racing against the world's best.
"It was a tough event, but a great challenge. I don't like to make excuses, but I did have some back trouble, which certainly influenced my performance to an extent," said added.
"It's very encouraging for South African women's cycling to have five riders in this race. I have to say, though, that we do lack the experience in this kind of stage race, but the team is showing great potential. We all learnt from the experience and I am convinced that great things are to come for SA women's cycling," Moolman Pasio opined.
Van de Winkel and Olivier, both strong climbers finished 15th and 25th in the general classification, while Stander (50th) and De Groot (61st) completed the South African contingent's final placings. There were 130 starters.
In addition to Moolman Pasio's three top 10 stage finishes, Stander secured two top 10 finishes, with 10th place on stage five and ninth on stage six, two of the flatter stages, both of which ended with bunch sprints.
"The race route this year had less climbing than in the past, which, being a climber, didn't suit me as much. I think with the Olympic Games coming up, the organisers didn't want any of the top riders to skip the Giro, had it been too strenuous," said Moolman Pasio, "so they designed a course for a more open type of race.
"It definitely favoured experience and riders with a strong team. We still have a lot to learn as a team."
Moolman Pasio, Van de Winkel and De Groot next head to London on Tuesday for two days to familiarise themselves with the Olympic Games road race course on which they will be competing at the end of the month.
Moolman Pasio, South Africa's top hope for a medal success in the London showpiece, will not contest any more races before the Games.
"My back is already feeling better, so I'm sure it will be fine very soon. All my focus is now on the Olympics. I need a mental break from racing and I'm the kind of rider that can prepare well for races by doing some good training blocks," she said.