'You can be a top athlete - and have a deep Christian faith'

Turning professional has actually deepened the Christian faith of an up and coming South African cyclist.

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, 26, revealed that her relationship with God has improved in an environment that is more “selfish and self-centred” than Christian.

Like any aspiring female cyclist in South Africa, Ashleigh had to move to Europe to be able to compete with the world’s best. But her battle to establish herself was hampered by breaking her collar-bone three times in 12 months in 2009-10.

However, she kept going and was rewarded with a creditable 16th in the women’s road race on Sunday.

She said her faith has enabled her to get through these tough times. ‘Taking my cycling more seriously has actually strengthened my faith,’ she said. ‘I’ve really relied on my faith to keep me going, especially in tough times, like breaking my collar-bone three times. If I didn’t have faith in God I think I would have given up. It’s just about having the patience and trusting in him.’

But it’s not just in the bad times where Ashleigh has met God. She often prays on the bike (‘that’s often my best time with God’), and is on a mission to show you can be a top-level sportsman - and have a deep and a committed Christian faith.

‘Through cycling I’ve realised how great God is. I like to give glory to God in the good times. That’s my goal in this sport.

‘Professional sport is not often seen as a Christian environment, more a self-centred environment.

‘It challenges me to show that you can be a serious athlete and not be selfish and materialistic.’

Ashleigh’s compatriot and fellow member of the Lotto Belisol Ladies team Joanna van de Winkel, 30, also has a strong faith. She says this has enabled her to improve her performances.

‘It has helped me through the stress and pressure on racing,’ she explained, ‘knowing that I’m not depending on myself completely.

‘I can almost give it over to God and put it in his hands. It helps to relax the athlete in terms of big competitions.’

Despite these benefits, she has found far fewer riders with a Christian faith in Europe than back in South Africa. And Joanna, who is in her first year as a professional in Europe, realises that her mission is more than about just improving her times.

‘I’ve found in Europe they don’t have such a strong faith. There are more people in South Africa who have a stronger faith than a lot of Europeans. This is an opportunity to bring that faith to Europe - and show the Europeans that it does make a difference.’