Ashleigh Moolman Pasio may have the odds stacked against her at the UCI Road World Championships, but the South African is prepared to beat them.
Moolman Pasio is at the tail-end of her best season since turning professional nine years ago, and is eager to cap it off with a significant result in Innsbruck, Austria.
"I've had a really great training block in preparation for the worlds and I'm feeling in good form, strong and ready to race," the 32-year-old tells KweséESPN from her Spanish base before joining up with Team South Africa ahead of Saturday's women's elite road race (12:10, CAT).
"It is somewhat of a challenge for me because I don't have a strong team supporting me, but the course is very well suited to me and, of course, I'd love to have a great performance."
The nature of the world championships is that, apart form the team time trials (which Moolman Pasio has two bronze medals from in Cervélo Bigla Pro Cycling colours), the week-long event is contested by nations rather than trade teams. Furthermore, rankings and financial means determine how many entrants each country are allowed and in South Africa's case that means Moolman Pasio will only have Elné Owen for company on the start line.
"I'd actually never met Elné before, never mind ridden with her," Moolman Pasio reveals. "It's good to have at least one other South African woman taking part but I'm pretty much prepared to take on the race on my own especially when it comes to the important part of the race, the 'pointy' part, where I'm pretty certain I will be by myself."
Owen finished sixth in the under-23 road race at this year's national championships in Oudtshoorn (and second in the individual time trial) and, at 19, is fresh out of the juniors -- the category in which she finished 69th at last year's worlds in Bergen, Norway. As such, Saturday will be a sharp learning curve in the East London-born rider's development; leaving Moolman Pasio to fight a lone battle for the rainbow jersey.
"Of course I've done the preparation in terms of the physical side but I've also done as much preparation as I can in the mental side, for the challenges which I will face and that I will be isolated. It is quite an interesting situation to be in because I go into the race as a favourite [she's ranked fourth in the world], but with no teammates essentially, whereas really strong nations like the Netherlands and Italy will have eight-women teams."
The Netherlands confirmed their strength in depth when they made a clean-sweep of the medals in the individual time trial on Tuesday, with Annemiek van Vleuten retaining her title ahead of compatriots Anna van der Breggen (who had to settle for silver in 2017 too) and 2013 world champion Ellen van Dijk.
All three will be in action in the road race too (the discipline in which Van der Breggen is the reigning Olympic champion), as will defending world champion Chantal Blaak. The Italian charge, meanwhile, will be led by two-time world champion Giorgia Bronzini (2010-11) and Elisa Longo Borghini with dark-horse candidates being Amanda Spratt (Australia), Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Poland) and the retiring Megan Guarnier (USA) from nations with big complements.
Moolman Pasio, though, is banking on the course profile of the 156.2km race levelling the playing field and helping her finally shatter her world championships-best of 12th in 2012.
"The fact is that it is a hard course, and when it gets tough tactics play less of a factor -- it usually comes down to the best rider on the day. Especially with the final three laps, we go up a 7.9km-long climb in each lap so when there's a longer climb like that with 2400m of elevation gain in the whole race then it is going to come down to the best climbers."
Ultimately, she hopes the thoroughness of her preparation, alongside a bit of fortune, will be the determining factors in what she is capable of achieving come Saturday.
"There's probably five to 10 girls who stand a chance of winning the race and I'm one of them. I'm looking forward to it and I'm just going to have to hope for the best day of my career and that everything plays out smoothly because there are so many things that can play out on the day. I'm going to have to play a really smart tactical race and then see what comes of it."