PALESA MANALENG: What it's really like to be a black para-cyclist
“Steady, steady!” I shout at Miss Billie Holiday - my handcycle - as we ride in the rain.
We are taking part in our first cycling race since March 2020 when South Africa had its first hard lockdown due to COVID-19.
The uphills at the Cycling National Championships are long and steady. The rain has been pouring way before we woke up for the time trial.
It’s as if with every incline, the more the clouds let loose. I’m not sure whether I’m competing in a time trial or having a swimming lesson as I try to steady my handcycle with one hand and wipe the water off my face with the other.
The time trial is a 7.5 km climb out and 7.5 km back with downhills and some flat road. Only for you to be hit by a 600 m sharp climb before the finish line.
The downhill ride to the finish line is magical and scary at the same time. I can feel my back wheels sliding in the rain the faster I go, and I scream with pleasure as the rain slaps my face.
At the same time, I remind myself to concentrate. “Don’t get too excited, kid, you don’t want to upgrade your disability.”
Reminding myself that a bicycle was the cause of my paralysis. Cycling is both my freedom and my trigger.
I love the freedom on the road. I don’t need a ramp or to ask someone to please assist me. It’s just the open road, the sun beating on me and the sound of the other riders shouting “passing right” or “Go, P, go!” while we battle it out.
But there’s anxiety not knowing whether I will be able to attend the next national championships or whether I will take part in World Cups and World Championships, which are held overseas.
The greatest fear is whether I will find a sponsor for a new handcycle so that I am able to compete with my peers.
Palesa 'Deejay' Manaleng on a downhill at the National Para-cycling Championships on 21 March 2021. Picture: Supplied.
I could hear the handcycle creak up the hills as I took part in my 30 km road race. By the third time the chain had come out, I was holding back tears of frustration.
“I think this might be the year I will give up,” I shout to Ilse du Preez as she takes a picture of me.
She’s married to Pieter du Preez, who is also taking part in the road race. He too had mechanical problems, but still found the time to encourage me to keep going.
“Just keep rolling, Palesa. Put it in the easiest gear otherwise you won’t climb these hills”.
I had spent the entire lockdown dreaming of racing, training indoors for hours and imagining how it would be to climb hills again. And here I was telling God, my ancestors and the universe that I’m hating my day.
“This isn’t what I dreamed off!” I shouted in frustration.
I head towards the halfway point to make my turn.
The time trial in the pouring rain was more fun for me than the road race in the sun. One would have thought that all my mechanical problems would happen in the rain, but I was struggling in the sun.
“Palesa, are you OK? Toni told me your chain is out,” shouts Para-cycling South Africa manager O’Ryan Bruntjies as he pulls up next to me.
Toni Mould, a 37-year-old para-cyclist for seven years, is on a tricycle. For as long as I can remember we look out for each other on the road. In all honesty, it’s like that with most para-cyclists. We encourage each other, argue, cheer each other on and off the road. But I do feel like the odd one out at times. I compete in a “white male-dominated sport” as a black disabled woman.
CONGRATULATIONS UJ student-athlete Palesa Manaleng (H3) and UJ alumni Pieter du Preez (H1) took part in the para-cycling national championships in Swellendam this weekend. They both took home two gold medals. #OrangeArmy #UJalltheway pic.twitter.com/TCspUuuRh5UJ Sport (@UJ_Sport) March 22, 2021
Most times I sit on the outskirts of the inner circle with Mr Twice - he is a driver at the University of Johannesburg who goes to every training session and competition with me, plays the role of driver, mechanic, manager and even a cheerleader.
And we mind our business and answer when asked a question, other times we interact with the spectators, paramedics, security guards or the people cleaning the venue.
I started cycling in 2015 and took part in my first para-cycling World Cup hosted in Pietermaritzburg. There were athletes from all over the world. As the national team, we stayed at the same hotel and obviously ate meals together.
I can still remember how excited I was about the whole thing. I had never seen so many differently abled people in my entire life and as they passed me, I would lean into the Du Preez’s and ask them what disability an athlete had and how they rode a bike, and they would fill my cup with knowledge.
On this day, a South African athlete tapped me on the shoulder and said “Palesa, you understand these people? Tell him I want a cappuccino”.
The athlete was referring to a black waiter who had asked him what he would like to drink in English. The same athlete would come in late to meals and when I left my table to go dish up food, he would take my seat and move my things out of the way.
And I remember thinking to myself, at least it's not as bad as when I played hockey.
When I was 12 years old, I started playing provincial hockey for Mpumalanga, which formed the foundation of my anxiety around groups of Afrikaans-speaking white people.
Getting that gold: Palesa 'Deejay' Manaleng won gold at the National Para-cycling Championships on 21 March 2021. Picture: Palesa Manaleng/Eyewitness News
I was the only black child in the team. We had two coloured players and the rest were white. The white parents attended all our training camps and national championships. They would come with cooler boxes, camp chairs and cheer their children on. They took pleasure in standing behind my goal post during the camps and banging the goal post, calling me a monkey or a kaffir.
“Mandela freed you people. What do you want here? This is our sport. Go play netball or soccer!” They would shout with their heavy Afrikaans accents. The daughter of one of the parents who terrorised me from when I was in the under-12 team until the under-18 provincial hockey team eventually made it to the national team level.
In cycling, the comments are less aggressive and I spend most of my time avoiding any situation that would lead to comments about the “angry black” person or being called “immature or over-emotional”.
I do feel that COVID-19 has made us all more invested in just riding as much as we can. It has me wondering whether I will be able to ride again next year or whether this year is my final one.
How do I convince potential sponsors to buy me a new handcycle so I could pursue my dream of representing South Africa at the Paralympic Games when they themselves aren’t sure whether they will be open next year?
I looked around at my fellow para-cyclists and wondered whether we would be able to compete in the upcoming World Cup and World Championships as everything is self-funded.
We spend so much time and energy training, only to return home and continue training on hope.
“I really hope we get to go to the World Championships, P,” Mould said to me with both excitement and concern.
Perhaps one day we can develop para-cycling in South Africa, manufacture our own equipment and find sponsors for those of us who can’t afford to take part in the sport but give all we have to it.
Palesa 'Deejay' Manaleng is a para-cycling national champion. She is funded by the University of Johannesburg, through which she has completed a degree in public relations and studying towards an advanced diploma in communications management. She has been selected to represent Cycling SA at three international events this year. Palesa is also a writer for Eyewitness News.