“I wake up with intent. I wake up with an expectation of the positive.”
This is what drives Caroline Matsimela, and what drove her to start the Matsimela Ladies Cycling Clinics during Women’s Month in 2020, when so many people in her community were struggling with the impact of COVID-19 restrictions. She had found herself coping incredibly well, in fact thriving, during this time, and she attributes it to her cycling and the positive impact it had on her physical and mental health. She wanted to share her ‘recipe’ with others, particularly women.
“My journey to running and cycling started, like for so many women, with struggling with my weight and hormones after I had my son in 2010. Everything just went out the window. By the time my son was five I really was quite depressed and I needed to do something drastic. I started running because I knew that running will help with weight loss, and my dad is a Comrades runner. When I started, I was just running around the block with no one, and I couldn't even run 500 metres. I met a friend at the gym who advised me to join a community of runners so that I don't run alone, for safety.
“So this community of runners I joined - little did I know that they were training for Comrades!” she says.
Caroline found people of all levels though - some who couldn't even run 10 kms, some 21 km runners and marathoners, and then there were the Comrades runners. They accommodated everyone. Because of the support and guidance of others, she moved from 5 kms to 10 kms, to 21 and then a marathon.
“I even did Two Oceans 56 km in 2017. I think my breakthrough was when I ran the Two Oceans 56 km - that was my first Ultra, and from there I felt like I could do anything. It broke all the barriers that I had in my mind and just gave me confidence.”
sani2c, dusty roads. Image: Anthony Grote
On the road, sani2c. Image: Anthony Grote
By 2018 Caroline felt pressure to do Comrades, and she opted to run for Community Chest because she wanted to do something bigger than just her own personal achievement.
“Comrades was the hardest thing I've ever done. You reach a stage where your body just gives up, between about 60 and 70 kms. A lot of it is psychological. But enduring that personal pain helped me to know that I can actually do anything. Even at work, I used to tell my bosses: ‘You want this deadline? Or you want me to do this? I’ve done Comrades, I'm sure I can manage this.’
“When you have experienced something so hard physically, it helps the brain to comprehend that you can - that was my experience with Comrades. After ticking that box in June, I wanted to focus on cycling, but again there was pressure ….to do the back-to-back Comrades, which I did. But I wanted to learn how to ride a bike, because that was my big thing. It was never Comrades for me. I wanted to do 947 Ride Joburg, the 97 km road cycle race. That's where my cycling journey started.”
Caroline was referred to Mandisa Makalima by her running community. “Mandisa literally held my hand. For me, getting into cycling was made easier because there was someone who looked like me who took me along. I learnt to ride and we became friends, and we developed a shared vision of getting more women into cycling,” says Caroline.
“During COVID, people were just going through a lot, especially in our community. And I thought what is it that we can do to help, because for me at the time, cycling was my escape, my coping mechanism. And I thought, if I'm able to cope during this time, going through what everybody's going through, what can I do to duplicate this?”
So in August 2020 it began as a Woman's Day initiative. Caroline and Mandisa started with two ladies, and week on week it grew. As things opened up in 2021, they then decided to register an organisation and the pair formed a formal partnership. Some of the early ‘graduates’ have stayed involved and are now leaders who help teach the ‘newbies’ the skills - there is a lot of paying it forward and sharing the joy that cycling brings.
The membership is divided into three categories:
- I don't know how to ride a bicycle, I need to learn
- I know how to ride a bike but I need skills
- I'm a graduate and I'm here for a ‘higher diploma’ and to give back
There are five regions or branches in Gauteng, with training during the week and on weekends, in East Rand, West Rand, North and South, as well as Centurion/Midrand.
“We start them on the grass. They graduate from the grass to the road, then to the road with traffic lights and cars - going from ‘I started not even knowing how to climb on a bicycle.’ We had 78 Matsimela Ladies take part at the 947 Ride Joburg race in November 2022, on both mountain bike and road bike, some doing the longer distance of 97 km, and some the shorter 35 km distance - everybody felt included and was part of the race, and we had a 100% success rate.”
But Caroline’s personal passion is for mountain biking, along with a growing number of MLC women. Caroline paired up with Des Mojanaga recently to take on the challenging three-day KAP sani2c mountain bike stage. Des is an MLC member who in 2020 could not ride a bike, and now she takes on races like sani2c. The 265 km route takes riders from Underberg in the southern Drakensberg to Scottburgh on the South Coast, along a well-established network of trails across farmlands, forests, through rural villages and nature reserves. This mainstay of SA mountain bike stage racing is a real test of endurance, but is doable if solid fitness and some mountain biking skills are in place.
Due to its popularity it accommodates around 2000 riders split between two events, dubbed The Adventure and The Race, on the same route, just starting a day later. At the front in The Race you will find the professional riders battling it out for top honours, and in the middle of the field you can find a mix of people, some doing the event for fun and adventure, some for whom this is their Everest, and others who are pushing themselves to improve their performance of the previous year.
Caroline and Des completed the three days of riding in 20 hours, 22 minutes and 21 seconds. If you consider that a pro cyclist like Matt Beers finished in 8:50, you can gauge the magnitude of being on the bike for those long hours, three days in a row. It takes true grit and strength.
Des Mojanaga (left) and Caroline Matsimela celebrate their finish at Scottburgh Golf Club after 3 days on the trails 2023 KAP sani2c. Image: Maryann Shaw
Caroline says: “Other stage races I’ve done were a bit of a shock to the system. The terrain was just not friendly, and it was quite competitive and intimidating. The camaraderie at sani2c was amazing. Even the terrain is inclusive. Yes, it's hard, but it doesn't break you, and even if you're struggling, maybe with a tough technical section, you can always walk as there will be a section soon after that will be smoother and easier to manage. This will stretch you, but not break you. September is graduation for the current intake of Matsimela Ladies, so we may look at putting a programme together for those who want to aim for KAP sani2c in April 2024,” she says.
Des says that they were riding along on the single track at sani2c and the children from the community shouted ‘He !he! black Americans’, assuming that these women must be from far away. They responded in the vernacular saying, ‘Haibo, sibo mamakho’, meaning ‘No we are your Moms,’ to the surprised group of children.
“So, we are on a mission to change perceptions,’ says Des. “We need to bring our friends along so the younger generation in the community can know that riding the trails is not only for ‘black Americans’.”
The Matsimela Ladies Clinic’s tagline is ‘making the circle bigger’. Caroline says: “Doing things that push you out of your comfort zone is a complete game changer. The more you do races and achieve big things, the more you want to, it's like a drug. Mindset-wise, it gives you big confidence in all aspects of your life, with work, with home, even with loadshedding! I want other women to share that feeling.”