Bespoken Word: The Absa Cape Epic really is epic

2021 Absa Cape Epic
(Image credit: Kelvin Trautman)

I’ve been aware of the Absa Cape Epic for ages, especially its reputation as the ultimate, grueling multi-stage test of MTB fitness. I also knew that our Bike Perfect tech editor Aaron Borrill was not only a superfan but a Cape Epic finisher, which immediately put him on a “people you don’t want to try and keep up with” shortlist. However, despite it running since 2004, I’d never really paid much attention beyond that, as what I understood of the conditions, two-person-team format and equipment being used made it seem largely irrelevant even to XC riding in the UK. When Aaron sent me a link to the live YouTube coverage of the first stage though, I stuck it on my second screen as side-eye entertainment out of politeness and because there wasn’t any cyclo-cross to catch up with that day. 

And damn did that prove to be a big mistake in terms of productivity, because I was hooked on the action pretty much straight away. For a start, the speed of the riders was unbelievable. Yes, two of the winners — Jordan Sarrou and Sina Frei — are regular top finishers in World Cup XCO and Sina’s teammate is a multiple Junior World Champion and Junior World Cup winner, so I expected them to be fast. But with stages of 70 to nearly 100km long I expected them to throttle the intensity back a bit. Instead, they seemed to be flying across the desert at the same speeds as Paris Dakar motorcyclists, and the camera-carrying e-bikers trying to keep up with them were clearly flat-out trying to hang on. 

Sina Frei and Laura Stigger of 91-songo-Specialized, 2021 Absa Cape Epic

The Cape Epic is packed with epic landscapes (Image credit: Kelvin Trautman)

Possibly even more impressive than the speed that the racers — both male, female, mixed, masters and grandmasters teams — were going at, was their navigational skills as they criss-crossed mazes of what seemed totally indistinguishable sandy trails through vineyards and farmland. I’m sure there is some kind of marking on the ground but I know how hard it can be to follow direction changes at even half that speed. It rapidly became clear that losing just a few meters on the lead pack could bleed into an agonizing, ever-growing gap that could leave exhausted pursuers minutes out of contention by the end of a day. With that in mind, it was remarkable how close the early days' stages generally finished, too, with the final few kilometers playing out more like a breakaway group finish of a road race, but with river crossings, wheel grabbing sand turns and twisting, overtake-denying singletrack thrown into the mix. As the days wore on, the speed didn’t seem to diminish either except for those — like the Canyon Northwave MTB team who won stage 3 — who pushed too hard to stay healthy, but tactics became even more important among those jostling for podium positions.

Sina Frei and Laura Stigger leading the race across some technical singletrack

Sina Frei and Laura Stigger dominated their race (Image credit: Nick Muzik)

Even when it was pretty clear that barring disaster the NinetyOne-songo-Specialized teams of Jordan Sarrou and Matthew Beers in the elite men and Sina Frei and Laura Stigger in the elite women would take the overall win, it was still a fantastically entertaining way to be semi-distracted for several hours a day. For a start the scenery was absolutely stunning and way more varied than I expected, with vineyards and huge farm estates joined up with seemingly endless desert singletrack, epic climbs and descents that went on forever. The technical level of the riding was a real shock, too. Having seen Aaron look totally baffled when talking about stems less than 90mm long in our first editorial meeting I presumed that Cape Epic was basically a dusty road race. The bike checks of the top athletes we’ve been featuring here on Bike Perfect — Such as Sina Frei’s Specialized S-Works Epic — would seem to back that up with a parade of short-travel, steep-angled uptight cross-country mountain bikes often running fixed seat posts rather than droppers and certainly no sign of much ‘Downcountry bike’ action. Even when Santa Cruz launched its Tallboy with a video based around the Cape Epic, the joke was that the downhill mountain biking GOAT and Santa Cruz stalwart Greg Minnaar wakes up out of his tent in the overnight village too late to make the start and has to pursue the peloton using short cuts across more ragged, interesting trails. It's worth mentioning that Minnaar is, in actual fact, a two-time Cape Epic finisher.

Aerial shot during a stage of the 2021 Absa Cape Epic

The trails looked on the Cape Epic looked seriously fun (Image credit: Gary Perkin)

Truth is though most of the trails looked absolutely fantastic to ride and the way Sarrou and Beer were shredding the Old Wagon Trail descent on Stage 2 was not only awe-inspiring but made me want to get on a plane to South Africa and ride the route myself straight away - albeit a whole lot slower.

Despite the fact that the route wound through some incredibly remote areas, the coverage of the racing was fantastic. Okay, there were some connection glitches but with a combination of helicopters, drones and the follow cams on e-bikes ridden by previous Cape Epic winners the racing drama and the level of trail difficulty was documented brilliantly. The commentary team were all race veterans and included multiple winner Anika Langvad so their narrative was not only well-informed historically and tactically, but also completely on point technically. These are all elements that Red Bull regularly trips up on with its XCO coverage, despite only having to cover short multi-lap circuits of just over an hour. 

From what I’ve heard from racers and the overall vibe conveyed over YouTube, the event itself is also fantastically well organised from the immaculate rows of red tents to the food/physio/medical support that makes such a savage race possible for the more mortal competitors for whom finishing in any position is a very worthy goal. It also really brought home something that I highlighted in a previous Bespoken Word about why marathon racing has never really caught on in the UK. It’s not really the weather, as this year's Cape Epic had serious rain on or before a couple of stages, which made conditions brutal on bodies and bikes, but also 98-degree heat. Having ridden in Vegas at Interbike for many years I know that’s far more dangerous than any Welsh downpour, so it’s no wonder that racers like Mariske Strauss prioritize a second bottle over a dropper post on her American Eagle Flow. But to get back to the point, what was very clear about how well integrated mountain biking is into the South African landscape, not least because many of the landowners are mountain bikers themselves. That means thousands and thousands of kilometers of trails to craft races around (Absa Cape Epic is just the headliner of a huge number of similar events), as well as locals happy to go out and maintain those trails year round. This creates a vast resource of welcoming riding spots rather than a backdrop of barely concealed resentment, however much cash we bring to the local economy.

Rider navigating floating bridge at 2021 Absa Cape Epic

The course has a few unique features too, like this floating red bridge (Image credit: Kelvin Trautman)

In other words, while the Absa Cape Epic is literally and figuratively half a world away from what counts as a marathon MTB event in the UK, spending a week riding it remotely has been a fascinating and eye-opening experience. It’s certainly got me thinking about trying to get over and ride the trails myself and whatever style of mountain biking you’re into then it’s definitely worth catching up on the coverage on YouTube to see an incredible spectacle of flat-out, technical trail riding in a stunning landscape. Who knows what it might lead to? 

Guy Kesteven

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since we launched in 2019. Hatched in Yorkshire he's been hardened by riding round it in all weathers since he was a kid. He spent a few years working in bike shops and warehouses before starting writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Forbidden Druid V2, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg