Absa Cape Epic 2023 – everything you need to know about the world’s toughest MTB race

A rider at the cape epic MTB race
Absa Cape Epic 2023 is kicking off this Sunday (Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

The Absa Cape Epic is an eight-day mountain bike stage race held in the Western Cape, South Africa. The event has been running since 2004 and draws some of the biggest names in mountain biking who race alongside amateurs and enthusiasts.

The nineteenth edition of the Absa Cape Epic will kick off this Sunday (19th March) and promises eight days of furious cross-country racing. It's the most televised mountain bike race in the world and the only mountain bike stage race classed as Hors Catégorie by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

While all levels of mountain bikers can compete at the Cape Epic, all eyes will be on the UCI Men and Women Categories as the pros battle it out through the South African wilderness. The Cape Epic is often used as a season opener, giving pro riders and teams a chance to test their legs, bikes, and experiment with prototype gear before the UCI World Cup calendar gets underway in May.

Nino Schurter riding at the Cape Epic

Nino Schurter will be hungry for a third Cape Epic victory (Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Last year it was Lukas Baum and Georg Egger of Speed Company Racing who surged from third place to take gold in an exciting final stage. In the women's field, it was the American and Argentinian combo of Haley Batten and Sofía Gómez Villafañe who made it two Cape Epic wins in a row for team NinetyOne Songo Specialized.

This year it continues to be a stacked field with Egger and Baum looking to fight off challenges from the likes of Andreas Seewald and Martin Stošek, Matt Beers and Chris Blevins, Nino Schurter and Andri Frischknecht, Keegan Swenson and Lachlan Morton amongst many others.

In the women's race, Sofía Gómez Villafañe is back but paired up with Katerina Nash and will battle it out with the other 10 UCI women's teams taking part.

Two racers in a rocky landscape

Riders race in pairs through the diverse South African landscape (Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Race Format

The Cape Epic is a stage race, which means riders will compete over eight different courses, made up of a short but technical Prologue stage followed by seven longer stages. Riders must race in pairs and always be within two minutes of each other on the course.

Rider pairs compete for stage wins and the leaders for each category are decided by totaling the time each team takes on each stage. The team with the lowest overall time at the end of the seven stages will take the overall win.

An aerial view of the course

The course is often hot and dusty and physically draining (Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

The Cape Epic course

The race covers around 700km with 17,250m of climbing which is split up over an opening Prologue stage and followed by seven full stages. The stages feature dry dusty gravel sections, technical descents, and punishing climbs. To make racing even more grueling, temperatures are high and there is little protection from the African sun. 

The Cape Epic course changes each year, giving riders a fresh challenge and introducing previously unseen areas of the Western Cape. While the course may be different, it's no less spectacular and is sure to push every rider to the limit.

Absa Cape Epic 2023 Prologue profile

(Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Prologue: Sunday, March 19, 2023
Distance: 27km | Climbing: 750m

The Sunday Prologue will be held on the trails of the Meerendal Wine Estate. The estate has been a stage venue for eight editions of the Cape Epic and will make use of its newly expanded trail network. The prologue result determines which group teams are seeded in for Stage One, so riders will be racing hard to secure a good position for the mass start the following day.

Absa Cape Epic 2023 Stage 1 profile

(Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Stage 1: Monday, March 20, 2023
Distance: 98km | Climbing: 2550m

Stage 1 of the 2023 Cape Epic is going to punish riders straight from the start gun. Featuring the most climbing of all the stages, riders will be pushed to the limit on the frequently undulating Hemel en Aarde trails.

Absa Cape Epic 2023 Stage 2 profile

(Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Stage 2: Tuesday, March 21, 2022
Distance: 116km | Climbing: 1850m

Stage 2 will also start and finish in Hermanus, however, the numbers are deceiving with a fairly flat out and back leaving the majority of climbing in the 86km middle section. Racers will likely be focused on the two key climbs into the Akkadisberg and Paardenberg ranges.

Absa Cape Epic 2023 Stage 3 profile

(Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Stage 3: Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Distance: 100km | Climbing: 2300m

Stage 3 is a transition stage, taking racers from the Hermanus area to the Oak Valley Estate finish. A brutal day featuring huge amounts of ascent on tight twisting trails. Fatigue will be building, but riders will be keen to push hard as they take on a brand new 336m climb to the Cape Epic, called Gunslinger.

Absa Cape Epic 2023 Stage 4 profile

(Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Stage 4: Thursday, March 23, 2023
Distance: 47km | Climbing: 875m

Set in the forest of the Oak Valley Estate, Stage 4 is a 47km long time trial. Not only will riders need to be on the limit for the length of the course, but the technical singletrack also climbs and descents that make up the course will challenge the rider's bike handling skills. 

Absa Cape Epic 2023 Stage 5 profile

(Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Stage 5: Friday, March 24, 2023
Distance: 102km | Climbing: 2450m

There may be more descending than climbing in Stage 5 but that doesn't mean riders are in for an easy day on the Cape Epic's Queen Stage. They will need to face one of the Cape Epic's most famous climbs, the 5km long Groenlandberg. It's the highest point of the race, but it's not all downhill from there though as there are still some punchy climbs to complete before the day is over.

Absa Cape Epic 2023 Stage 6 profile

(Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Stage 6: Saturday, March 25, 2023
Distance: 78km | Climbing: 2300m

With six days racing already in the legs, racers are going to be feeling fatigued. Stage 6 is based entirely withing the Lourensford Wine Estate and should draw large crowds who to lift riders moral and get them over the 2300m of climbing that the day has in store for them.

Absa Cape Epic 2023 Stage 7 profile

(Image credit: Absa Cape Epic)

Stage 7: Sunday, March 26, 2023
Distance: 80km | Climbing: 2400m

The final stage and riders will be looking to leave everything on the trail as they race towards the finish in Val de Vie. No less taxing than the previous stages, the grand finale takes in the singletrack of Mont Marie, Eden, G-Spot and the Stellenbosch World Cup Course.

The race finishes in Val de Vie with riders crossing the line to the applause of spectators in the event village. Who while be victorious, only time will tell.

You can tune in to watch the Cape Epic action live on Youtube.

Graham Cottingham
Senior reviews writer, Bike Perfect

Graham is all about riding bikes off-road, based in Edinburgh he has some of the best mountain biking and gravel riding in the UK on his doorstep. With almost 20 years of riding experience, he has dabbled in downhill, enduro, and gravel racing. Not afraid of a challenge, Graham has embraced bikepacking over the last few years and likes nothing more than strapping some bags to his bike and covering big miles to explore Scotland's wildernesses. When he isn’t shredding the gnar in the Tweed Valley, sleeping in bushes, or tinkering with bikes, he is writing tech reviews for Bike Perfect.

Rides: Cotic SolarisMax, Stooge MK4, 24 Bicycles Le Toy 3, Surly Steamroller

Height: 177cm

Weight: 71kg