The Absa Cape Epic route reveal is one of the most hotly awaited stories of the mountain bike stage racing calendar. With its well-deserved reputation as the hardest-fought and toughtest physical challenge on two wheels, we’ve been checking and rechecking our emails in anticipation of the 2023 route release – and here it is.
By all accounts, the 2022 route was one of the most difficult ever—how will the 2023 map measure up? Will the route planners take it a little easier on racers this year, or will they double down with more challenges from the African wilderness?
The answers are finally in. Here’s our full analysis and take on the 2023 Absa Cape Epic route.
Absa Cape Epic 2023 at a glance
In 2023, Cape Epic teams will traverse 658 kilometres and climb 15,775 metres.
Stage locations are (click to jump to analysis):
What to expect—stage by stage analysis
Here’s our summary and our expert take on each stage, with the inside word on what to expect
Prologue: Meerendal Wine Estate
27km | 750m
The infamous Dorstberg, or Stairway to Heaven, is back! It’s just a couple of kilometres long, but there’s a reason this challenge has featured in seven previous Cape Epics—it’s a challenge that sees even some of the pros off and pushing. While the climb is pure torture, the views back to Table Mountain and Robben Island from the top are spectacular, and the trails back down to the estate are worth the effort.
Our take: This is a tried and tested Cape Epic prologue (Meerendal featured in the 2016 event) and follows a similar formula to previous years – so no nasty surprises today. The route promises lit trails, steep climbs and descents, epic views and awesome spectating to set us up for a dramatic week of racing. The trick here is to ride a fast and consistent race, but not go too deep – as this is just the warm up for a whole week of tough racing.
Stage 1: Hermanus
98km | 2550m
Hermanus’s Hemel en Aarde trails are literally burned into the memories of Cape Epic riders of the 2019 edition, who encountered searingly hot temperatures in the blinding moonscapes surrounding this otherwise picturesque coastal town. With a whopping 2,550m of climbing in 98 kilometres, riders can expect this stage to feel relentlessly uphill as they take in iconic climbs Katkloof, The One, and Fernkloof. And when it’s not uphill, there’ll be no relief, as riders tumble down rough, physical descents.
Our take: The Cape Epic always goes off with a bang, and with the niceties of the prologue behind us, it’s time to suit up and go to battle. This stage will leave riders under no illusions about what it takes to conquer The Untamed and riders be warned: many finish their Cape Epic on stage one. With still-fresh legs, it will be easy to go out waaaay too hard, and the final climbs will decide whether we have a day to forget or remember. Racing smart today should set us up for the coming days.
Stage 2: Hermanus
116km | 1 850m
This stage may look a little tamer with a ‘flat’ start and finish around the Klein Rivier Lagoon, but riders are really going to have to go to work when they hit the Akkadisberg and Paardenberg climbs. Good news, then, that these vicious hills are surrounded by meticulously-built singletrack designed to spike the adrenalin, including Ultimate Southern Pass and Missing Link Trail.
Our take: We know it’s tempting fate to say it, but it’s just possible that stage 2 will be the most ‘fun’ stage of the 2023 event. Fun, you ask? Well, ‘type two’ fun, maybe. There’s way less climbing than ‘usual’ for the longest stage of a Cape Epic, but the day will still pivot on those two main climbs. We’ll need to work for those descents, but technically proficient riders will be rewarded with some recovery between massive efforts. Tough, but fair.
Stage 3: Hermanus to Oak Valley Wine Estate
108km | 2600m
The transfer from Hermanus to Oak Valley will take in some of the toughest terrain of the 2023 event, traversing a massive mixture of raw, rough-cut trail, new singletrack, dusty district roads, and rocky, thorny dirt of every description. This little package of pain is neatly wrapped up with 2600 metres of climbing spread over at least six devilish major climbs.
Our take: No two ways about it, this stage is hard. When the Cape Epic route descriptions include words like “wild country” and “momentum difficult” and, heaven help us “hitherto unused climb”, it can only mean one thing—this stage is really going to sort out the teams who have what it takes, and those who can try again another year.
The first 60km of this stage won’t be easy, but you’ll need your big kid pants after that second water point. Like most Cape Epic stages, any amateur team looking to do anything from survive to succeed will need to have a good plan on pacing and nutrition today. And any professional team will suffer the consequences if they don’t do the same.
Stage 4: Oak Valley Wine Estate
47km | 875m
The race of truth returns to the African wilderness… but this is no ordinary time trial: it’s the longest and quite possibly the toughest ever to feature in the Absa Cape Epic, with nasty, sharp climbs totalling 875m over 47 kilometres, and technical singletrack to challenge skills as well as fitness.
Our take: High five Epic racers! The mid-week time trial is back. Riders waking up on Stage 4 will do so knowing they have a flat(tish), short(ish) stage ahead of them where they can chose their level of pain or comfort. It’s a rare mental reprieve and a wonderful addition to the route.
But beware: This stage is going to mess with our heads! TT stages can test a team’s cohesiveness more than any other, and on tired legs and minds, over endless technical and fitness challenges, there’s gonna be fireworks out there. You may choose to ride to survive, or you might choose to leap frog that pesky team ahead of you on GC. Today is a gift, but not without cost.
Stage 5: Oak Valley Wine Estate to Lourensford Wine Estate
102km | 2450m
The Queen Stage of the 2023 Cape Epic is all about climbing. First the long, long drag to the Tierkop, which is nothing but a prelude to the towering Groenlandberg climb, 1,181 metres above sea level. But that’s not all. After a collection of cool singletrack, including the A-Z trails, riders again head upwards, this time to the Gantouw Pass, only to be rewarded with a compulsory portage down the other side, before tackling yet another collection of tough climbs. A final descent into Lourensford rewards, mercifully, with some very cool trails.
Our take: For two days at Oak Valley, riders will be fighting the urge to look up and ponder the imposing Groenlandberg, because today, they get to ride up it. But don’t be fooled, for the well-prepared, the Green Mountain could well be the most straightforward component of the stage—a chance to get into a rhythm and tick off some kilometres. We think the compulsory portage down to Knorhoek could be the toughest bit, and could break more than just a few ankles. With a five-star difficulty rating from route planners, it’s an achievement to make the finish line of this stage. And don’t forget – it’s green for a reason. Be prepared to pull a jacket on.
Stage 6: Lourensford Wine Estate
82km | 2300m
For the first time in Cape Epic history, a stage is being held on a single property. Riders can look forward to morale boosting supporters on the track, as Lourensford also offers plenty of great spots to watch riders tackle technical descents and track racers’ progress through the course. This route takes in all the best trails the renowned Lourensford Wine Estate has to offer, as well as all the toughest climbs for a full day of tough racing where every challenge is rewarded.
Our take: Riders who attended the 2022 Cape Epic will remember the steep, dusty and flowing trails of Lourensford with fondness (and the heat, but let’s not dwell). This is a stage that promises plenty of challenges, sure, including brutal climbs and rough, remnant singletrack, but unlike the Queen Stage, it also promises to reward each effort with cool, flowing downhill trails that might just make us smile through the fatigue haze, as will the promise of plenty of spectators. Even though the profile looks like a set of shark’s teeth, we think this will be a fun one. Ride with a smile – you’re almost a Cape Epic finisher!
Stage 7: Lourensford Wine Estate to Val de Vie Estate
78km | 2400m
The journey home is never easy at the Cape Epic, and this year stands a particularly spicy set of challenges between riders and their finisher medals, pizza, and an actual mattress to sleep on. With four major climbs, including a hike-a-bike up The Nek, this route also takes in some of the sweetest trails in the Western Cape, striking a balance between pleasure and pain like only the Cape Epic can.
Our take: After stunning riders on the 42-degree Stage 1 last year (and not in a good way), The Nek is back! Too soon? We don’t think so. After all, there’s always a sting in the tail at the Cape Epic so why not give riders’ chafed and bruised asses a little hike-a-bike whipping to finish off a week of excruciating, ecstatic racing? After that, it would barely be the Cape Epic without a jaunt down the famous Stellenbosch trails, before the final run into Val de Vie and finish line celebrations.
The 2023 route overall—how does it measure up?
Here’s some of the features that jump out at us.
The 2023 reintroduction of the time trial is a win for Cape Epic racers
Mentally and strategically, the 2023 route gives racers plenty to work with. This is largely thanks to the fabulous reintroduction of the mid-race time trial, which allows everyone to split the race up into two manageable chunks and provides an opportunity to regroup (if not recover) for savvy teams. That said, the mid-week TT adds another dimension to the paired race: the teams that work efficiently and smoothly together that will benefit most from this stage, whether they’re racing it or relaxing it.
More singletrack in 2023 rewards pure mountain bikers
The most striking difference between this year’s and last year’s Cape Epic routes is that while last year’s focused on sheer physical challenges, in 2023 we’ll be seeing much more technical challenge added to the mix—and yes, we mean more singletrack. Looking further back, this edition is comparable with classic Cape Epics of the late 2010s. There’s plenty of variety, massive challenges, but still lots and lots of opportunities for riders to enjoy riding their bikes fast, and lots of places where technically proficient racers can gain time. That means more fun bits, too, which should at least interrupt the long periods of pain.
There’s plenty of tried and tested gems
From everyone’s favourite G-spot, to the magnificent Lourensford Estate, to the epic Groenlandberg, this year’s Cape Epic reintroduces plenty of routes and features that have stood the test of time—some of them famous, most of them thoroughly infamous.
The logistics are easier at the 2023 Cape Epic
Gone are the days when the Cape Epic was an endless stream of transfer days, bumping in and out on a 24-hour cycle. With Hermanus, Oak Valley, and Lourensford all hosting 2-3 stage starts, there’s less packing up and fewer transfer stages. This means more time for recovery for riders, and better logistics for supporters and staff. The overall effect is a less stressful Epic and more time to kick back and enjoy the recovery tent.
It’s still The Untamed—
—and we’ll be reminded time and time again. As always, the Cape Epic will throw up some truly nasty, near impossible challenges. We’re thinking that Stage 3 could be particularly rough going, as will, of course, the Queen Stage. As always on the Western Cape, it’s not just the route that makes things tough, but the conditions, as riders in 2022 discovered through extreme heat and wind. There’s a real chance that stages 1 and 2 could test everyone’s hydration and resilience by virtue of temperatures alone, and we’re not even going to think about what it’ll be like if it rains.
Your take on the Cape Epic 2023 route
As always, Cape Epic route planners have given us plenty to think about… Let us know—did we get it right? What’s going to break riders in 2023? And what should riders be looking forward to?