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Road cycling royalty joins elite field for 2023 Absa Cape Epic

Road cycling royalty joins elite field for 2023 Absa Cape Epic
Matt Beers leads the front group of riders during stage 2 of the 2022 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race from Lourensford Wine Estate to Elandskloof in Greyton on 22 March 2022. (Photo: Nick Muzik/Cape Epic)

The Absa Cape Epic is the world’s premier mountain bike stage race. It starts in Cape Town on Sunday, 19 March and finishes on 26 March.

Eight days, covering 658km through some of the most scenic parts of the Western Cape, starting in Durbanville and going as far as Hermanus, through the Winelands and back into Paarl await the riders in the 19th staging of the 2023 Absa Cape Epic. 

The first fully post-pandemic Mountain Bike (MTB) staging of the Epic also includes the small matter of 15,775m of climbing and two time trials, starting with the 27km prologue at Meerendal Wine Estate. 

For the professionals in the lineup, vying for overall glory, the challenges and pain that await are part of what they do every day. For enthusiastic amateurs and semi-pros, it’s the race of a lifetime. 

What started as a dream in the early 2000s by founder Kevin Vermaak, has evolved into the only eight-day mountain bike stage race classed as hors catégorie by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI); this official UCI status makes it a highlight on the professional racers’ calendar.  

There were two full-time staff working on the race in 2003, and 2o years on there are 27 dedicated full-time employees to ensure a seamless event. 

Big names 

absa cape epic

The leading bunch on stage 3 of the 2022 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race from Elandskloof in Greyton to Elandskloof in Greyton on 23 March 2022. (Photo: Nick Muzik / Cape Epic)

A sign of the influence of the Cape Epic in the world of MTB cycling is not only reflected in the strong field of title contenders — among the best mountain bikers globally — but also in the attendance of several cycling greats. 

Three-time Dutch road champion and 2012 team time trial world champion Niki Terpstra, one of the best classics riders of his generation — a generation that included Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan — will start the Epic. 

In a professional career spanning 17 years, Terpstra rode for three of the top teams in the world — Milram, Total Direct Energy and the legendary Wolfpack — and won the Tour of Flanders and the Paris Roubaix. 

Now, only months on from his retirement, Terpstra (38) is up for his next challenge. 

“I still love to race bikes and I wanted to do some other things. When I was still on the World Tour it was difficult to combine different disciplines, especially with the Absa Cape Epic clashing with the classics season,” Terpstra said. 

“This is the most iconic mountain bike race and it’s always been on my mind to do it, from long ago.” 

And Terpstra will see a familiar old foe on his ride through rugged fynbos country. 

The recently retired Vincenzo Nibali is a four-time Grand Tour winner. Nibali, known as “the Shark” in professional pelotons, is one of only seven riders to have won the Vuelta a España, Giro d’Italia (twice) and the Tour de France. 

Nibali has joined the newly-formed Q36.5 Pro Cycling Team and teamed up with Ivan Santaromita for his first Cape Epic. 

“Mountain biking is a passion that I’ve always had since I was a child, but unfortunately I had to abandon this discipline. Now I can spend much more time on it,” Nibali said. 

The big names don’t end there, with former Barcelona and Spain soccer coach and player Luis Enrique lining up for his third Epic following visits in 2013 and 2018. 

In 2023, he is teaming up with his brother and joining a host of international road cycling greats tackling the “Untamed African Mountain Bike Race”, including European and Australian riders who lit up the Tour de France in their heyday. 

Other big names in the field include Australia’s former road cycling champions Mitchell Docker and Lachlan Morton, and former Tour de France stage winner Dave Millar with his sister Fran Millar. 

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For American Ian Boswell, a mainstay of the World Tour in his heyday, the event is something completely different. Since retiring from the international road circuit two seasons ago, he has mostly competed on gravel in the US, where he has performed well. 

During his professional road cycling career spanning a decade, he represented several teams, including Bissell, Bontrager–Livestrong, Argos–Shimano, Team Sky and Team Katusha-Alpecin. Grand Tour highlights were finishes in the Vuelta a España, Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. 

“I’ve been enjoying life outside the World Tour but still love riding my bike. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a mountain bike. I did a bit as a kid but haven’t done any since I was probably 14. So, it’s probably best to do it [Cape Epic] with a roadie,” Boswell says of his upcoming partnership with Australian Docker. 

To prepare for his first Cape Epic, Boswell has been riding local endurance events in the US. 

During their careers, Docker and Boswell often raced against each other but were never on the same team. That will all change at this year’s Cape Epic.  

Docker’s road career was a lengthy one, having competed from 2006 until 2021. While he never rode the Tour de France, he did tackle the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia on the Grand Tour.  

Unlike Boswell, he has explored the extent of his mountain biking prowess since his retirement. 

“The Cape Epic is the Tour de France of mountain biking,” he says. 

“I’ve gone way off the road, doing some mountain bike stuff, and I had this idea that Bos and I should go and do Cape Epic.”  

Contenders 

While all those fine cyclists bring pedigree and talent to the Epic, the race for the overall title will be fought between gnarled MTB veterans with proven skills in the off-road discipline. 

When it comes to the Epic, the debate about “cross-country riders vs marathoners” has less and less relevance among professional teams each year. 

The 2021 edition of the Untamed African MTB Race saw a pure marathoner pairing with the cross-country world champion and winning the men’s category convincingly. Last year witnessed two newcomers, both stage racers, taking the title.  

While winner predictions dominate the conversation in the build-up to the event, most riders, individually, have enough Epic experience to know how to pace themselves throughout the week, deal with mishaps and put together a campaign that would crown any rider’s career. 

The women

absa cape epic women

Haley Batten and Sofia Gomez Villafane win the overall Womens Jersey during stage 7 of the 2022 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race from Stellenbosch to Val de Vie, Paarl on 27 March 2022. (Photo: Nick Muzik / Cape Epic)

In the women’s category, it is expected that the racing will be more open than ever. 

Until last year, stage spoils had typically been shared only by two teams, but in 2022 three teams took multiple stage wins and more of the same is forecast in this year’s race. 

Specialized Factory Racing is, once again, sending a powerhouse team to the event with the aim of continuing its domination. Sofia Villafane, the 2022 winner, partners with Katerina Nash for Ninety One-Songo-Specialized and the two are, without doubt, favourites.    

The dark horse pairing is undoubtedly Cannondale Vas Arabay’s Greete Steinburg and Monica Calderon, who have every chance of pulling off an upset. 

Vera Looser and 2023 Cape Town Cycle Tour winner Kim le Court, of Efficient Infinite Insure, will also be in the mix for stage wins and podium positions; a fact they proved when they won a stage at the 2022 Swiss Epic and finished third in the women’s category after five days of racing. They will also have their sights firmly set on the Absa African Women’s jerseys. 

In the Men’s Category, SCOTT-SRAM’s Nino Schurter and Andri Frischknecht can no longer rely on their speed to put the slow-burn diesels on the backfoot on the early climbs of each stage.  

Rivals such as Toyota-Specialized-Ninety-One (Matt Beers and Chris Blevins), Canyon Northwave (Andreas Seewald and Martin Stosek), Singer Racing (Simon Stiebjahn and Martin Frey) and Buff Megamo (Hans Becking and Jose Dias) have that figured out and adapted, so such tactics are less likely to succeed now.

When so many top riders’ talent, form, ambitions, experience and motivation are thrown into the pressure cooker that is the Absa Cape Epic, fans can expect action from the start. DM

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