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Heaven and back to Earth again

By Cape Epic, 09/25/18, 8:45AM HST


The 2019 Absa Cape Epic route challenges, rewards and offers spectators the most revealing view of the Untamed African MTB Race yet.

From the iconic slopes of Table Mountain’s National Park – to the craggy shoreline of the Southern Coast. And on; traversing the famous Winelands and beyond into the high mountains of the Western Cape. The 2019 Absa Cape Epic route – proudly brought to you by Land Rover, our Official Vehicle and Route Partner – challenges, rewards and offers spectators the most revealing view of the Untamed African MTB Race yet.

Eight days, 624 kilometres and 16 650 meters of climbing – the bare statistics tell less than half the story. Rugged mountain trails, bone jarring dual tracks, windswept gravel roads and, yes, sand lie between the Prologue at the University of Cape Town and the Grand Finale at Val de Vie Estate. This is a reflection of modern Africa, where urbanization spreads to the edge of wilderness – where riders will roll out of celebrated towns, straight into the hinterland where heaven and hades are the opposite sides of the same coin.

In 2019 three stages battle for the honour of being dubbed the Queen Stage. The remaining days are anything but easy however; true to form even the shorter stages pack a significant punch. Take the Stage 4 time trial for example, it is filled with Elgin’s best loved singletracks but each is linked to the next by a ferociously steep climb.

This will be an Absa Cape Epic where form, mental and mechanical preparation are rewarded. An Epic where each weakness will be magnified and luck will need to be made. For general classification contenders and riders seeking to challenge their own preconceived limits alike it will be a race to remember… 

Sunday 17 March
Distance: 21km
Climbing: 600m
Start Location: University of Cape Town
Finish Location: University of Cape Town
Rating: 2.5 stars 

The Grand Depart

Watching over the Mother City, Cape Town’s most iconic landmark plays host for the fifth time to the inaugural stage of the world’s premier mountain bike stage race. For visiting riders the beauty belies the nature of the beast – while locals will know all too well that even 21 kilometres can hurt on Table Mountain. The gradients are steep and hardly a 100 meter long stretch of flat road or trail exists on its slopes. The Prologue features quadriceps crunching climbs and white knuckle descents. Within the first 10 kilometres of the race riders will have to conquer a climb with an unprintable name, 700 meters long with an average gradient of 19.5%. It is a rude introduction to what is to come. Fortunately the highest point of the stage is reached within another 5 kilometres at the natural amphitheatre which is Dead Man’s Tree. Between these landmarks lies the new spectator point and a momentary opportunity to exhibit speed and flow on the Deer Park pump track. The only opportunity for appreciating the views over the Atlantic Ocean, Robben Island and the city below, is provided by the sweeping curves of Table Mountain Road; before the descent to the finish at UCT gets hairy with the Land Rover Technical Terrain. Its clay surface backed to dust by the summer sun, the Plum Pudding singletrack requires momentum and commitment – grabbing a fistful of brakes is the worst possible tactic. One last section of singletrack then separates riders from the finish line. Though downhill it will require fierce accelerations as it twists and turns through the rocky forest trails of Rhodes Memorial, before ejecting the racers into the sunlight for the final sprint across the university fields to stop the clock.

Stage 1
Monday 18 March
Distance: 112km
Climbing: 2 700m
Start Location: Hermanus
Finish Location: Hermanus
Rating: 4 stars 

Heaven and Back to Earth

Relentless. Attritional. A return to the Absa Cape Epic Stage 1’s of old. Traversing the Hemel en Aarde Valley twice, slogging ever upwards to the summit of Katkloof Pass and then working through the undulating Overberg farmlands, islands of renosterveld and skirting the foothills of the Kleinrivier and Babilonstoring Mountains. It will be a day for the strong men and women to test the mettle of their rivals. The climbing starts from the gun with Rotary Drive, the La Vierge stairs, past the paddocks and into the mountain trails. Creation Wines provides mountain biking fans with their first view of head-to-head racing in the 2019 Absa Cape Epic, but the day’s decisive moves should only come on Katkloof. The first Dimension Data Hotspot of the race might not mark the highest point of the stage, but it does provide a visible carrot for riders to aim for on the slog up the steep, loose and rocky gradients of the original link between the coast and the Overberg interior. Twisting and technical singletacks reward riders for the energy expended on the climbs, before a momentary respite is provided by a section of district road descent. Then it’s back over the saddle of the Babilonstoring Mountains into the Tesselaarsdal Valley, where in 2017 many an Epic dream was dashed. The 2019 route does not summit the Kleinrivier Mountains; but the route home, to Hermanus, remains a challenging one however. Charley’s Babe provides one and perhaps the best of three final opportunities for the leaders to whittle down the elite group. Thereafter its scenic mountain biking through the fynbos, with undulating tracks trending ever upward to Hemelsrand. With the ocean in sight the day’s finish is seemingly near, but what appears downhill and easy is anything but. The stage’s Land Rover Technical Terrain, through The Gorge, leads into exceptional flowing trails but there is still one last sting in the tail. The Water Works climb might bring a tear to an eye or two inside the final 5 kilometres and provide the last chance for the would-be stage winners to gain valuable seconds towards the general classification battle. 

Stage 2
Tuesday 19 March
Distance: 86km
Climbing: 2 250m
Start Location: Hermanus
Finish Location: Oak Valley
Rating: 3.5 Stars 

Enter Sandman

Short but oh so not sweet; the first moving day of the 2019 Absa Cape Epic packs challenge after challenge into its relatively brief 86 kilometres. Riders will require a teaspoon or two of cement because after the relentless Stage 1 the race’s second marathon stage provides no opportunity for putting one’s feet up and relaxing. There will be no sun loungers or beach umbrellas on the sandy crossing of the rolling hills to Wildekrans Wine Estate, just searching for hard-packed tracks through the coastal fynbos. The stage starts with an ascent of Rotary Drive before crossing out of the Hemel en Aarde Valley to the west. After the bliss of a tar road descent the sand starts. 10 arduous kilometres follow, dubbed The Machine for the mysterious landowner known only by that moniker. A steep ascent separates the day’s Land Rover Technical Terrain, on a rollercoaster ride down a trail carved out by motocross bikes, from the singletracks and water point relief of Wildekrans. But while riders may know the farm for its superb winding valley trails Braam Gericke has a new trick up his sleeve. For the first time ever riders will ascend the Hottentots Holland Mountains on a freshly cut singletrack, this 6 kilometre long climb gains over 500 hundred meters in elevation and has been dubbed the Wildekrans Tokoloshe. The climbing does not relent once the Elgin Valley is reached however, two steep but mercifully short hills separate riders from a scintillating singletrack run in to the finish at Oak Valley. 

Stage 3
Wednesday 20 March
Distance: 103km
Climbing: 2 800m
Start Location: Oak Valley
Finish Location: Oak Valley
Rating: 4.5 Stars 

The Emerald Princess

No Absa Cape Epic sojourn in Elgin wouldn’t be complete without an assault on Groenlandberg. But in 2019 the famed emerald mountain, though the highest point of the route, does not earn the honour of the title of Queen Stage. It remains an unavoidable challenge however, drawing rider inexorably under its spell, and the like Le Tour and Alpe d'Huez it is the undoubted iconic climb of the Absa Cape Epic. It does not stand alone in providing the challenge of Stage 3, the  Nuweberg, South Hill and the Mac Daddy climbs add their weight too, bringing the total altitude gain to 2 800 meters for the day. In the last decade the Untamed African MTB Race has been over the famous mountain on seven occasions, including twice in consecutive days in 2011, a fact which riders will do well to remember while they are cursing the route team as sadists. The day kicks off with the ascent of the Nuweberg, followed by the Groenlandberg herself. For the elite riders crossing the highest point in the race, at 1 100 meters above sea level, first will yield a cash prize for the Dimension Data Hotspot award. A white knuckle descent follows, then the stage’s Land Rover Technical Terrain, a dual track climb to Die Neck. Dropping down to the Egin Valley floor a mix of rocky singletrack, concentration demanding dual track and two more infamous climbs await. There are riding rewards on offer too, following the last significant climb of the day the initially rocky but always thrilling Lebanon trails take riders back to the northern side of the N2 highway. Then the trail home follows the easiest possible route and includes flowing singletrack through cattle filled pastures, not a bad way to end the day with the second largest accumulated altitude gain in the 2019 Absa Cape Epic. 

Stage 4
Thursday 21 March
Distance: 43km
Climbing: 1 000m
Start Location: Oak Valley
Finish Location: Oak Valley
Rating: 3 Stars 

Just Like Clockwork  

After three marathon stages the 2019 Absa Cape Epic route provides some relief in terms of distance, but the singletrack filled race against the clock will certainly not ease up on the difficulty. The allure is rather one of a shorter day in the saddle with more recovery time – especially for the non-elite riders who will be starting in general classification order after the UCI men and women have been released from the start gate. The route is designed to pack all the best Oak Valley and Paul Cluver trails into one short, sharp stage. Think, Pine Singles, Tranquillity, Nürburgring, Mamba, Vissie’s Magic, Sounds of Silence, Wonderland and the Greenhouse Effect. But beware the singletracks are linked with leg sapping climbs to ensure the stage’s winning time is around 105 minutes. Out of the gate the climbing begins as the route provides opportunities for the strongest riders to put time into their rivals. Climbs like Tierkop, Ma se Gat, Berg Adder, Puff Adder and a horrendous 350 meter long beast all add up to provide a total of 1 000 meters of elevation gain. For the fans the time trial provides the perfect spectator point, the Paul Cluver Amphitheatre. The route forms an irregular figure of eight with riders crossing over each other on the bridges of the Paul Cluver Bike Park. Spectators will be able to see their favourites at kilometres 6 and 20, leaving enough time to make it back to the finish line at Oak Valley Estate after the second sighting.  

Stage 5
Friday 22 March
Distance: 100km
Climbing: 2 850m
Start Location: Oak Valley
Finish Location: Stellenbosch
Rating: 5 Stars 

Newton’s Queen

Riders will have to overcome gravity and work on maintaining their momentum if they are to conquer the Queen Stage of the 2019 Absa Cape Epic. Debate raged as to which stage was tougher, 3 or 5, on paper. But upon trial riding the Stage 5 route it was immediately clear – it is undoubtedly the toughest stage of the race. Rugged terrain and steep climbs, especially of the vineyard variety in the final 25 kilometres, position it as the potentially decisive day in the determination of who will be crowned Kings and Queens of the Absa Cape Epic. The stage starts on the fields of Oak Valley – takes in wilderness areas lying directly adjacent to the heart of urban Western Cape and crosses the vineyards which helped make the province an international tourist destination. The day’s first challenges are the foothills of the Nuweberg, testing to see how well riders recovered after their time trial efforts. Spectacular views abound, as the route cuts through fynbos trying to reclaim its hold on the mountains after decades of being forced into retreat by pine plantations. The Eikenhof Dam provides a familiar landmark before the climbing begins once more into the upper reaches of the famous A to Z trails. There’s only one way down the mountain towards Lourensford, and for the first time since 2014 the Absa Cape Epic will be using the Gantouw Pass, a World Heritage Site. Its name is taken from the Khoi word for eland, Africa’s largest antelope, which first trod out the trail before it was widened by the ox-wagons of the Cape’s earliest European settlers. The Gantouw Pass will once again be a mandatory portage. The racing will then kick-start on the trails across the hidden Lourensford valley, were riders will be well served by taking in sustenance for the brutal climb ahead. Snaking its way up the Helderberg, King’s Climb could work its way into Epic folklore in a single outing. For those who need distracting from the ruthless gradients the views across Somerset West and False Bay are as breath-taking as the ascent itself. At the summit the third and final Dimension Data Hotspot of the race awaits, followed by the Land Rover Technical Terrain – a berm railing blast down the scintillating Helderberg Trails singletracks. What goes down must unfortunately go up again in the Absa Cape Epic and four sapping and vineyard climbs separate Helderberg from the finish in Stellenbosch. There is some fun to be had, for those with the energy reserves to do so, on the Dornier and Mont Marie trails, before the final climb through Eden provides the reward which is G-Spot. The final few kilometres bring riders in above the race village, on the Coetzenburg fields, along the slopes of Stellenbosch Mountain and allow spectators a sight of the weary warriors, returning from battle, before they drop into the finishing straight.

Stage 6
Saturday 23 March
Distance: 89 kilometres
Climbing: 2 650 meters
Start Location: Stellenbosch
Finish Location: Stellenbosch
Rating: 4 Stars 

Death, Taxes, Singletracks & Vineyard Climbs

The old saying goes that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. When mountain biking in Stellenbosch another two can be added: singletracks and vineyard climbs. Stage 6 is the traditional play day of the Absa Cape Epic and there is certainly fun to be had on the plethora of trails on this stage in 2019. But be warned; you work for every pleasure on the Botmaskop, Banhoek and Simonsberg Mountains. Rolling off the fields Heart Break Hill provides a rude awakening within the first kilometre. Then it is onwards and upwards, ever upwards in-fact because Botmaskop needs to be conquered in order to earn the right to swoop down Skyfall. Skyfall, at Bartinney Wines, marks the start of the Banhoek Trails – which also includes the mandatory sandy section of dual track before the day’s next climb. Heading first up, then down, the Nik Naks trail is a test of endurance and technical skills. Riders are then led out of the Banhoek Valley and onto the slopes of the Simonsberg, climbing once again to Tokara. The descent to Rustenberg Wines provides momentary respite; but the climbing soon begins again, this time for nearly 7 kilometres on an inexorable grind with a name stolen from the singletrack at its summit: Never-Say-Neverender. Singletracks and a dastardly vineyard climb usher the route off the Simonsberg Trails and onto Klapmuts Kop. Here, after another testing climb, the stage’s Land Rover Technical Terrain awaits on a rocky but flowing switchback descent. Past Delvera and back onto the Simonsberg network of tracks the route cuts lower on its return – taking in Jakkalskloof and Ho Chi Minh – but still providing a testing climb or three. The final of these takes the race up Old Helshoogte Pass, through a culvert under the new pass, and back up Botmaskop. The reward for this climbing is the revitalised World Cup Downhill track, from the late nineties. Then it is homeward bound through the suburbs to conclude the penultimate stage of the race. 

Stage 7
Sunday 24 March
Distance: 70 kilometres
Climbing: 1 800 meters
Start Location: Stellenbosch
Finish Location: Val de Vie Estate
Rating: 3.5 Stars 

The Grand Finale

No procession through the Winelands the final stage of the 2019 Absa Cape Epic still provides opportunities for general classification shake-ups and testing kilometres for those simply fixated on finishing. Jonkershoek, Botmaskop, Vuurberg and Boschendal provide challenges and thrills worthy of concluding a diverse and beautiful race route. From Stellenbosch to Jonkershoek the asphalt road surface provides a deceptive lull, but do not be fooled, once in the reserve the typical Absa Cape Epic terrain resumes with vengeance. A dual track climb thins the field for Bosluis, the first singletrack of the day. Then it is across the valley to climb Never Ending Story. The best of Jonkers is then showcased by Bennet’s Red and the Land Rover Technical Terrain down Armageddon. From the valley floor the only way is up once more, on Fiona’s Beast – beyond a fairy tale castle – and across Gardener’s Traverse to Botmaskop. Locals and those familiar with the trails will be relieved to note the route cuts straight to the culvert rather than ascending the mountain for a second day in a row. Once on slopes of the Simonsberg the climbing does not relent however. The paved farm tracks of Hillcrest Berries will ensure everyone feels the last seven days in their legs before crossing through the imposing Dark Fest dirt jumps on Vuurberg and entering the closing kilometres on Boschendal. Three singletrack descents and two slogs uphill to the trail heads await on the storied wine farm. Inferno – another name inspired by the region’s close relationship with veld fires – Sugar Bowl and a brand new trail ensure riders will enter Val de Vie Estate, the Champs-Elysées of the Absa Cape Epic, with a smile. The final kilometres loop through the glamorous estate and allow riders the chance to compose their emotions before rolling across the line – as 2019 Absa Cape Epic finishers.