The 2023 South African Marathon Championships is set to headline the Bike Fest Paarl, at Rhebokskloof, this weekend. Saturday’s main event, the 80 kilometre showdown to determine who wears the national champion’s jerseys at stage races and marathon evens for the next 12 months, underpins a weekend of mountain bike racing on the Paarl Mountain. Alongside the elite race there are age group competitions, for riders from as young as 13 to the 60+ Grand Masters. Bike Fest Paarl also boasts a schools’ lap race on Friday, an Enduro on Saturday afternoon, a family ride, an e-MTB race and a cycling expo.

The main event however sees South Africa’s top marathon racers face off on a singletrack filled route, which includes just shy of 2 000 metres of climbing. In the elite men’s race the defending champion, Philip Buys, of PYGA Euro Steel, will face fierce competition from riders like 2021 champion Matt Beers, 2019 champion Arno du Toit and 2018 champion Gert Heyns. In the women’s race Amy Wakefield returns with aspirations of resecuring the South African colours for another year, but will have to see off Candice Lill, 2019 winner Samantha Sanders and 2021 national road race champion Hayley Preen.

Bike Fest Paarl

Amy Wakefield (left) is the defending South African XCM Champion. She will need to see off the challenge of 2019 winner, Samantha Sanders (right) to retain her title on the 4th of March. Photo by Trek.

“I’m feeling really good heading into the race,” Wakefield said, two days out. “I’ve prepared well and have scouted the course. There’s a nice strong field this year so I’m expecting an exciting race! Of course, I will give my all into defending my title.”

Along with the more established names of South African marathon and stage racing the event also provides an opportunity for some of the younger riders in the elite field to gauge their progress. Danielle Strydom (24) joined Imbuko {type}DEV mid-season last year and is enjoying the benefits of team support for the first time in her career. She and, teammate, Karla Stumpf are fresh of victory in the M&G Investments PE PLETT four-day stage race last weekend. Tiffany Keep, of Valley Electrical Titan Racing, has also enjoyed a strong start to the season and is looking to sharpen her form ahead of taking on the Absa Cape Epic with Preen. Another young rider to watch is the 2021 Junior XCM Champion and current U23 XCO Champion, Andrea Schofmann.

Bike Fest Paarl

Candice Lill (leading) will be missing out on the Absa Cape Epic due to her teammate Mariske Strauss’ illness. This coupled with her formidable current form means she can go all-in as she attempts to add the South African Marathon title to the cross-country crown she currently holds. Photo by Simon Pocock/Wines2Whales.

It is however hard to look beyond Lill as the outright favourite for the 2023 race. Having been forced to withdraw from the Absa Cape Epic – following her partner, Mariske Strauss’ myocarditis diagnosis – the Seattle Coffee Co King Price Rola rider can go all-in for the South African Championships. 2019 Champion, Sanders, is in a similar position in that she is also missing out on the Absa Cape Epic, but has not quite been in Lill’s all-conquering form. If the South African XCO champion’s performance at the Imbuko Big5 Challenge is anything to go by, she will take some beating in Paarl.

Preen heads up a group of riders with a good chance to make the podium or capitalise if any of the five star favourites have off days. She has shown herself in recent years to be a highly competitive racer, who is comfortable digging deep to hold a group of more experienced mountain bikers. If the race comes down to a sprint finish the two-time Cape Town Cycle Tour runner-up could be tough to beat.

Bike Fest Paarl

The 2023 Attakwas Extreme winner, Sarah Hill, has started the season well and could be in the hunt for a podium finish at the SA XCM Championships. Photo by Extreme.

Sarah Hill, who started the season with victory at the Momentum Medical Scheme Attakwas Extreme, presented by Biogen, is a potential podium hopeful. While Ila Stow, Katie Lennard, Elrika Harmzen-Pretorius, Kylie Hanekom and Janice Venter should be engaged in an entertaining battle for the rest of the top ten places. Anneke van der Walt (20) and Karlise Scheepers (21) are two more young women to watch, though perhaps this year’s race will be more about gaining experience rather than competing for a top five placing.

Bike Fest Paarl: Elite Men’s Race

In the men’s race the motivation of racing the Absa Cape Epic in a fresh South African Champion’s jersey adds even more incentive for the top contenders. “It would be great to wear the SA Champ’s jersey at the Absa Cape Epic,” Buys smiled. “It’s a really recognisable jersey and it could help the winner get some extra coverage for their sponsors. But regardless of whether I have the jersey or not, I am excited to race the Absa Cape Epic this year with Alex Miller. Even more so because I missed the last edition.”

Bike Fest Paarl

Philip Buys has enjoyed a good start to the season, though mechanicals at the Attakwas Extreme and Tankwa Trek have prevented him from turning good form into more than a couple of stage victories. Photo by Trek.

The pressure of being the defending champion is not weighing too heavily on the PYGA Euro Steel man though. “I try to approach each race with a very relaxed attitude and just go out to enjoy it,” Buys stated. “I’ve gotten good at not stressing too much before races these days. I’m not the youngest rider out there anymore, so I’m trying to soak up each experience. It really is a privilege and blessing to be racing bikes.”

The privilege is shared by mountain biking fans who will be treated to a showdown between South Africa’s top riders. Buys has twice lost out to Beers and his Toyota Specialized teammate, Tristan Nortje already this year. Though on both occasions mechanicals cost the current South African XCM Champion the opportunity to take the contest right to the wire.

Bike Fest Paarl

Matt Beers won his maiden South African title on a similar course on the Paarl Mountain in July 2021. The Toyota Specialized man is thus among the favourites for the 2023 race in the Bike Fest Paarl. Photo by Trek.

Though a solo event, team tactics will almost undoubtedly play a role in the race too. Beers and Nortje do not have the numerical advantage however. Buys has his young teammate, Michael Forster for company, Valley Electrical Titan Racing have two riders in Heyns and Matthew Keyser; Insect Science have four riders, in Arno du Toit, Keagan Bontekoning, CP van Wyk and Herman Fourie; and Imbuko {type}DEV have five in Pieter du Toit, Marco Joubert, Rudi Koen, Wessel Botha and Franko van Zyl.

Privateers like Jan Withaar, Freddie Visser and Rogan Smart will also hope to be in the mix. Though given his performance in January, at the Attakwas Extreme, Withaar is likely to be the stand out threat from that group. The riders from historically disadvantaged communities, preparing for their Exxaro Jersey battles at the Absa Cape Epic – Zola Ngxakeni, Ntlantla Nonkasa and Unathi Nxuma – will also line up along the elites at the South African Marathon Championships. As will U23 talents Thomas Hudson (22), Ruan Jansen van Vuuren (19), Victor Olckers (19), Aaron Pietersen (19), Ryan Veer (19), Jaedon Terlouw (21), Keegan Tullis (21) and Jonatan van Jaarsveldt (20).

Bike Fest Paarl

Arno du Toit, of Insect Science, won the 2019 South African Marathon Championships and will be a threat on the technical, singletrack filled, course. Photo by Trek.

To catch the action as it unfolds, on Saturday 4 March, follow @bikefestpaarl on Instagram and like the Bike Fest – Paarl Facebook page. The racing gets underway at 07:00. For more information and the full schedule of events visit

Bike Fest Paarl

Marco Joubert (leading) and Pieter du Toit (right) are among the five-rider-strong Imbuko {type}DEV team who will be taking on the 2023 race. Photo by Trek.