Interview: Chris Birch New Zealand’s Top Extreme Enduro Rider

Last month I was fortunate enough to interview a top extreme enduro rider, and this month is no different. I was recently granted the opportunity to interview Chris Birch, of who I am a fan, via e-mail and what I found was not only is Chris a one of a kind, but he is also a grounded individual that is also very amiable and open. I had a blast talking to Chris about his accomplishments and how he came to be the tough and distinguished rider that he is. Chris was gracious enough to answer my questions while in the midst of preparation for the Roof of Africa, a race he won three years running from 2008 to 2010. To talk to Chris has been an honor and I thanked him for his time and consideration.

Hailing from New Zealand, Chris is a rider for KTM, Red Bull, and Comsol, to name but a few of his sponsors. Never one to give up, Chris has often battled through injury to finish a race, and only when his bikes fail to a great degree does he throw in the towel. This tough as nails attitude has made him one of the top extreme enduro riders in the world today, and he continues to do well and place on the podium more often than not. Having previous success as a trials bike rider, having won several titles in the New Zealand Trials in the classes of Clubman, Intermediate, and Expert, and all when he was 18. Now in his 30s, Chris is dominating many grueling races that few can even finish.

Without further discussion on his history, as this can only truly be spoken about by the man himself, let us get on with the interview and see just what it takes to be an extreme enduro rider, as told by one the greats themselves.

Chris, at what age did you first start riding, and what got you into it?

I started riding when I was five, I am lucky to have come from a bike mad family. Both my parents still ride motorbikes, Mum has a KTM free ride, Dad a KTM350EXC and my sister a Honda CRF150. Bikes have always been a part of my life.

Like many riders of extreme enduro, you started out as a trails rider, yes? Can you give us some insight into this and how you came to being such a decorated extreme enduro rider you are now known to be?

I started off riding trials with my Dad at a club level in New Zealand. I got up to a b grade national level in New Zealand but never went any further than that. I really loved trials riding and had a lot of fun but never went too far with it. Once I got to about 17, I had had enough of trials and got into enduros.

I have followed your career for a while now, and I almost always see you on a KTM 300. What draws you to this bike and why is it the bike of choice for you?

I have always ridden two strokes, I started out on KDX200’s, then KX250’s, then KTM250’s. I have been on the KTM300 since 2006 when I raced one in the New Zealand ISDE. I like them because they are really reliable and super tough. They are light-weight and the power delivery is perfect for extreme races. I also like how easy they are to maintain and set up, this is a big plus as when I travel I know that I can take a standard bike and make it race ready in a few hours.

 

Can you give us a bit of information on how you set your bikes up for the races you compete in?

Like I said the big bonus with the KTM300 is that it’s really easy to make race ready. I have my own suspension from WP, I use the cone valve forks and traxx rear shock with a FCR bladder kit. This is the biggest change I make to the bike. I run the engines stock with the green power valve spring for soft and tractable power. The rest is basic set up stuff and protection. I really like the Hyde plastic skid plate, Bullet Proof Designs radiator braces and the crucial radiator fan. For longer races like the Roof of Africa and Red Bull Romaniacs I use a XRC steering damper. This is a really cool New Zealand made device that works nicely for technical riding.

You have won and dominated the Roof of Africa three years running from 2008 to 2010, and came in second in 2011 mere minutes behind 1st place. You are also now preparing for this race. How hard is the race and what draws you to it for such a strong showing you always post?

I have always liked the multi day races. I am definitely more of an endurance guy than a sprinter so the long days at the Roof really suit me. Also, the race is a combination of navigation, faster flowing riding and the extreme stuff so it suits my varied skills. Lesotho, where the race is held is a dirt bike riders paradise. Imagine racing for three days through a national park, that’s what the Roof is like! At the Roof, there are not too many insane obstacles but it’s always tough and it is really, really long.

Romaniacs. This is considered by many as one of the toughest races around, if not the toughest race. What has drawn you to it and how did it feel to win? Can you also talk a bit about this year and how you managed to press on with a broken foot?

Red Bull Romaniacs was the first extreme race I ever did back in 2007. After doing the ISDE in New Zealand I was a bit disillusioned with enduro as a sport. On the last day it rained really heavily and I busted my arse to stay on time when a lot of the top riders in the world could not, and the day was cancelled. The organizer is a friend of mine and he totally made the right decision but I was still really disappointed. Then whilst cruising YouTube I found a clip of Red Bull Romaniacs and was hooked straight away. I finished third and decided then and there that I would work towards winning it. It took me four more years but it was an incredible feeling to achieve that goal.

 

Erzberg. What was that like for you? I know you had a bit of trouble surrounding it, but you ending up racing and doing quite well.

I have a love hate relationship with Erzberg, I love the challenge but I hate travelling all the way from New Zealand to only ride my bike a small time. Finishing the race the first time was an amazing feeling. Every year the race has gotten harder to the point that now it really is a race for ex and current trials super stars. I will still go and fly the flag for enduro riders and I know I can get better results there.

This year alone has seen you in several different countries. Can you talk about some of your more important achievements you have had this year?

My big achievement so far has been finishing my first Dakar. Unfortunately the rest of the year has been a bit of a bummer with lots of injuries and too much down time. Red Bull Romaniacs was both a high and a low for me. I broke two bones in my foot on the first day when a rouge tree branch clipped my foot. I managed to carry on but finished off the podium in fourth place. I was proud of myself to finish but disappointed to lose my record of never finishing off of the podium at Red Bull Romaniacs.

Many may not know about your broken ankle that may have hampered your racing early this year. Can you relate and expand on this and what you did to overcome any late start? Did this hamper your training and preparation for Dakar?

I actually broke my ankle on the second to last day of Dakar when I made a slight navigation error, got off the road book and flew off a three meter drop I didn’t see. The impact was too much and I broke my ankle in two places, head butted the navigation gear and broke my nose and knocked myself silly. I followed my mate out of the stage and made my way to the bivouac in one piece but the next day was really horrible. I swapped boots with a teammate who had a bigger size and sat the whole way with my leg sticking out the side. The worst part was when I fell over in a petrol station and Lia Sainz had to help me get back on the bike! It made getting my arse to Lima that much sweeter! The funny part was once I had crossed the finish line, gotten my trophy and parked my bike I couldn’t walk so had to get some eager fans to carry me to the hotel and deposit my broken arse onto the bed.

How was your first time in such a grueling race as Dakar? What are you going to do next to prepare for such a race next year, or are you racing it?

I am not going next year, my daughter will be born in early February and Dakar is not a race to enter without 100% focus. I will definitely do it again though.

You then went on to the Red Bull City Scramble. How was your ankle holding up after Dakar and how was this race for you?

The Red Bull City Scramble was tough for me as I not only had the ankle injury but also two torn ligaments in my other knee after a crash at a dumb race in South Africa so I was the barely walking wounded! However when 10,000 people showed up in my home town to an event I created with Red Bull its easier to block out the pain and do my best. I was happy with third. The Red Bull City Scramble was my concept of trying to give the sport a boost in New Zealand by forcing it into the public eye. We first did it in 2009 and it was a big success, this year was the second running and I think we did it even better. Hopefully, we will do it again in 2014 and it will be even more of an international race.

 

Kei National. How was that race for you and the win as well?

That race is excellent! Good to be healthy again.

September of this year found you in Canada at the Corduroy Enduro. What was this like being on a four-stroke KTM 500 instead of your usual two-stroke KTM 300, and how was the race for you as well. Also, was this different from your usual races and events?

The Corduroy Enduro was all about having fun and the big KTM500 is a lot of fun to ride. The main reason to go to Canada was to hang out with some friends I met at Romaniacs and the Cord was a bonus. Of course, I am a racer so when it’s time to race I give 100% and I really enjoyed wrestling the big girl around the tight forests. The 500 compared with the 300 is a bit less agile but the strong smooth power is really addictive. The Corduroy Enduro was really great and one of the most enjoyable races I have done all year.

Recently, you were in the Ukupacha race in Ecuador, your second time in the race. Can you tell us a bit about what happened there as you were in the lead and tragedy struck?

Yeah, that sucked. I made a small mistake with a big consequence but that happens sometimes in extreme races.

We see little to none of you here in the US. Why is that and can we look forward to you here in the future?

I’m not really sure why I haven’t made it to the states much. It’s definitely not a planned move! Hopefully, I can make it out for one or more of the extreme races that are getting going there.

I want to touch on your riding schools for a bit. How did this come about and do you often hold sessions where you race? Are these planned or also impromptu as well?

The riding schools all started in 2007 as a way to raise funds to get to Romaniacs the first time. From there I found that I really enjoy teaching and am pretty good at it. I started doing more and more and now it’s a big part of what I do. I have done schools in many different countries and really enjoy spreading the love for riding and enduros. I have started branching out into doing off road clinics for big bikes (KTM990’s and the like) and that’s been really good to. My plan for the future is to offer a combined riding tour and school in New Zealand where overseas riders can come to New Zealand, check out our amazing riding and learn some new skills over a week of fun.

 

Let’s touch on your sponsors and a little about them. We know you ride for KTM, Red Bull, and Comsol. Tell us about them, Comsol especially, and any other sponsor you would like to mention, please.

I have been in partnership with Red Bull since 2008 and I cant say enough good things about them. Without their support and guidance I would most likely still be working behind a lathe! KTM have always been really good to me, and they happen to make the best bikes around so thats great. Comsol is a wireless communications company from South Africa. The boss of Comsol is an enduro enthusiast and he has put together a team that I am really proud to be a part of. I have been racing with them for the last two years here in South Africa and I am going to miss it when I return to New Zealand after the roof.

Is there any advice you would like to pass on to our younger riders to help them along the way?

The best advice I can give to young riders is to always remember why you started riding bikes, it’s good to be focused, and important to try your best but most of all remember that we ride bikes for fun.

And, there you have it. Chris is a phenomenal rider with extraordinary skills. We wish nothing but the best for Chris in the future, and you should check out a riding school if you are near enough to him to attend. I would again like to thank Chris for his time and we look forward to talk to him in the future.

Until next time, stay dirty my friends.

Ryan “The 300 Guy” Hackney

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