New Zealander Chris Birch was a big name in hard enduro: a Romaniacs winner, multiple Roof of Africa winner and genuine top-three in the sport. When family came along he stepped back, or rather moved on… Now he’s a KTM ambassador, demonstrating and teaching how to ride their adventure machines. He’s also one of the nicest guys you could wish to meet.
Interview: Jon Bentman Images: KTM / Red Bull Content Pool
Two years ago we moved from Auckland down to Thames (a small town situated about an hour or two south) – that was the plan, to move down to where the good riding is. Nothing’s been taken away yet as far as NW Auckland riding territories go, but I prefer the riding down in Thames, there’s more freedom, more exploring of jungle to do. You’re on the Coromandel Peninsula and there’s so much amazing riding up the peninsula. If you think, from Auckland you’re driving at least ¾ of an hour to your ride location and it’s fairly limited. Almost from my doorstep here in Thames you have limitless options, you wouldn’t know which way to turn next, it’s been a really good move.
Whereas I used to be a hard enduro man these days I mix that with a lot of adventure stuff. That’s not a conscious plan but I prioritise lifestyle over most things, and what has been really good with doing more of this adventure bike stuff – it’s like an ambassador role with KTM – is it’s given me more variety. Probably four years ago I was really focusing on the enduro schools, I’d been doing a lot of it, pretty much all EXC-based, but it was starting to get like Groundhog Day. But now we’re doing a bit with the tours, a bit with schools, a bit with events like this (the KTM Adventure Rally in the UK) – promo stuff for KTM, essentially – it’s all based around bikes but its always something different so it keeps life interesting.
CHRIS BIRCH IN 2006
Back then I was trying to make my name in enduro competition. I won the NZ national championships and had travelled to Europe hoping to find a full-time ride. It was far from easy and I went a very very long time with having very very little money. Riding in the UK didn’t go well for me, I’d struggled in Europe and after the 2006 ISDE in NZ I’d reached the end.
There was a definite turning point: the last day of the Taupo Six Days. It poured with rain and they ended up cancelling the day because it was too difficult. I don’t argue that it was the right thing to do – now, in retrospect – but on the day I was like, ‘come on, let’s go!’ I’d passed Mika Ahola and Juha Salminen in the bush, stuck, and I’d managed to finish the whole day on time, I was telling everyone ‘that was the best day’s riding in my whole life’ – and then they announced they’d cancelled it, it was too hard.
My reaction was, ‘F**k, that’s it, I’m out!’ I had my bike for sale the next day, it was a case of screw this, I’m through with enduro.
What I wanted to do and the skillset that I had felt like it wasn’t reflected in the sport anymore. And then a friend of mine sent me a video clip of Martin Freinademetz, the Romaniacs organiser, standing in a river while it was heaving with rain and he was saying ‘yeah, we know the track is going to be very severe but if one person can make the finish then we know it’s okay and we’ll keep the race going’. I was immediately excited, I finished watching the clip, found the Romaniacs website and entered it there and then. Then of course I had to work out how to pay for it!
Extreme enduro is going through another transformation with this WESS series, and I really like the way that’s pushing things, to suiting the more allround rider. Extreme enduro, hard enduro, whatever you want to call it, had started to become a little too retarded into trials, forgetting that it’s not weird trials, it’s meant to be hard enduro, so I think this WESS thing might help bring that balance back a bit.
Yes, I did the Dakar and I enjoyed that (he finished 27th in 2012). But I’ve done the Hellas Rally twice now and that’s woken me up to these European Rally styles, and they’re really good fun, I’d definitely like to do more of those. And the bike that I rode in Sardinia – the 790 Adventure prototype – you could jam some mousses in that, put a roadbook on it and race it straight away. I wouldn’t want to do anything else to it!
I’m often seen as being the laid back guy, but I can tell you back then I had a hunger to win, 100%! When I first went to Romanaics I came back saying this is what life is all about now. I enjoyed normal enduros but it always had a bit missing for me, so when I did Romaniacs for the first time I felt yeah, this is what I’m all about. So that was definitely the hardest I’ve worked for anything – to win that race. I remember training for that, I’d go riding for three days in a row before the NZ nationals, making the nationals the last day of a four day training cycle and then go and do another lap afterwards! But to win Romaniacs I had to sacrifice a hell of a lot, like family time, all my money and friendships, because you are so in that world. I don’t regret doing it in any way, but I don’t want to keep doing that. In the end I stood on the Romaniacs podium seven times, but I only won it once (2010), and then won the Roof of Africa three years in a row.
It was always pretty tough, at the peak I could get to the point where extreme enduro racing paid for itself, but I had no income from it whatsoever. It was always fun, you know people would say ‘oh you’re so down to earth’ but that’s because I was never living the high life. It was like living a double life, I’d go to Europe to race, and I’d be signing autographs, posing for photos and all, then come back home and the next day it was overalls on at the engineering works and my boss would ask, ‘how did that race go?’ ‘Yeah, good I won it,’ I’d say. ‘Okay, yeah cool, well, this needs doing, this needs doing, this needs doing…’ Yeah, some guys then and now do make a good living at it, but I paid a pretty high price for living in NZ and racing in Europe!
Basically as soon as my daughter Zoe started talking the fire went out. Before she started talking I was okay, but as soon as she started talking I just found myself backing out of things, thinking do I really need to be doing this? And I really struggled with it for a year or so, fighting against it. Then I asked myself, ‘do I actually want to be the same person my whole life or do I want to change things?’ You know, rather than fight against the change, embrace the change.
So now we’re always trying to find the best solution for family. Again three years ago it was getting a bit much with the schools and such, it felt like I was always away, felt like I was missing out on too much. That was the main reason I decided to go to Canada for a whole (antipodean) winter, so we found a way to do a whole bunch of schools, keep our earnings going through the winter in NZ and be together every day. We bought a dirty old American truck and a caravan and spent four months doing schools travelling around Canada. Ended up teaching around 450 people!
I really enjoy the teaching. I did a bit of basic learning on how to do it, to start with – remember those Motorcycling NZ coaching programmes, JB? – I did a bit of that and then studied it basically. I read a lot of books, tried to work it all out, I studied teaching people and also my father-in-law’s a teacher and my sister in-law’s a teacher, so I talked to them a lot about it, I take it pretty seriously.
It’s really cool seeing how people learn, how they react to new things. Like we have a basic school, I’ve done hundreds of them now, and I know there are always light bulb moments as we go through the day. I’m thinking ‘yep, here comes the light bulb moment,’ it’s just really fun to see the people’s faces, the reaction as they say ‘wow, that’s really easy,’ it feels good to spread the love of riding bikes a bit more, to take away someone’s fears a bit and make riding easier for them.
STILL THE RIDING, ALWAYS
I think I’m quite fortunate that the way that I ride an enduro bike transfers quite well onto adventure bikes. Not by design, but by the way I do it these bikes seem to like and that’s really fortunate.
Definitely, I still develop my riding. If I’ve been doing a whole bunch of schools and a lot of the time I’ve been on the bike but not actually riding, then I need to refresh. There can be months where I’m spending every other day in my riding gear but none of it is for me, that’s when I need to go out and do some riding for myself. With extreme enduro stuff there are a few hills and lines around my place, they’re like my benchmark – I know if I can’t do them tidy then my riding’s slipping, so it’s a case of ‘right, c’mon, get back into it!’
I’m 37 now, part of me wants to return to hard enduro, but part of me gives me a reality check and knows I’ve been out of extreme enduro for quite a few years now and the levels keep going up and up. I’d have to really sacrifice an awful lot of fun stuff and family time to try and get myself back up there again – and I possibly wouldn’t be able to. Possibly instead I’ll just wait a couple of years and go back to Romaniacs and ride Silver!
For me my true happiness comes in going home and seeing Monica and Zoe. I’m pretty happy the way life is to be honest; I don’t really have any real complaints.