Chris Birch was born to ride enduro. It’s an overused cliché, sure, but in this case, entirely apt. When li’l’ Chris came kicking and screaming into the world, almost 30 years ago, his father was riding in the International Six Day Enduro (ISDE), one of the world’s oldest off-road motorcycle events. That’s right, Pete Birch missed the delivery of his first-born to ride his bike. What’s more, Chris’ motorbike-mad mother, Jo, had given Pete her full blessing to be absent. They were different times of course, but the kid never really stood a chance, did he? He was always going to be a bike rider.
The year was 1980 and Pete Birch was eliminated on day three of the six-day event. Twenty-six years later he was at the finish line of the 2006 ISDE in New Zealand with tears in his eyes, as Birch Jr blitzed the opposition to cross the finish line first. Despite his achievements, his son wasn’t satisfied. A tropical cyclone and driving rain had made the difficult event near impossible and organisers decided to cancel some of the stages, much to Chris’ disgust as it meant his victory didn’t count.
“On the fifth day I busted a gut to get through all these nasty sections and I was passing some of the top guys in the world,” says Birch. “Then I got back at the end of the day to find the organisers had discounted the sections because they deemed them impassable. I was spewing.” Chris’s frustration prompted him to try to find an event that matched his ambition and he found what he was looking for in extreme enduro. “I saw a video clip of Red Bull Romaniacs, which is supposed to be the toughest extreme enduro event in the world, and the organisers were telling the riders ‘if one person gets through, the race stays on’ and I thought to myself, ‘Now you’re talking!’” Extreme enduro is a relatively new sport, which has taken elements of enduro racing, supercross, motocross and trials riding to create the ultimate test of man and machine. The riders scale rocky ridges before barrelling down the other side, rev their way across rivers, wade through swamps, scramble up quarries and weave through forests and occasionally, very occasionally, get to push their bikes flat out across a deserted plain or a flat dirt road. Some of the obstacles are so tricky that riders are forced to haul their 100kg bikes up steps and over rocks, making extreme enduro a physical challenge as much as a mental one and testing riders’ technical skills to the limit.
“It is survival of the fittest on a dirt bike,” explains Jeff Pakosta, the man behind the new World Xtreme Enduro Championships (WXEC). “It is about these guys challenging themselves against the clock on the most brutal terrain.”
‘Birchy’ is expected to be one of the guys to beat in the WXEC. The 29-year-old from Auckland with boyish good looks and a disarming line in self-deprecation has come from nowhere to challenge the biggest names in the sport: despite being a full-time rider only since 2008, he won his first ‘Big Five’ extreme enduro event, the Roof of Africa, that year, a race he won again in 2009.