But, with plenty of time to contemplate with the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic lock-down curtailing any real sporting ambitions in the short term, the now Thames-based former Glen Eden man was able to weigh up an answer to the question “Tell us Chris, what was your best race ever?”
KTM rider Birch is an internationally acclaimed enduro racer and off-road coach of many years’ standing and, during the lock-down, he has been creating informative videos from his garage at home, free “Say No To Slow” tutorial clips to satisfy his many dirt bike fans.
The now 39-year-old Birch won the New Zealand Enduro Championships staggering eight times, his latest achievement being when he won it three times in a row, in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons.
He has been on the podium seven times at the world famous Red Bull Romaniacs event in Romania and he won it outright in 2010. He has competed successfully in the world’s biggest enduro races such as Erzberg extreme enduro, Red Bull Last Man Standing, Hell’s Gate, the International Six Days Enduro, World Enduro Championships and European Enduro Championships too.
These major international appearances have made him an international star in the sport.
Since competing in, and finishing, the Dakar Rally in 2012, Birch has developed a following in the adventure bike world, and he is one of KTM’s highest profile adventure ambassadors worldwide.
After racing successfully for several years, he has transitioned more to coaching, and he has been teaching bike skills since 2007. Combining his passion and talent for riding, and his background as a mechanical engineer, allows him to break down the physics of riding and describe techniques in detail.
There are many illustrious race wins that he could proudly dwell on, but just what was his greatest single race ever?
“My stand-out best race ever was the Roof of Africa (in the kingdom of Lesotho), way back in 2008,” said Birch.
“It was not so much for the result, although who doesn’t like a win, but more for the way that it happened.
“It started with a chance meeting in Austria at the KTM factory. I was waiting in the reception area to say goodbye to a friend before making my way to Erzberg.
“In the waiting room with me was a South African guy called Mark. We got talking and I ended up giving him a lift back to Salzburg in return for a tank of gas (I was super short on money). The whole way he was going on about the Roof of Africa and how I must come race it one day. We exchanged email addresses and went our separate ways.
“Over the next few months I got several emails from Mark trying to convince me to come to South Africa for the Roof. I kept telling him I couldn’t afford it, but he kept telling me to try and find a way. I figured he thought I was trying to fob him off, so I took a screenshot of my $4 bank account, emailed him that and everything went quiet for a few months.
“Then, one day I got another email and he told me he had everything sorted if I could just get myself to South Africa. I won enough prize money at Red Bull Romaniacs to pay for the ticket and off I went.
“When I got to South Africa, Mark had done something incredible. He had harassed all his mates into sponsoring me through their respective businesses. A bearings wholesaler, a pet shop, a liquor store, a slumlord and the local KTM shop that described themselves as a drinking team with a riding habit! We borrowed a 2008 KTM 300 EXC from another mate of Mark’s (what was he thinking), loaded up Mark’s van and headed off to Lesotho.
“I remember the van was so overloaded that the passenger doors would spring open every time we hit a bump as the chassis flexed under the load.
“The plan was to meet the guys from the KTM dealership at 3pm in Lesotho to get the bike jetted and set up. They showed up in the dark, barely sober enough to walk after stopping at every pub along the way. We set up our pits in the dark, far away from all the factory teams and I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
“The first day of the Roof of Africa is the time trial, a 100km stage in the lowlands that’s pretty fast and flowing. As soon as we got out to the start area there were huge flashes of lightning and it started pounding rain and hail. I couldn’t have been happier as it made it just like riding in Riverhead Forest (west of Auckland), but with rocks instead of tree roots. As soon as I set off, I started passing riders.
“Back then, the South African guys had no clue how to ride in the mud and I was giving them a lesson. I caught up to Lawrence Mahoney who had won it the past three years, followed him for a bit then thought ‘screw it, I’m out of here’, passed him and took off. I won the time trial by about 12 minutes.
“Day two was a marathon. Eight hours of rocks, mountains and adventure. I started off first, put the hammer down and never saw another bike the whole day. It was such an adventure, we were in huge mountains, riding on the edge of cliffs, up valleys and along never ending goat paths. It was the best adventure I had ever had on a bike. I won the day by 45 minutes.
“The last day was another seven hours on the bike and another huge physical challenge. I knew I had the pace, I just needed to not make any mistakes and for my body to hold.
“Towards the end of the day it was a struggle to keep the focus. Years before I had set myself the goal of winning an international race and I was getting so close to achieving it. First I had to deal with the worst helicopter pilot in the world. This guy was following me in a massive military chopper and was paying no attention to his wash. He blew me over twice and I was waving my arms and my middle finger trying to get him to leave me alone.
“I got to a check point and screamed at the marshal to ‘radio that jerk in the chopper and tell him to piss off!’ The guy looked at me sheepishly and said: ‘I am very sorry sir, but that is the King of Lesotho and he does what he wants!’
“With only a few kilometres left to go, I had a big crash in fourth gear. I bashed my elbow and bent the bars, but there was no way I wasn’t going to get to that finish line. I was completely exhausted, emotional and happier than I had ever been crossing that line.
“The guys were there already, beers and brandy flowing fast and together the ‘drinking team with a riding habit’ and I won the Roof of Africa. Mark was in tears and, to be honest, so was I.
“It was the best race ever. Also best after party ever …”
© Words and photos by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com
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