Birch on the attack in Xtreme Off-Road Series
Thames rider Chris Birch knows a thing or two about riding dirt bikes and his rivals would say that is perhaps a massive understatement.
In a racing career crafted over more than 20 years at the top level, the KTM ace has excelled more often than not, racking up wins on almost every Continent, although these days he's mostly occupied with his rider coaching business, "Say No To Slow".
The multi-time national enduro champion turned his attention to the inaugural NZ Xtreme Off-road Championship series at the weekend, the third round of four being staged in Hawke's Bay, and he was almost unstoppable.
The 38-year-old Birch took his KTM 300 EXC to win the two-day event – incorporating a prologue event near Taradale on Saturday, followed by an extreme enduro at Tutira on Sunday – and he was impressive in both outings.
"There was a rare gap in my calendar and that allowed me to come and compete at this," said Birch, unfortunately a no-show at the previous two rounds of the series.
"I have been travelling around doing a lot of stuff with adventure bikes, rallies in Canada, Sardinia ... all over the place really. Some of the rallies have been five-day affairs, like the recent one I did from Darwin to Alice Springs, so I have not had much opportunity to race at home.
"But it was good to do a race event like this one at the weekend," Birch said.
"The track was really good and I wanted to keep pushing hard. I went hard at the start and then just maintained the gap from there. I was pretty rooted at the end of it because, after all, racing is a lot different to just riding. I just did the best I could to maintain a good pace over the four hours on Sunday."
Hamilton's Phil Singleton (Husqvarna FE350) had won the NZ Xtreme Off-road Championship series opener at Whangamata in August, while round two, in the Akatarawa Forest, near Wellington, in September, was won by Wainuiomata's Jake Whitaker (KTM EXC300).
Whitaker ended the day at round two in the Akatarawa Forest finishing more than two minutes ahead of runner-up rider Dylan Yearbury (Husqvarna FX350), from Cambridge, while Singleton had to settle for third overall and Birch was a no-show.
Singleton and Whitaker were certainly expected to come out swinging at the two-day Hawke's Bay event, billed as the "Over The Top" enduro and organised by multi-time New Zealand moto trials champion Warren Laugesen, but there would have been no raised eyebrows when it was Birch who instead posted the winning result, despite this being his first appearance in the series.
It was Yearbury who was again overall runner-up at the weekend.
Napier's Mackenzie Wiig (KTM 300 EXC) won Saturday's prologue, ahead of Birch and then Helensville's Tom Buxton (KTM 350 EXC-F), but it was Sunday's main race that earned all the glory.
Yearbury finished more than 12 minutes behind Birch after four-and-a-half hours of gruelling riding on Sunday, but, because he had skipped round one, Yearbury has to settle for third overall in the series standings after three rounds.
Singleton continues to lead the series standings in the Gold Grade, ahead of Auckland's Mitchell Gallagher (KTM 250 EXC) and then Yearbury.
Cambridge's Beau Taylor leads the Silver Grade points standings, ahead of Auckland's David Steen and Whangarei's Wayne Cox, while Tauranga's Matt Reece tops the Bronze Grade standings, ahead of Whitianga's James Kerr and Hastings rider Brett Gunson.
The series will wrap up with round four at Oxford, near Christchurch, on November 16-17.
Only three of the four rounds of the NZ Xtreme Off-road Championship are to be counted, with riders to discard their one worst score from the three North Island rounds, while double points are offered for the final round in the South Island, making it still possible for any one of half a dozen riders to win the series outright.
For Birch, however, it's back to his adventure riding work.
"The next big thing for me is the third annual KTM
Adventure Rally in the first week of December. We take
riders from Whangarei to Cape Reinga, then heads south to
ride for two days on the Coromandel