All the riding skills in the world, plus more, were going to be needed just to cope with the notoriously-difficult Hard Adventure Enduro event, being staged at various venues in and around Tokoroa over Labour Weekend. Throw in a few slippery rocks, deceptively-narrow balance boards, pesky tree roots, immovable logs, unpredictable creek beds, mossy rocks, steep up-hills and down-hills, clinging mud and the constant tyranny of trying to beat the clock, and you have an event like no other.
While it’s probably fair to say that challenges like this are the bread and butter of men such as Kiwi internationals Chris Birch, from Thames, Cambridge’s Dylan Yearbury and Wainuiomata’s Jake Whitaker, even these warriors were well and truly stretched. The event had a pandemic-enforced break last season, but it was back with all the same crazy obstacles to confound competitors for the sixth running this year, the three-day event severely stretching wits and nerves again over Labour Weekend.
When two-time and reigning national enduro champion Yearbury topped the leader-board in the elite Gold Grade after Friday evening’s prologue, it seemed he might be capable of adding another overall victory to the ones he claimed at this event in 2017 and 2018. But he then suffered a nasty scratch to his eye early on Saturday and he was forced to withdraw.
It all got a bit too much for this rider as he reached the top of a short uphill section of the track. In the end, it was multiple national and international champion Birch who prevailed as he rode his KTM 300EXC bike to the top step of the podium. Whitaker, on an identical KTM 300EXC bike again settled for overall runner-up, making it a 1-2 result for the KTM brand. Birch keeps on racking up the wins, with this now his fourth overall victory at this event in the six years it has been run and his rivals must be scratching their heads to find ways of beating him, or at least slowing him down. It was always going to be a “last man standing” affair again this year, with plenty of obstacles lined up to sap the spirits, trap, trick and wear down even the most experienced of dirt bike racers.
The event is designed to be difficult. Using a similar format to the notorious Red Bull Romaniacs international hard enduro that is held each year in Romania. Whitaker is a record eight-time national trial champion and it, therefore, came as no surprise that it would be he who would keep Birch honest, although New Plymouth’s Tony Parker, considered a veteran in this sport, impressed also in finishing third overall.
Birch won the inaugural Husqvarna Hard Adventure Enduro in 2016, before Yearbury returned from injury to win it the following year and then repeated the feat in 2018. But Birch then won it twice more, back-to-back in 2019 and 2020.
“My first off-road day on Saturday went well,” said 42-year-old father-of-one Birch afterwards.
“It was difficult to navigate, but I pushed hard and managed to get a gap over my rivals. That proved to be crucial. I had a bit of time on Jake (Whitaker) and that was just as well because I struggled to stay with him on Sunday. He was riding very well and I had to do everything I could to stick with him.
“There was one section called ‘The Last Climb’ that was impossibly steep. Myself, Jake, Tony Parker and (Taupo’s) Wil Yeoman teamed up to use ropes to haul one another’s bikes up the cliff before we could carry on and, after that, we then found we still weren’t at the top and it became even steeper still,” Birch explained.
“My fitness wasn’t the best this year and in the end, I was just trying to hang on.”
As for runner-up Whitaker, he said he was “over it” after finishing second to Birch once again at this event.
“I think I rode pretty well, apart from having a bit of a crash … a big crash actually … on day one. That put me about six minutes behind Chris (Birch) and that was virtually impossible to claw back,” the 31-year-old explained.
“I caught up to him a bit on Sunday and we were neck-and-neck.
“I have been runner-up or finished third too many times at this event. I’m over it.”
Event organiser Sean Clarke confessed afterwards: “I think this year we reached the limit for hardness.”
Other grade winners were Auckland’s Ryan Hayward (Silver); Rerewhakaaitu’s Zach Sefuiva (Bronze) and Australian Rick Braico (Iron).
The event was sponsored by Husqvarna NZ, Forbes and Davies, O’Neal, Ogio, Arai Helmets, Maxima Racing Oils, Forma boots, Maxi Grip, Blur, Forest Trail Events, Kiwi Rider magazine, SATCO logging attachments and Michelin tyres.
© Words and main photo by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ
Additional photos by Kat Gunson, BikesportNZ