Chris Birmingham is part thin green line, dotted line and contour line. He’s a sonic mix of the epically heavy desert spaces of California and the nebulous clamour of Christchurch space rock. He lives on an island in what many would consider paradise. Chris is living the life.
I first met Chris when he was working as a cycle courier for Urgent in Auckland. Back then pattern was: Monday-Friday, work/ride/drink coffee at Brazil; Saturday-Sunday, have breakfast at Brazil then head to the hills. Riding with Chris almost always seemed to involve a topo map, a long drive and much trail blazing. I often had no idea where I was, and it was awesome. These were adventures. One of the great joys of mountain biking is following a writhing pencil line around bluffs and along ridges at speed, because, standing alone on the cliffs of the world, your mind really can breathe.
Who is Chris Birmingham?
An ex-Auckland cycle courier who found his way out of the den of iniquity to the light side, and a husband and father.
How old do you feel?
Depends what side of bed I roll out of! I discovered all those over-the-handlebar antics and lay-it-downs in my 20s and 30s catch up; some days I feel 30 again, others closer to retirement.
What do you do for a crust?
I manage Maud Island Scientific Reserve in Pelorus Sound for the Department of Conservation, part of the thin green line protecting our flora, fauna and historic heritage. I live there with wife Linda and 5-month-old Ollie.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Usually the promise of a Stronghold coffee (ex-Brazil Cafe frequenters will understand), though in the last five months it’s been my new son Ollie. It might be a cliché but you have no idea what lack of sleep is, and how well (or badly) you can function on little sleep!
What’s your ideal day off?
I don’t get many. Living on an island where it’s a seven-day operation means there‘s always something that needs doing. The list gets longer, not shorter. However, these days it’s likely to be a ride around the island on the many tracks, perhaps out to the World War II gun emplacement, some tinkering in the shed, a leisurely beer, perusing Trade Me for bikes or parts I don’t need, and enjoying time with my family. You can easily lose a day watching a baby grow up right in front of your eyes.
When did you get into mountain biking and why?
Way back when … 1991-92? My old mate Stu Jacobs turned up to uni on a shiny Team Issue Marin dripping with XTR, cantilever brakes and all. I took it for a ride and the rest, as they say, is history. I hadn’t really ridden a bike since my old HMX 600 and was hooked again. I went out and bought a GT Pantera; best thing I ever did with my student loan! Why? I guess it’s the buzz, you all know what that is. You jump on your bike and everything else just fades into the background. I became a cycle courier not long after and spent the 90s riding round Auckland and its surrounds for work and play. We’d ride our bikes everywhere and anywhere.
Do you just ride mountain bikes, or do you ride other bikes?
I’ll ride any kind of bike.
Where do you usually ride?
Now I usually only ride on Maud Island, as that’s where I spend most of my time. Plenty of tracks, from singletrack to 4WD, uphills, downhills.
As a DoC employee and mountain biker, what’s your opinion on opening up more backcounty trails to mountain bikes?
That’s a big yes from myself as a mountain biker. Having ridden the Heaphy Track last year and parts of the Kepler Track (as part of work I might add, not illegally) I can say there is huge potential in our parks and reserves for mountain biking, which has grown hugely since I first started in the early 90s. Slowly we are coming around to the possibilities as a country. Watch this space I reckon.
What’s the best trail you’ve ridden?
The Yellow Room. If you don’t know, you weren’t meant to know!
Favourite bit of riding kit?
Probably my new-ish Intense Spider. It’s a long way from the GT Pantera, and its climbing ability way outstrips mine!
Best thing about mountain biking these days?
That more people are doing it, and that literally anyone can do it, and get the same buzz out of riding to their limits whatever they might be.
Worst thing about mountain biking?
That more people are doing it? Nah, 29ers?
Favourite tunes to ride to/get you psyched to ride?
Kyuss! Or Bailter Space
What are your vices?
Coffee obviously, and collecting bicycles. I need help, and a bigger shed. I have two Intenses, a Fat Chance Yo Eddy, a titanium GT Xizang, and GT Zaskar, an Independent Fabrications Deluxe, an Eddy Merckx, an old touring bike, a KHS cruiser. I recently acquired a Team Issue Marin like Stu’s from an antique shop in Athol for 20 bucks, and I still have the HMX 600! I do have a problem. BUT the only bike I ever bought brand new was the Pantera!
How would you describe your riding style?
Haphazard? It’s mellowed in the last decade, as my fear of stacking at high speed has slowed me down a little, but I still love that feeling of flying down a hill slightly out of control, on the edge of my abilities. On the flip side, jumping on any bike, anywhere, still makes me smile.