The 2016 season was, overall, one where Finn Iles dominated the rest of his Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) junior men's downhill competition.
So when he clinched the title earlier this month with a second-place finish at the seventh World Cup race in Vallnord, Andorra, it wasn't really representative of the kind of year he had put together.
The 17-year-old Whistler resident felt some butterflies, noting it was the "most nervous" he's ever been before a ride, knowing he could clinch the overall World Cup title. He acknowledges he didn't quite ride like himself.
"I didn't really deal with it that well," he said with a chuckle. "I felt kind of sick all day. Then I got into the gate and I just rode really stiff and I was making stupid mistakes, so I think I'm pretty lucky to hold on to second place. My run wasn't where it needed to be and I think the nerves almost got the better of me."
Still, even riding without his normal vigour placed Iles a minimum of 3.5 seconds up on everyone but race champion Gaetan Vige and into position to claim the overall season title, becoming the first Canadian to do so.
"It means a lot. I was sort of building up to it all year and it was the goal at the start of the year. Having only two years in junior, you have a limited amount of time to win the world champs so getting it in the first year takes a little bit off my shoulders," he said. "Winning it in my first year is a little bit better than winning it in my second year because I know that I have the speed for next year and I have a good shot at it again."
A week later, back to his fine form, he won the junior men's downhill in Val di Sole, Italy. Two big celebrations back-to-back was a big boost for the young phenom.
"It was a dream, a hope for the end of the season to be able to have won both, the overall and world champs, but in the first gate of the year, I was more worried about trying to qualify for that race," he said. "I think that this season has just been the best I could have hoped for."
Sure enough, in Italy just a few days after celebrating his overall title, Iles flew down the course and had roughly 3.5 seconds on the runner-up, fellow Canadian Magnus Manson.
"I didn't feel any pressure going into the World Championships because it's a win-or-lose race because you win it or you lose it," he said. "I think that after the week before, I felt a lot of pressure coming off my shoulders because I didn't have to win and I didn't have to come with a specific position. I just had to ride well and just try not to crash. Because I didn't have any pressure, I rode a little bit better."
As a rider returning to the junior division next year, Iles doesn't expect to feel any more weight as the one with a target on his back — he wasn't exactly flying in under the radar to begin with.
"Coming into this year, I had the same sort of feeling because I had a Red Bull helmet and I had a little bit of media hype so I think for next season, it's not really playing on my mind," he said. "I just have to ride well."
With what Iles has been able to accomplish already at such a young age, including two Official Whip-Off World Championship titles and blistering downhill times that rank up alongside some of the world's top men, it's not too early to start thinking about what he might do once he jumps to the elite level. One thing's for sure — Iles will look back on the pressures of 2016 and draw on what he accomplished this year when he finds himself in a position to win down the road.
"Now that I've dealt with it, I'm set up to handle it better the next time I do it. I have to look back at it and understand what I need to do and it's definitely a good learning experience for the future," he said.
With the opportunity to savour his first World Cup title, Iles is going to do just that for a little bit. But he's determined to prove it was no fluke as he plans to do whatever he can to improve his body and his bike for a title defence in 2017.
"I'm pretty done for the offseason. I'm just going to chill out for the next couple weeks and then go back to my offseason training and start the season again next year," he said. "I definitely think that I need to get physically stronger and just improve my base riding skills because I feel like no matter what, you need to get back to the basics and work on it to just, overall, improve and get faster.
"I think we'll do a lot of testing to try to make the bike faster."
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