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The greatest junior ever?

How does Finn Iles compare to racing's greatest rookies

It’s a cut throat World being a junior on the World Cup circuit. Two years to master your nerves and find your form on the hardest tracks the world has to offer before you get tossed into the elite ranks.

For most of these kids, it’s their first time racing abroad, and against competition that actually challenges them, all while trying to learn the ropes of the World Cup circuit. A baptism of fire.

The introduction of a separate junior category in 2013 means that the juniors field is more competitive than ever with most elite teams hosting a young ‘un. Now you have to beat more than 50 juniors each week to collect a trophy, not just five or six of the fastest.

Of course, it used to be a tough gig before there was a junior category too. Only a small circle next to your name on the result sheets would indicate you were a few years shy of the rest of the pack, leaving you to fend for yourself in a field of Elite pinners.

In Lenzerheide, Finn Iles successfully wrapped up his second consecutive junior downhill title. An impressive feat considering there were still two races of the year to go. He’s certainly one of the world’s hottest riding prospects and has already ‘juniored’ most of the elite field having finished ‘seventh’ in Vallnord and secured the best time of the whole field in a rain affected Mont Sainte Anne.

With ten wins under his belt in just 14 races, he must be itching to properly test himself against the elites. But is he the greatest junior ever? He follows a long lineage of post-pubescent, pimply pinners who have proven themselves way before they can grow stubble. Some of whom have gone on to massive success (Hill, Hart, Vouilloz) while some have struggled to quite turn that early pace into a clutch of World Cup wins (Fairclough, Bruni).

We’ve judged the riders on three categories – how many ‘wins’ they took in the junior category, how many World Championships they won and their highest elite finish. Of course, numbers don’t always tell the full story. From 2008-2009 Brook MacDonald and Danny Hart were locked into a fierce battle – both great riders and World Cup winners but none of them really able to get a stranglehold of domination over each other as youngsters so their figures are comparatively weak.

Either way, the numbers do tell certain stories, let’s get stuck in:

Finn Iles

Wins – 10/14 (71%)
World Championships – 1/2 (50%)
Highest elite finish – 1st (rain affected), 7th (non-rain affected)

From winning the Whip Off Worlds at just 14 years old, Finn Iles set himself apart as something a bit special. From there he moved on to becoming a regular course sweeper on the circuit, travelling with the Specialized team before he was allowed to race with them properly in 2016. He immediately got off to winning ways in Lourdes and followed it up with victories all over the world. Iles is the only Junior since the separate category was introduced to win back-to-back titles setting a precedent for domination that we’re not sure will be matched for some time.

He’s one of Red Bull’s youngest athletes and has most of the senior field already chirping about how fast he’s going to be next year. Only time will tell if he can turn his command of the junior field into World Cup wins.

Loic Bruni

Wins – 4/10 (40%)
World championships – 1/2
Highest elite finish – 5th

Loic Bruni may not match the numbers of his young protégé Finn, but he was racing against the likes of Brosnan, Fearon and Jones, all rapid juniors in their own rights. He was the fastest in class four times in his career but he has a stand out result of a fifth in Windham 2012 while riding for Lapierre.

Bruni’s raw pace was clear for all to see and although he’s only picked up one World Cup win so far, his two World Championship titles are testament to the pace of the man.

Troy Brosnan

Wins – 9/12 (75%)
World Championships – 2/2
Highest Elite finish – 4th

On pure numbers, Troy Brosnan is probably the most successful junior of the current millennium. He has the joint highest win percentage, he was unbeaten at the World Championships, he won back-to-back World Cup titles and he picked up three top ten elite finishes as a rookie (including a stand-out fourth in Val di Sole).

Just two years after he graduated up to seniors he got his first World Cup win, it probably would have been sooner had he not popped his spleen first!

Brendan Fairclough

Wins – 3/7 (43%)
World Championships – 0/2
Highest Elite finish – 3rd

Brendan may not have had a period of domination but he did have a stunning third place finish in Pila in 2005 to really assert himself as a rider worth serious respect. Then he took silver at his first Junior World Championships in Livigno.

Things were beginning to move at a pace, but a string of bad luck caused a few problems in 2006…bikes going missing, mechanicals and a crash in the New Zealand Worlds in his last year as a junior. But he picked himself up from that disappointment and still managed a near amazing fifth place at the ’06 World Cup finals in Schladming, and then took the first ever overall World Cup title for Junior Downhill.

Sam Hill

Wins – 6/8 (75%)
World Championships – 2/3
Highest Elite finish – 5th (4th at World Champs)

Sam Hill’s first World Champs came at the age of 16 and he showed what a force he would become with a third. He spent the next two years terrorising the elite podium and dominating the junior World Championships – most impressively at Lugano where he put 11 seconds into Gee in second place and put down a time fast enough for fourth in Elites. He would end up picking up three World Cup top tens, despite not racing the full series, in a truly stunning start to his career.

Greg Minnaar

Race wins – 5/8
World Championships – 0/3
Highest elite finish – 8th

Greg Minnaar gets the mud tires sliding in a Dirt Mag cover shoot Boulder City, Nevada.

Minnaar never did a full season as a junior but his biggest battle came with Nathan Rennie in 1999 when they raced four World Cups head to head in North America. Minnaar came out on top 3-1 including an eighth place finish at Big Bear Lake.

Rennie went on to take the World Championships that year too but Minnaar had bigger fish to fry. He started winning World Cups in 2001 and hasn’t stopped to this day.

Nico Vouilloz

Wins – N/A
World Championships – 3/3
Best senior result – 1st

Vouilloz was on top right from the start winning the first ever World Cup as a junior in Cap d’Ail as a 17-year-old. We have incomplete records from that period but we know he wouldn’t podium at any other race that year (we’re not even sure he was at them). In 1994 he would pick up a fifth in Hindelang, Germany, a third in Cap D’Ail and second in Kaprun, leaving him third in the overall standings as a junior.

One thing we know for sure is Vuilloz entered three World Championships and he won three World Championships to kick off his unbeaten run that went through until the early 2000s. Can’t say fairer than that!

Anne Caroline Chausson

Race wins: N/A
World Championships – 3/3
Highest Elite finish – 1st

It would be unfair to complete this list without a more-than-honourable mention of Anne Caroline Chausson. Much like Vouilloz she was also challenging for wins from her first proper season in 1994 in a three-way battle with Missy Giove and Kim Sonier. She picked up a win in Cap d’Ail, three second place finishes (Hindelang, Kaprun and Silverstar) and the European Championships.

1995 wouldn’t be quite as successful but she still collected a second place in Kaprun, she would ‘rescue’ the season with her third consecutive junior World Championships in Kirchzarten.

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