Health problems and flat tires caused all kinds of problems for Chris Kovarik and Claire Buchar during the final two downhill World Cup races of the season, but the husband-and-wife team were still able to return home from Europe excited this week.
That’s because they were on hand to watch fellow Whistler-based rider Jack Iles, the rising star under their tutelage, make an outstanding impression on the circuit at races in Norway and Austria to wrap up the season.
Iles notched a career-best World Cup result by placing ninth in junior competition at Hafjell, Norway, on Sept. 15, then earned a top-20 finish Sunday (Sept. 22) during the World Cup finals at Leogang, Austria, despite sliding out on the course.
“It was an amazing experience,” Iles said Tuesday (Sept. 24) after returning home. “It’s an awesome atmosphere.”
The Whistler teen’s two results in Europe, as well as his 10th-place finish at the World Cup stop in Mont Ste. Anne, Que., in August, left Iles ranked 15th among juniors for the season — a fairly impressive mark considering he raced just three of six World Cup events through the summer. He finished the campaign fourth in the standings compared to other riders of the same age.
With this being his first trip over to Europe to race at the World Cup level, Iles said the events over the past two weeks served as important learning experiences for him that should be a big help for him next season.
“I got a lot of experience just knowing how the World Cups work,” he said. “When you go there, everybody’s kind of like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a World Cup!’ But it’s a race, and you’ve got to think that way.”
Iles is hopeful to put more World Cup races on his schedule for next season, and having seen this year where he stacks up against the other riders at his level, he’ll be looking for some even more impressive finishes on the circuit next summer.
“Hopefully top five,” he said when asked about his goals for 2014. “I was top five in my age this year but there will probably be some (strong) first-years next year. I really want to get top three, but we’ll see.”
Buchar said it was special for she and Kovarik to witness Iles having such success on the trip.
“It’s kind of a passion of ours to help riders come up in the ranks and bridge that gap from a local- (or) national-level rider to that highest level of the World Cup,” she said. “It was super rad to see him and how he copes with stuff. He’s so professional for someone his age.
“The quicker he gets exposed to that level of riding and that whole scene, the more it will make him grow as an athlete … he’d been to Mont Ste. Anne, but it’s different going over to Europe.”
A string of bad luck hit Kovarik and Buchar before they had even stepped on the plane over to Norway. About a week before they left, Buchar re-broke ribs that were originally fractured in the spring when she and Kovarik were involved in a serious car crash in Australia.
“I obviously went over there with changed expectations,” she said, noting that wet conditions at the events only magnified the injury for her. “I absolutely couldn’t crash again, but the trip was booked and I had to at least feel it out.”
She left Hafjell disappointed with her 13th-place elite women’s finish, and things didn’t go any better for Kovarik, who flatted on his elite men’s qualifying run and missed the final.
Moving over to Leogang, Buchar wound up pulling out of the race entirely. Attempting a practice run after the men had already taken theirs, the wet course was left too beaten up for her to ride comfortably.
“It was just too painful and it was getting silly,” she said. “It was so slippery and if I slid out or something, it was too risky.”
Kovarik had some complications of his own at Leogang when an out-of-place disc in his neck caused his hands to go numb on his qualifying run.
“It was pretty scary,” said Buchar. “He couldn’t hang on and he was basically just on the brakes trying to make it down the hill.”
Kovarik was less than two seconds away from qualifying for Sunday’s final despite the setback, but was no doubt frustrated by the way the two races went.
“It was pretty devastating for us, but at least we could be there for Jack and there was at least kind of another purpose for us,” said Buchar, who added that all three Whistler riders were extremely grateful for the support they received from the local mountain-bike community in helping them to make the trip over to Hafjell and Leogang.
Buchar said she’s excited that she and Kovarik will have some time to heal up before getting back into serious riding again. And considering that less than six months ago she wasn’t sure if she’d be on her bike at all this summer, it’s hard not for her to consider the 2013 season a success.
“I can’t even believe where I was in April compared to now. One thing I did realize is that I am not totally healed, but that’s OK,” she said. “Considering (the crash), I had a great season and I can still enjoy riding and racing. I did really well. I’m definitely not down on myself.
“My whole right side is still really messed up from the car accident, but I’ve got some time now and I can start training again and see what next year has to offer.”