Mihkel Raim (Israel Cycling Academy) knew that he had the speed to beat a lot of guys in the peloton in a sprint finish, but the young Estonian had never considered himself a true bunch sprinter. That changed this season with a number of victories from huge groups and Raim only wants to get faster as he works on his finish for 2018.
"I knew that I could sprint, mainly in the reduced sprints where there was a hill and 14 or 15 guys in the group, but this year I had victories in massive bunch sprints so it was a big surprise for me," Raim told Cyclingnews at the team's recent bonding camp in Israel.
"Personally, I want to work on my sprinting so that I can get faster. This year, it wasn't my priority to be a sprinter only. I had cobblestones and Classics and one-day races, but now it seems I can sprint also."
The Israel Cycling Academy ventured into the unknown this season when they stepped up to Pro Continental racing. There were plenty of challenges along the way but they came away with six victories, with Raim claiming their first at the Tour de Azerbaijan in May and going on to talk half their total number. He admits that he wasn't at his best in the opening part of the season but the win in Azerbaijan broke the duck for himself and the team.
His run of strong results meant that the team put more of his resources behind him, something that Raim wasn't used to. It ramped up the pressure but it made Raim confident that, with continued support, he can achieve more.
"I liked it because the guys took care of me. I just had to pedal in the group and if I had to stop then they would stop with me," Raim explained. "They brought me water and everything but then I knew that I would be alone in the last 200 metres and if I didn't win then I would let them down. It was a big pressure but I liked the pressure.
"I have discovered some new things about myself this year and if the team really helps me then I can do something big."
Raim's final count for the season was slightly less than the five wins he had taken the season before, not surprising considering the change in racing level. However, the three that he did get were all at a higher level than he had previously achieved. Top of that tree was his breakthrough win at the 2.HC Colorado Classic on the final stage into Denver. Raim is keen to up his tally next year and has his sights set on the one-day races at the start of the year for a trip to the top step of the podium.
"I want to have more victories than this year, but also if I can have one really big victory and only have one win then it's a big achievement. I would really like to win a race where there are some dirt roads or cobblestones, a Classics-style of race. That's my goal. I was close twice this year but you need a lot of luck and I didn't have the luck. Tough races, that's what I like. For sure, one goal is to beat three victories."
Needless to say, Raim has one eye on a start in the Giro d'Italia next May, as do many of his teammates. As the team's most successful rider for the past two years, he should be in with a shout of a spot. However, with the number of riders in a Grand Tour being reduced to eight, the whole raft of new riders joining the team and a slot most certainly being reserved for one of the Israeli riders, Raim is not getting too carried away.
"When I was little, I never dreamed of the Giro. I don't know why," he told Cyclingnews. "For me, only the Tour de France was the number one. Two months ago, I was thinking that if the Giro starts in Israel then we might have an opportunity to start the Giro and I could be selected and that would be something special. But, I will keep my both feet on the ground and we will see how it is going to be."