At the end of the 2015 season, 23-year-old Estonian Mihkel Raim faced a major career decision. He was riding for a French amateur team and had just finished 15th in the U23 road race at the Richmond World Championships. He could stay with the familiar amateur team that had a solid race program in the heart of the sport, or he could gamble on turning professional with the Cycling Academy, an up-and-coming Continental team from Israel, a country not exactly well known for its cycling pedigree.
Raim had come to know the team's manager, Ran Margaliot, through an Israeli teammate on the Amore & Vita squad in 2013, and although they had talked about Raim joining the Israeli squad in 2014, the timing just wasn't right. When he saw Margaliot at the world championships in 2015, the team manager extended to him an invitation to attend the Cycling Academy's unique "selection camp" later that fall. He hasn't looked back since.
Raim accepted the offer, quickly earned a spot on the team for 2015 and went on to be Cycling Academy's most prolific winner, taking five UCI victories this season, including the overall at the Tour of Hungary. The team jumped to Pro Continental status for 2017 and didn't waste any time signing Raim to a two-year deal that will take him through 2018.
"It was the right decision, because I had an opportunity to stay in an amateur team for one more year, but I wasn't anymore under-23, and it's quite a risky business," Raim told Cyclingnews this week during the team's camp in Israel.
"So for sure it was a quite hard decision, because it's a new Israeli team, and everybody in cycling can talk, but you need to do something. But something inside me told me to go for it. So I took this risk, and it was the right decision."
Raim took top 10 finishes at the GP Adria Mobil in the Czech Republic and then in Tro-Bro Leon, the tough 1.1 race in France that includes dirt roads and has a high-quality field. He got a real confidence boost when he finished third in the final stage of the Fleche du Sud and was 12th overall. He followed that with second in the bunch kick of the opening stage at the Tour of Estonia and finished third overall there.
Knocking the door open in North America
The European races proved to be the perfect set up for his upcoming North America run, which started with a mostly anonymous day at the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic but then took off with three top 10 finishes in four stages at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay, including second on the opening stage. He finished the Canadian 2.2 race third overall.
Raim had been knocking on the door of victory for months, and he finally cracked it open the following week at the Tour de Beauce, another 2.2 race in Canada.
"I won the first stage and got the leader's jersey, and then I won the criterium," he said.
"Everything went right and we took some risks in Canada. In the first stage of Tour de Beauce there was I think six or seven riders in the break, and we had three. So we really played the other teams over. We got our first, and my first, victory there. Afterwards, I was so confident."
Raim lost the leader's jersey the following day in the stage that finished on the summit of Mont-Mégantic, but he sprang back two days later with another win in Quebec City. That's when Margaliot, who had come to Canada to watch the stage, surprised his rider with a contract offer for 2017.
"I didn't see him before the race, so I didn't know he was there," Raim said. "I was sitting down after the finish line, and he ran to me and said, 'Hey, dude, that was awesome. I need to make you an honest offer because I really want you to stay with us.'
"There weren't any bad things that would have made me not want to be in the team, so I said, 'Yeah, we can speak for the future.'
"I had some other teams also, but nothing really big arrived, so it was more safe to stay here," Raim said. "It's quite exciting here, because I can be part of something that they are building, not to enter some WorldTour team with an existing system already. Both ways are cool, but I really like to be part of something special like here."
Dreams of cobblestones and Classics
The team's decision to jump to the Pro Continental level for 2017 only confirmed Raim's decision to stay with Cycling Academy, and now he's licking his lips in anticipation of gaining entry to even more prestigious races, the ones he's dreamed of winning since he was just a boy.
"I'm quite young and I'm not like super talented in the cycling world," he admitted. "I can't compare myself to Peter Sagan or Mathieu van der Poel or those types of guys. And it seems like Estonians are slower with their progress. We start to shine a bit later than the other nationalities. And sometimes we don't shine because we quit before, so it's kind of hard.
"So for the goals I need to be realistic," he said. "I can't put a goal to win Milan-San Remo or Strade Bianche or Paris-Roubaix, but for sure I want to win them in the future. They are my dream since I was a little boy. But one race where I really want to be good this year is Tro-Bro Leon in France. I really like those races where there are cobblestone sectors. This was my big goal this past year now and I was ninth in this race.
"To be top 10 in a 1.1 race in France, a really hard one, I proved myself I am on the right track, and also surprised the other people," he said. "Those guys who were in the breakaway with me were from the WorldTour or Pro Conti, and I was like the unknown guy in there."
That's now the kind of racer Raim sees himself as: a hard-man who can outlast the rest as the field gets smaller and smaller, and then at the finish having a little bit faster kick and a little bit more left in the tank than the others.
"I'm quite fast in the sprint, but I'm not a pure sprinter, so for me the Classics races with the cobblestones and short steep hills, those races that are, I can say killing me softly," he said. "Every lap there is somebody dropped, so this is my cup of tea. Also, I don't mind to go in the early break to help the team out, and you never know, sometimes the break can go to the finish. That's my racing style: aggressive and attacking. So I see my future like that."
Raim would also like to see a certain cobblestone trophy in his future. Although like every aspiring cyclist he dreamed of climbing mountain passes on his way to winning a Grand Tour, he knows now his talents in cycling lie elsewhere, possibly in the mud and grit of a race like Roubaix.
"Paris-Roubaix, it's something really special," he said. "I don't know why because there are other very monumental races like Flanders and San Remo, and those are great races. But Paris-Roubaix has been – since I was a kid – one of the most famous, and also I did two times Paris-Roubaix juniors. The first time I did it I was happy that I finished. The second year I was 12th. So I think it's not bad, and now I really look forward to racing this one one day.
"Now I just don't want to finish, I want to make a result. Maybe first year collect some experience, but I really believe I can do something. We have some good riders from Estonia who were top 20 before, and there was a Latvian, Saramotins, who was maybe even sixth one year [Alexey Saramotins finished eighth in 2016 for IAM Cycling – ed.], so I don't see why I can't be in the top six or on the podium if everything goes well one day."