Cycling’s transfer market can be a cruel, harsh place, and Mihkel Räim is one of a number of riders who still find themselves stuck as we head into February.
The 27-year-old Estonian was not offered a contract extension by the Israel Start-Up Nation team and has had little luck so far as he fights to continue his career as a professional bike racer.
Räim spent five years at the Israeli team, joining them on their journey from Continental level, through the Professional Continental ranks, and up to the WorldTour last year. A versatile sprinter, he won 13 races along the way and, as he tells Cyclingnews, found the team’s rejection hard to stomach.
He has also, naturally, found this whole winter hard to cope with mentally, and he spoke to us about mysterious Continental-level teams, watching other riders take spots he coveted, and having to face the previously unthinkable prospect of retirement.
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Cyclingnews: Hi Mihkel, can you give us an update on your situation as it stands at the moment?
Mihkel Räim: I said to myself, ‘OK, I can do one year at Conti level and maybe if something opens up during the season I can find a better contract. But even to find a Conti team at the moment is a nightmare.
It’s pretty much the same situation. I’ve tried everything, I think. At first, I was looking at WorldTour teams with my agent, but then I realised it wasn’t going to happen. Then I was pretty sure some ProConti team in Spain or Italy would pick me up. I understood that I’d probably need to race on minimum wage but one year of that was OK for my brain. But there were no offers and no interest at all.
CN: Where are you located?
MR: I’m in Girona. I was back at home in Estonia, but it was cold and hard to ride the bike, so I thought it’d be better to head to Girona, just ride my bike and see if something comes up. I lived here last year but moved out because it was getting hard to find a contract, so I’m staying with my friend right now. I know the roads, so it’s mentally easier to train.
CN: Are you doing as much training as a normal winter?
MR: I started later because at home I wasn’t really motivated, honestly. I did other stuff than riding. I was doing cross-country skiing and lots in the gym. I did some riding but it was pretty cold. I was waiting to see if I’d need to go anywhere with a team, but no. So last week I decided to go to Girona – basically I go on holiday but just with the bike, just training.
CN: Have you had any promising leads?
MR: Actually, I already planned something. If I don’t find anything, then I will go back to France and the amateur level. There’s one team, Pro Immo, where I raced in 2015, they’re giving me a position. They’re pretty cool and open minded. They already have the roster but they’re just waiting on me.
I’m in touch with one Conti team who really want me but also are trying to find the finances for me, because sending guys to races and stuff isn’t cheap anymore. ‘Plan A’ is to get into this Conti team and if it doesn’t work out then probably the French amateur team.
CN: How would the amateur team work in terms of money and family life?
MR: The amateur level in France actually has always been easier. If you’re a good rider, they normally give you an apartment, and you can use the team car. In the French amateur league, there are at least two or three races every week, and they give you some money so you can survive. It’s actually easier financially, probably. It’s more safe.
Family-wise, it’s more complicated. I have a girlfriend who would only be able to visit if there are better flight schedules. The main problem is if you go down to the amateurs, it’s pretty hard to bounce back to the pros.
CN: Did it hurt not to get an extension at Israel?
MR: Honestly, yeah, it hurts. I understand at the beginning they had big hopes for me, when I started to win races. They thought my progression would be phenomenal and I’d win bigger and bigger races, but obviously the world doesn’t work like that. I had some bad luck with crashes at bad moments. I lost two months with a scaphoid fracture in 2018 and last year I broke my metacarpal as soon as the season restarted at Sibiu Tour. Then they were hiring bigger stars, and finally I didn’t get the contract.
I would accept not having a contract with them any other year, but it was such a hard year. If I was responsible for a team I’d give the riders at least an offer for minimum [wage]. I’m not the guy who earns one million [Euros]. I’m sure if they really wanted to, they could have found a solution, but they didn’t even think about it, and that was maybe the worst thing for me. I don’t feel so good about it but anyway, that’s business, that’s life.
CN: Does it get frustrating when you see the last spots at teams being filled by other riders? Is there a sense of jealousy, or a feeling that you could do a better job?
MR: I’ve seen signings which make no sense at all. It’s just mentally hard if you know you’re way better than one guy. If you’re better than ‘Mr X’ but ‘Mr X’ gets the contract for the same place you were hoping to get, that hurts. Some guys who sign for WorldTour teams, maybe they have such a good agent, or maybe they have some other stuff in there, but for me some deals don’t make sense. I don’t get it.
CN: How hard has it been to keep your head up?
MR: This week, in Girona, riding my bike in the sunshine… I’m feeling pretty OK. But at home I was depressed. Winter in Estonia, with the cold, no sun, you’re thinking about contracts, you go on Twitter and everything is cycling. You’re just trying to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning and hope everything is better. It’s pretty hard.
CN: Did you expect it to be so hard to find a Conti team?
MR: The best teams – the ones with the good equipment and calendars – are the development teams, and I’m too old for them. After that you have a maximum five teams. The teams who are willing to pay some salary are the French teams, but the good teams don’t have the finances and aren’t sure about the calendar for this year. Also, a lot of teams are really keen to sign local guys, which is also OK. But yes, mentally it’s tiring.
Well, the thing I found is many of them [teams] don’t actually exist. They only exist on the internet. If you look at the calendars of some of the teams, they’re just paying the UCI for a licence for no reason. In South Korea there are six or seven teams but they only do one UCI race per year. The list is long. There are like 100 Conti teams but when you actually start to look, it’s not happening.
CN: Have you set yourself a deadline for finding something?
MR: If, at the end of this year, I don’t find a contract for 2022, I’ll make up my mind and I will stop but at the moment I never thought about stopping, because I worked so hard the last 10 years, and I proved I can win pro races. I think it’s just bad luck and a shit situation.