By Andrew Greaves
There were times during the curtain-closing Vuelta a España that Mihkel Räim says, alone with his thoughts, he felt he was not good enough to be a professional cyclist.
Racing – and finishing his first Grand Tour – should have been a joyous time for the Estonian sprinter.
But, deemed surplus to requirements by Israel Start-Up Nation for next year, and with no contract offers on the table from elsewhere, the 27-year-old feared his first Grand Tour might just be his last.
While his teammates chatted excitedly about the prospect of further progression for the team in 2021, especially with the signing of seven-time Grand Tour winner Chris Froome, Räim was left to wonder what his own future held.
He said: "My goal was to get a contract before Vuelta so I could go there relaxed in my mind and focused for the racing. But it did not happen.
"After first rest day I switched my brain off and dedicated it just for the race. It was hard because at the dinner table and team bus the other riders often speak about next year. About which bikes they are going to be using, clothing etc and then you realise you don't have anything and it's already November.
"It wasn't easy at all. It really made me feel that I wasn't good enough to be a professional rider."
Räim isn't alone in facing an uncertain future. As the Vuelta rolled into Madrid to bring the curtain down on a Coronavirus-ravaged season, dozens of World Tour riders found themselves on an ever-growing list of those without a contract for next year.
This last week has seen a raft of riders announce new deals - Räim's teammate Alex Dowsett has re-signed with ISN - but many others are still waiting for the call.
Räim says there was a small chance of him remaining with his current team back in the summer but no firm offer materialised. The arrival of Froome will mark a change of direction for Israel Start-Up Nation but Räim felt he could have contributed more.
He said: "The meetings were really basic and they never arrived with proper proposal. Mainly they said it's hard to keep me but maybe it was possible.
"For sure, the team's philosophy changed a lot but I still believe that I could have been a useful rider for them - to help bigger riders and get my own chances in the small races but the team probably had other ideas."
nothing on the list today. It’s weird, no WhatsApp messages how long the stage gonna be, how’s the wind or what time is suitcase pick up from soigneurs. So weird....... pic.twitter.com/ZQOjK4cshd
— Mihkel Räim (@mihkelraim) November 9, 2020
Before the Coronavirus pandemic brought the season to a screech halt in the spring, Räim's form had been good.
Three top five finishes at the Herald Sun Tour and a win on the opening stage of the Tour of Antalya were not maybe indications that he was about to set the world alight but were promising signs for the two-time Estonian national champion.
And he feels his results not just this season but over the last couple of years merit a contract.
In 2019 he finished second to Bob Jungels at the early-season Colombia 2.1 race, pipping Julian Alaphilippe on the line, won the Tour of Estonia and scored several impressive results in some of the Belgian semi-classics.
It is fair to say Estonia is not known as a cycling powerhouse. In fact, for the 2020 season there were just four Estonians at World Tour level - Räim, his teammate Norman Vahtra, Bora Hansgrohe's Martin Laas and the vastly-experienced Tanel Kangert of EF Education First.
"I see lots of French, Italian, Belgium etc riders sign with World Tour and pro-continental teams but I'm sure than I'm not worse than them," he added.
"Maybe my results are better than theirs but here comes the nationality in the game. That's the thing I don't really like but the only thing I can do is to become better cyclist and prove who I am.
"There's definitely less spots but I wouldn't mind racing in a good ProTour team. Some of those teams have brilliant race calendars and maybe it's even more suitable for me. I could get more chances and enjoy the cycling more. Also is still possible to race biggest races in the world, if you are in a good team. But the problem is Italian teams prefer Italians and the French want one their own guys."
So, what comes next? The future, for now, may be unwritten for Räim but he is still hoping for a last-minute miracle.
"I'm still young and I really feel I haven't reached the maximum out of cycling, especially after finishing my first Grand Tour," he said.
"I want to see if it has some positive effect in my performance and level. It was so hard so it must be almost impossible that if it doesn't help me to progress. I haven't really thought about alternatives yet, I'm hoping for a last-minute miracle. I honestly believe that I deserve spot in a pro peloton."