Gravel
Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

Peter Stetina chooses gravel over WorldTour road racing

WorldTour pro Peter Stetina will walk away from WorldTour road racing to launch a career in gravel racing and ultra-endurance mountain biking. "This is not a retirement," Stetina says.

When Peter Stetina lined up this summer at the start of Dirty Kanza 200, he was feeling something he hadn’t felt in years. Nerves? Check. Heart-rate up? Yep. A bit of pre-race jitters? Well, yes, he was after all a skinny WorldTour climber about to stampede across the wind-blasted prairie. But there was something else. His heart was beating in his throat.

It’s not to say racing in the biggest and most prestigious events in the WorldTour was getting routine, but here he was, out in the middle of the Kansan outback, and he felt like a racer again.

“It all started when I was lining up these races on the alternative calendar,” Stetina told VeloNews. “I was more nervous at Dirty Kanza than in Lombardia. It was my new passion.”

Call it the Summer of Dust.

Stetina rediscovered his love for racing in the most unlikely of places. From the Belgian Waffle Ride (which he won), to Dirty Kanza (second) and Leadville Trail 100 (fourth), he was feeling the burn all summer long.

And somewhere out there in the dusty plains, he made a fateful decision that will permanently alter his professional racing career. For 2020, Stetina will walk away from the glamor, stress, money and prestige of the WorldTour, and embark on a new pathway.

Meet Peter Stetina — gravel privateer.

“I still love road racing and I would have really liked to have blended both, but it wasn’t feasible,” he said. “Most WorldTour team managers are not open to that. So I am officially striking out on my own in a privateer venture.”

At the base of Double Peak, Peter Stetina left Eddie Anderson for good to win Belgian Waffle Ride. Photo: Wil Matthews

A new gravel adventure

A WorldTour staple since 2010, Stetina believes he could have stayed in pro road racing’s highest leagues. Yet after racing at the top of the sport for a decade, enduring both the highs and lows that go with being in cycling’s big leagues, Stetina felt so good bashing his pedals out on the gravel this summer he knew he was ripe for a change.

“Let’s be clear — this is not a retirement. It’s a transition,” Stetina said. “I’m in my prime physically. I’m happy and still hungry, but I realized there is more to achieve in a different realm.”

Stetina will leave the WorldTour on his terms and embark on a new adventure in 2020. He’ll race almost exclusively on gravel or mountain bike endurance events. And he’ll race under his own brand, with a stable of curated sponsors at his back.

It wasn’t easy to cut the cord. Major life changes never are.

“It’s my wife who first brought it up. She said she hadn’t seen me so happy racing my bike in a while,” he said. “Just talking about this privateer gravel program, there was excitement in my voice again.”

For 2020 Stetina will have important backers, including high-profile sponsors like Canyon, Sportful and Clif Bar. But when the rubber hits the gravel, it will be him against the wind.

“It is a hard decision to make,” he said. “I believe it’s worth it. This new challenge will lengthen my career and a bonus is I will be based more in the USA. One of the mantras in my career is “A happy racer is a fast racer.”

Peter Stetina cheered on by fans on Powerline at the Leadville 100. Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

Tapping the gravel vibe

Stetina got a preview this summer of what an “alternative racing” calendar offers. It was an eye-opener in more ways than one.

Not only was he racing closer to home, family and friends —not to mention an In-and-Out Burger stand — he had a front-row seat to the passion and momentum pouring into the gravel and endurance mountain bike scenes.

“In terms of marketing for companies, we’re seeing the whole U.S. and worldwide markets shifting that way,” he said. “The gravel scene is just booming, and it gave me confidence the time is right.”

There’s that same sense of newness, adventure, and possibility in gravel right now that anyone around in the late 1980s and early 1990s experienced in mountain biking. Now it’s gravel that everyone is talking about. And, perhaps more importantly, what everyone is doing.

After watching from the sidelines, Stetina wanted in. So this summer, he dove in with both feet, racing a parallel calendar to his full-time commitments at Trek-Segafredo. He still notched 79 days race days on the WorldTour — high by today’s standards — racing from January at the Santos Tour Down Under to October at the Gree-Tour of Guangxi. In between there were two monuments (Liège and Lombardia), the Dauphiné and the Tour of the Basque Country — the race where he nearly ended his career in a nasty crash in 2015 — as well as the Vuelta a España and Amgen Tour of California.

In between his day job, he was having some real fun. And it was out there on the dusty roads, bashing his bike in a mix of pain and elation from California to Colorado to Kansas, that he began to imagine a different future.

What he loved perhaps more than anything was the vibe and sense of camaraderie between racers and fans at the gravel races. On the WorldTour, fans are held at a distance behind barriers and the pros hide inside team buses. On the gravel scene, pros like Stetina race the same roads as the fans. And then they all drink beers together and swap stories after the race is over. You won’t find that passion or kinship at a monument or grand tour.

“There’s so much fun and personality to these events,” he said. “You can be more of a whole athlete. You’re engaging with the fans. I felt the beauty of the cycling community again. It’s still about racing and being competitive, but it’s also showing you’re just more than a Watt Robot.”

Ken Chlouber and Peter Stetina laughed about the exciting group sprint for second place at Leadville 100, which went to Quinn Simmons. Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

Cutting the WorldTour cord

Deep inside, Stetina knew he wanted more gravel fun and wanted to embrace the grassroots community. He also knew he was going to have make a choice.

According to Stetina, his first option would be to keep racing on the WorldTour, but only if he could continue with his budding parallel universe. Managers wanted Peter Stetina, the WorldTour road racer. They were not interested in his moonlighting gig.

“When I was talking to teams for a new contract, a stipulation that I had is that I wanted to do gravel on the side,” Stetina explained. “It makes sense for a lot of sponsors, but for the Euro managers, we didn’t see eye-to-eye. The main issue was that their responsibility is to win road races and the Euro-centric sponsorship model made it difficult for them to justify the gravel side gig. A few flat-out thought I wasn’t committed any more despite me having a long and strong road season culminating with a great Vuelta and Guangxi, and I had big success in gravel.”

So Stetina was in a quandary. Should he stay in the WorldTour — the absolute pinnacle of professional racing — or jump off the cliff? He chose the latter.

After hashing it over with close associates, friends and family, and most importantly his wife, Stetina decided to branch out on his own.

He wanted to write his own script, on his terms, with his gravel and endurance ambitions at the center of everything.

Stetina worked closely with his longtime agent Martijn Berkhout of SEG Cycling, and put out feelers. Teams might have been hesitant to sign on for this unorthodox calendar, but sponsors loved it. He’s still pulling together the final details, but Stetina did confirm he will race on Canyon bikes, with sponsor support from Sportful and Clifbar.

“My sponsor model is going to be a bit different,” he said. “Luckily, I am partnering with companies that see the value in what I’m doing. I am confident how it’s going to work out, both on and off the bike. My partners and I have a plan that will radicalize the traditional sponsored pro format and I think will ultimately be more fulfilling both personally and for the industry.”

Walking away from the relative security and money of the WorldTour isn’t easy. And Stetina knows there will be some doubters out there who will say this move is little more than a PR exercise to perhaps provide cover that he was washed up. Stetina insists that’s not the case.

“Some people are going to say, ‘oh, he wasn’t good enough to have a WorldTour contract.’ I will wholeheartedly disagree with that, look at my 2019 season,” Stetina said. “It came down to a choice of lifestyle, between following the smooth highway or jumping onto the fun, unknown, bumpy trail next to it. I am not over the hill, by any means.”

Rather than compromise his newfound passion or hold out for a few more years, he decided to cut the WorldTour cord. It wasn’t a decision he took lightly, but now that he’s fully committed to his privateer project, he’s excited in ways he’s never felt.

“Instead of grinding it out in Europe for the next few years, it’s time for a new adventure,” he continued. “I am still going to be a pro rider. I will still be training and racing as hard as ever. I’ll just be doing different kinds of races.”

An exhausted Peter Stetina on the Powder Mountain finish. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

Back to his roots

In many ways, this new adventure is akin to closing the circle. Stetina grew up in Colorado and found his first love for two wheels on the single track of the Rockies. Now he splits his time between Santa Rosa and Lake Tahoe in California, and the booming gravel and endurance racing calendar brings him back to his cycling roots.

“This is the next chapter in my career and I am so excited about it,” he said. “This year I enjoyed racing more than I have in a long time. I’m happy to turn the page on my terms. I got to do one more grand tour. I finished off the season strong. This is the next transition in my career. I can’t wait to race again.”

It’s an open and dusty road ahead. Stetina couldn’t be happier.