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Stetina: ‘Everyone wanted to race California’

For Americans and pros alike, the Tour of California was a race unique on the calendar both on and off the bike.

Americans hang close in the European peloton. Even when they are on different teams and different calendars, they always say hi and check-in when they intersect in a race.

And every spring, there was one thing on everyone’s mind — the Amgen Tour of California.

“It was always the same,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Peter Stetina. “You’d ride up to one of your compatriots in the peloton, and you asked — you heading back to Cali, man?”

That conversation will be on hold for 2020. Most in the American cycling community was stunned this week when the Amgen Tour of California announced a one-year “hiatus” for the weeklong WorldTour race.

For the dozen or so American riders racing at the WorldTour, the loss is even bigger. California was their race and their chance to shine in front of families and friends. And now it’s gone.

“To be blunt, the reaction was ‘holy shit,’” Stetina said in a telephone interview. “I did not see that coming. We were already hearing rumors about the 2020 course. It was a real curve ball.”

For riders like Stetina, who has raced a decade at the WorldTour, California was more than another date on the calendar. Though the sport is more international than ever, the majority of racing still unfolds in Europe. So American pros still spend most of their time slogging the European roads.

Each spring, at least for one week, the WorldTour came to America.

“We spend all year racing in countries all over the world, where the Euro guys know the roads, know the wind, so it was good for them to come over on our turf,” he said. “It’s home for us. The language, the roads, the food — it was America. It was burritos for dinner instead of some dried out pasta and chicken.”

Americans such as Phinney and Howes had the rare luxury of home culture at California. Photo: Haffey/Getty Images

Stetina — who confirmed reports he will not be racing with Trek-Segafredo in 2020 — said California held a special place for the U.S. pros simply because it was their chance to race on home roads.

“It was a highlight for every American pro,” he said. “It was the only race where you could race in front of your families and friends. It was special.”

“The first time I raced it, my whole family came out to watch the race and they did the VIP tent thing,” he continued. “All the Americans would bring their families. It was the one race where fans could watch you in your nation. It’s extra motivation. For the Euro guys, we were like, ‘now you know how it feels.’ In California, people knew us, and yelled your name out from the side of the road. You kind of felt like a celebrity. You don’t get that when you’re American racing somewhere in Belgium or France.”

Stetina said the appeal of the race extended throughout the peloton. It’s no surprise that riders like Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish made it part of their annual racing calendars. Not only did it fit well between the classics and the Tour de France, but riders simply wanted to spend time in California.

“It was very popular for riders and they would fight to have it on their calendars,” he said. “All the top pros loved coming to the race — who doesn’t want to come to California?”

Stetina said the riders relished the posh American hotels — “not stuck in some Campanile along the highway with soggy cots” — and the wider, less stressful roads.

“California was more of a watts race than a positioning race,” he said. “It felt like a luxury race. And everyone would go shopping after the race.”

While some say the race might have lost some of its allure within the North American racing community when it was elevated to WorldTour status, Stetina argued that the move only served to boost the event’s prestige within the larger peloton.

Not only did riders want to come for the adventure for racing in California, but the addition of the WorldTour points translated into a much more heated race.

“It was deadly serious,” he said. “When guys like Alaphilippe, Bernal and Pogacar started to show up, it was that much more prestigious. It was more of a secondary race before it was WorldTour.”

It wasn’t just the US riders that enjoyed California, with favourable placement in the calendar and good logistics attracting the likes of Egan Bernal. Photo: Getty

California was the proving ground for many young riders, and that didn’t entirely change with the WorldTour status. That new designation forced domestic teams to jump from Continental to Professional Continental licenses in order to have a chance of starting. For Stetina, the bump to WorldTour status was the right call.

“Overall it was a good thing for U.S. cycling. As a nation, we needed a WorldTour race,” he said. “It was the right move. California was the big dog. It had the prestige.”

Stetina, who splits his time between Lake Tahoe and Santa Rosa, said California was always the highlight of his year. Stetina never won a stage at California in five starts, but he came close. In fact, his near-miss at Gibraltar Road in stage 3 in 2016, when Julian Alaphilippe caught him in the final meters, was not only a California highlight, but a result that he said reconfirmed to himself that he deserved a place in the WorldTour.

Stetina was on the comeback trail from a brutal crash in the 2015 Tour of the Basque Country, when he struck a metal parking bollard left in the raceway. The impact shattered his leg, and it nearly ended his career. After a long recovery, the 2016 California tour proved he was back.

“I’m still a little bit bitter he caught me, but that stage signaled to me and to the world that my career was going to be OK after almost losing everything,” Stetina said. “It was the moment I knew I could race at the WorldTour again.”

Stetina is one of many US pros turning their eyes to mass-participation gravel racing. Photo: Getty

Like many, Stetina is troubled when he looks at the U.S. road racing scene. Without California, and the recent closures of other events, there’s not a lot out there.

“It’s the gravel scene that’s taking off,” he said. “In the United States, cycling is a participation sport. It’s not a spectator sport. People like to do the event and test themselves against the pros. Cycling isn’t so relatable unless they can climb that climb themselves.”

Next year, the U.S. pros racing in the peloton will catch up like they always do. They’ll talk about their favorite NFL teams, their schedules, and their plans. They won’t be talking about California.