Culture

Groad Trip: What I loved and what I loathed about gravel vs WorldTour

I'd be lying if I said everything was better in gravel. But here's how my new reality was on the whole.

Racing, like most things in life, is a blend of physical vs mental efforts. Last Groad Trip, I dove into the physical comparison of my road vs gravel career thus far. In this second part of reflection on my neophyte season in the dust, it’s time to focus on the mental changes from one year ago. Looking back, what have I loved and loathed, and ultimately was my career change the right choice?

What I loved in gravel versus the WorldTour

I likely sound like a broken record at this point, but that’s the point of a motto right? I adhere to the idea that “a happy racer is a fast racer.” The freedom to be myself has allowed me to get the most out of my body and mind. I can pursue projects I am passionate about, post about extracurricular social activities without fear of team manager oversight, and ultimately express who I am as a person first and a bike racer second, not the other way around.

I have also enjoyed the freedom to pick and choose my own race schedule, selecting gravel events that sound fun or fit my logistical preferences around family time.

Another highlight of this season has been getting to know my gravel family. Of course I knew, like many readers, about the gravel community and its openness and hospitality. But I didn’t really know until I finally began meeting a few of these organizers. I was truly welcomed with open arms, hugged, and told how happy they were to meet me.

Peter Stetina finished just off the podium at The Mid South. “There’s glories and there’s stories, and today was all about the stories.” Photo: Wil Matthews

I honestly knew maybe two race organizers from my 10 years on the WorldTour. Organizers were someone your team dealt with in a business setting and there was never a face-to-face nor text relationship. In gravel we are sharing the stoke of our growing discipline and holding each other up. I’ve been humbled by the openness, and desire to collaborate and learn from each other.

Another happy surprise was that race butterflies are the same. Many wondered, myself included, if I would find the same motivation and desire to compete having come from the big show. I’m happy to report that a goal is a goal. I was just as nervous at the start of any of my big showings this year as I was at events in the past, sometimes even more so!

The only WorldTour race that truly gave me FOMO was the start of the Tour de France. Although just as in seasons where I’d not made the roster cut, once stage one was over, I settled in and enjoyed the drama every morning.

What I loathed this year — or at least what I missed 

I wouldn’t say that I’ve really loathed anything about gravel, but there are some things I miss from the old days. A WorldTour rider’s life is simplistic. In the pursuit of speed and fitness, there is enough infrastructure and support in the big teams that nearly all a rider has to do is focus on their body. Some days, the robust to-do list before and after a five-hour ride had me missing last season.

I do loathe these VeloNews Groad Trip deadlines as well! I’ve gained an entirely new respect for all the journalists out there. Writer’s block sucks, pivot projects are hard, and creativity only seems to come to me on remote bike rides out of cell service. Hopefully in 2021 I can just write about the actual gravel races again!

I missed some of big-show elements of WorldTour races. Photo: Amgen Tour of California

I miss the team camaraderie. The bond you create with the other seven guys on a grand tour team is strong, especially at the Tour. You feel like you’re going into battle together every day for three weeks straight, and not every day do all eight of us return to the dinner table with crashes, sicknesses and time cuts. By the time you reach Paris, Milan, or Madrid together, there are shared stories and relationships you’ll never forget.

I also miss the crowds and the stardom of the WorldTour. The WorldTour is the big show, the major leagues. Racing in the WorldTour means you’ve made it. Riding up those alpine climbs with crowds so thick you have to go singlefile, and so loud you can’t hear your own thoughts, is pure adrenaline. Gravel has solid crowds at certain events, but nothing compares to the Tour in the Alps or any climb at the Tour of the Basque Country for that matter. 

What the change meant financially and professionally 

One stressor that always got to me in the WorldTour was the contract renewal process. Every season that I came into free agency, I would stress over the small things and ultimately it affected my relationships and performance on the bike. I struggled with my career being in the hands of my agent and a team manager, and the fact that my colleagues and I were bartered like stocks.

Now I have contract stability. In my privateer’s business model, I decide my own future. I can connect with my sponsors directly; I create, collaborate, and navigate the industry with them. I am overall happier in writing my own future and feeling my career success is weighted upon my own shoulders.

While my income is not quite what it was in the good years of the WorldTour, it is also better than it was in the neo-pro and post-broken-leg low points. It’s a happy and contented medium.

I also believe this set me up well for my life post-bikes. The learning curve has been steep this year. I’ve gained a slew of tips from some of the most creative minds in the industry, and when the day does come that I’m too slow/old/fat/tired to race professionally, maybe I have a better platform to stand on than the WorldTour Pete of 2019.

Turns out the grass was greener.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And sorry I could not travel both.” Photo: Pete Stetina