Editor’s note: After 10 years of professional racing for Garmin, BMC and Trek-Segafredo, Pete Stetina switched surfaces and bosses to race gravel on his own program for 2020. Groad Trip is his new bimonthly column here on VeloNews.com.
Yup, I left the WorldTour for the burgeoning gravel scene. My choice was solidified this fall, after dipping my toe in this alternative side of two-wheeled adventures. There is an entire sequence of events leading to this career decision. But let me make something clear: I am not retiring; I am training as hard as ever. This is the next transformation of my cycling career, Pete the Professional Groad Racer. Here’s how I arrived at this point:
The seeds were first sown in 2013, when my dad had a bike-car collision. He survived, but suffers from a Traumatic Brain Injury, and it has put our family through the wringer. Those seeds germinated in 2015, in the crash where I shattered my leg and kneecap at the Tour of the Basque Country. I remember my surgeon telling me that depending on how the bone healed, I may walk again, or they may need to amputate my leg. I poured my heart and soul, my entire being, into my rehab to salvage my career.
These events have molded who I am today and I believe I’m a better person because of it. In instances like these, you really, and I mean really, learn to appreciate the small things and the community that supports you. After getting my career back on track, I wanted to find a way to give back to the cycling community and also support those who have suffered a life-altering injury through sport.
I co-created Stetina’s Sierra Prospect (now Stetina’s Paydirt) gran fondo. It highlights the camaraderie around the bike, and has a charitable cause that resonates with me. Selfishly, it also gave me a fun side-project to focus on during all the mind-numbing hotel time that accompanies the Pro Racer Lifestyle.
In 2017, I rediscovered my love of grassroots racing: two of my best friends and racing buddies, Alex Howes and Kiel Reijnen, and I had an open July, as none of us made the Tour de France selection for our respective teams. I convinced USA Cycling to let us go to the Cascade Classic Stage Race as the USA National Team. We rounded up a few younger talents USAC had their eye on, a longtime buddy to play director, crammed ourselves into a host house in Bend, Oregon and raced bikes.
It was comfort food for me; the race scene that initially drew me to the sport. We raced our hearts out, and then hung around the garage after each stage, sipping IPAs in camping chairs while one of us would try and play mechanic. I think we can all agree that it was one of the most fun weeks of the year and we all came out of it flying. I had a great Vuelta a España and Italian fall classics season that autumn. It was an important lesson for me that my happiness is directly linked to my athletic performance.
In 2018, I was unknowingly racing with a mild case of Epstein-Barr Virus. Things weren’t clicking and I wasn’t quite myself on the bike. As a pro with over a decade of experience, you learn to know your body pretty well. When it doesn’t respond how you’re accustomed, you begin to second-guess yourself. I wondered if all the suffering had caught up with me, if my heart and body were finally telling me I’d reached the end even though my head told me to keep pushing. Eventually my EBV was diagnosed.
I tailored my training around it and I had a nice end of the season. Trek-Segafredo believed in me and offered a one-year contract extension. I was eager to sign, as I wasn’t finished with the sport yet, but I pushed on them to let me partake in a few alternative races that I had been hearing about. Trek marketing agreed that it made sense, and we planned my participation in the Belgian Waffle Ride, Dirty Kanza, and Leadville 100 MTB.
Enter 2019: While attending these “alternative calendar” events, which was initially to enjoy the grassroots vibe I loved at Cascade in 2017, I was blown away. The production value around BWR was more “pro” than most WT events I raced. These grassroots races were stupidly challenging, got way more attention (the social media metrics were staggering), and most importantly, I had tons of fun.
The gears started turning… I could be myself, eat tacos and drink beers at the finish without giving up a competitive race environment. I was back to full strength, and had a nice season across the board, WorldTour and gravel included. I think it was because I was enjoying myself more than ever.
Coming into 2020, my ideal plan was to continue to do both WorldTour and gravel races, but there was a disconnect. I was still regimented, lean, fit, and always hitting my workouts with vigor, but my style didn’t always jive with team managers. I based myself in the USA more often than Europe, sometimes I did a MTB ride, or had a beer. My motto is a “Happy Racer is a Fast Racer.” For some, happiness is sitting on a mountaintop, counting carbs, and focusing solely on physical perfection. For me, I need to have a bit more balance.
Traditional European managers were not on board. One manager even went as far as telling me he didn’t want to see anything about my gran fondo, that it was a project for retired racers. That really got me simmering. I began to test the waters, and reached out to a few companies to ask if they wanted to support me in a Privateer Gravel Campaign. The answer was a resounding YES.
I now had a choice to make: I could pursue finding a road team to stay on the smooth tarmac, in the Europe-centric pinnacle of road racing that I was familiar with, or completely walk away. It wasn’t an easy decision and it consumed many discussions with my wife. On one hand there was a known quantity accompanied by the glamour and prestige of the WorldTour. On the other, being my own boss, making these fun events not “alternative” anymore, more time stateside (she liked that!) and the lifestyle. I’ve chosen the latter and the outpouring of support has been validating and gratifying.
Here is where I need to be clear: This isn’t a retirement. I still love training and racing, and I’m in my physical prime at 32. This gravel scene has my complete attention and these races are LEGIT. They deserve to have fast riders focus solely on them (some already are) and I hope even more do. It’s been a steep learning curve and it’s already quite different. It’s been like starting up a new business; instead of coming home from a five-hour ride and focusing solely on my body, I am jumping on emails and conference calls. Yet, I’ve been more motivated for winter training than ever before. I’m having the most fun I’ve had in years.
What I love about the gravel scene is the inclusivity, that mass camaraderie that we’re all in this together. In the name of inclusivity, I’ll be contributing to a regular column here on VeloNews. It’ll be a bi-monthly check-in following this inaugural step into the unknown. The first task was the name: What the hell do we call this thing? We brainstormed… Return to Dirt, Crossgroads, ProTour Pete: Fury Groad, Tour de Gravel, Pete’s Dirt, and a few others that should never be mentioned. We’ve finally settled on one: Welcome to the Groad Trip!