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This summer, instead of stressing out at the WorldTour, Peter Stetina pedaled back to his roots.
Keen to shake things up and rediscover the joy of racing, Stetina followed a different path during a good part of the 2019 racing calendar. There were plenty of European race days, from monuments to hard stage races, but there was something different as well.
One late Colorado summer evening, he found himself in a parking lot, doing loops on his mountain bike with his wife and mother in tow. They were practicing passing up water bottles on the eve of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race. They were his impromptu support crew for what would be one of his hardest days ever on a bike.
Barely 24 hours later, Stetina crossed the line fourth in the grueling off-road race across the spine of the Colorado Rockies. It capped a summer when he’d been happiest on a bike in a long time.
“It’s been a fun year,” Stetina said. “I’ve had more fun this year than I’ve had in the past five or six years of my career.”
Having fun on the bike again is priceless for Stetina. For the past few seasons, the meaning of racing had changed for the 32-year-old. Or perhaps more accurately, everything that surrounded racing had changed. He’d been struggling with a string of health issues, first with a painful recovery from his career-threatening crash during the 2015 Tour of the Basque Country, when he struck a parking bollard left on the race course by organizers. After getting back to the top level, capped by his second start at the Tour de France in 2016, Stetina suffered another setback when the Epstein-Barr virus struck. That pretty much washed out his 2018 season.
So when he was mapping out his 2019 calendar, Stetina wanted to get back to basics and incorporate some grassroots racing into his schedule. He approached Trek-Segafredo management with the novel idea of an “alternative racing calendar” that would detour off the WorldTour and onto some of the gravel and marathon events that are energizing the U.S. racing scene.
It turned out that some of the other WorldTour pros had the same idea, including a crew from EF-Education First, but Stetina was already plotting a different road. In addition to Leadville 100 MTB, his season would include the Belgian Waffle Ride as well as Dirty Kanza.
“I really wanted to explore these races. That’s what’s really grabbing the attention in the States right now,” he said. “I started racing as a kid on a mountain bike, and I saw these races taking off. It was completely independent to what the EF boys were doing, and it was coincidental that they were thinking the same thing. It’s cool that top pros are venturing into this. It’s an adventure for everyone.”
A bit of an adventure and change of scenery was just what Stetina needed to recharge the batteries. A WorldTour veteran for more than a decade, Stetina embraced the grassroots vibe of these homegrown off-road marathon races.
Things went better than expected. Stetina won the Belgian Waffle Ride in June, and finished second to Colin Strickland at Dirty Kanza in May. More than the results, the overall scene and experience was the big takeaway for the seasoned pro. It was fun to race bikes again.
“They all had a different flare and vibe,” he said. “It was real grass-roots racing; no buses, no massage. It’s a nice mental switch from the WorldTour.”
Stetina was impressed with what he saw, from the organization to the level of competition. The gravel scene is really taking off, with fully sponsored riders and teams, but there’s still room for the barista/weekend warrior out there to bash elbows with the pros. Stetina felt right at home.
“It’s so relatable,” Stetina said. “People just see us in the Vuelta going up a climb in a group, and it’s hard to measure the fitness and pace. At these races, we’re all doing the same course. These guys behind us are trying to finish, and everyone can test themselves. We all hang out after the race and really appreciate the effort we put in. It’s a win-win for everyone.
“I loved it,” he concluded. “Winning, second and fourth — I will take it for my inaugural into the off-road world.”
Flash forward a few weeks, and Stetina is back in his WorldTour bib, and about to start his eighth career grand tour — his first since 2017. The 2019 Vuelta a España kicks off Saturday, and Stetina is motivated to pin on a race number.
“I am excited to get back to it,” Stetina said in a telephone interview. “It was a bit of a bummer to miss it last year. With all the Epstein-Barr that was diagnosed later, at least there was a reason. I’ve always prided myself in being a decent three-week stage racer.”
After racing at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, where he was “throwing some spice” on the climbs, he’s excited to be back in Europe. On Tuesday, Stetina landed at the Barcelona airport, and waited for a teammate to come down from Girona, and they drove together along the Spanish coast to Alicante. He packs a fresh attitude and renewed appreciation for racing against the best racers of the world.
For Stetina, the U.S. races were ideal prep for the WorldTour-level racing; huge efforts, testing yourself against an elite field, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun than training off a power meter. Stetina wanted to get back to his roots and needed to reconnect with his inner race ninja after a rough spell.
“People think you’re retiring or winding it down because you’re doing these mass-start events, but that could not be further from the truth,” he said. “Those events are so competitive and so difficult, they’re a perfect complement for the WorldTour races.”
Stetina is especially looking forward to this Vuelta. For the first time since his first grand tour, with his Giro debut in 2011 when he was 21st overall, Stetina won’t be at the service of a GC captain. Trek-Segafredo is bringing a mixed squad, loaded with stage-hunters and opportunists. Instead of sled-dogging, he’s looking forward to a return to a less-controlled, more instinctual style of racing during the next three weeks.
“We don’t have any GC hitters, without Bauke [Mollema] or Richie [Porte],” he said. “We have a solid support train around John [Degenkolb], and a couple of good climbers, with myself, [Gianluca] Brambilla and [Niklas] Eg. It would be great if one of us can get a respectable result. We’re not going with a GC goal in mind, which is kind of fun. There’s no pressure. We will be able to throw caution to the wind. It will be a very different grand tour.”
Stetina is back in the flow, racing for results, but most importantly, enjoying what he’s doing. Being healthy and competitive is about as good as it gets for a bike racer. After a thrilling summer, Stetina wants to end 2019 with a bang.
“Everything is flowing this year,” he said. “With some of this alternative racing, the WorldTour has been good as well. I’m really enjoying, and I hope to end this year on a high.”