A whir of carbon wheels, the click-clacking of free hub bodies and whoosh of rubber on tarmac fills the air, the beautiful music of professional cycling. Soon different sounds permeate – those equivalent to an orchestra stumbling across the stage – squealing brakes, cracking carbon, and screams of agony.
The peloton had come barreling down the finishing straight and in the blink of an eye riders were scattered across the road. Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) lay on the road unable to stand. A horrendous lack of judgment of rider safety by the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) organizers left two metal bollards in the road with only orange cones on top of them as warning. Riders hit them at full speed, including Stetina. The most severe of his multiple injuries was a shattered kneecap, which required reconstructive surgery. His 2015 season was over and his cycling career was put on the backburner. He now faced a road of uncertainty and rehab.
Over a year on and nearly a full season under his belt, Stetina is quietly confident as the 2016 season winds down. He is looking to 2017 after making it through the toughest race of the year, the Tour de France.
“The knee held up,” Stetina told CyclingTips on Monday morning at the Tour of Utah, just as the sun began its climb in the sky. “I could feel it give out on days with multiple mountain passes. It started to get a little tired at the end, but that just shows me I got to get back in the gym this winter, hit the weights and grow the muscle. The kneecap held up and there was never any pain, so that was positive. If it can finish the Tour it can finish anything.”
Stetina’s season has been quite remarkable considering his status at the Tour of Utah last year, which was his first race back from the injury. While he was able to ride his bike and fit enough to be amongst those racing in the peloton, it was a complete different story off the bike. He used a cane to move around and walked with not only a noticeable limp, but a fairly considerable one, showing the severity of the injury he was forced to overcome.
The Santa Rosa, California resident told his team at the beginning of the year he would need many race days to get back to the level he had obtained before the crash. The team delivered. “I’ve already got 70 race days this year, so I’m feeling it,” Stetina said. “I’m one of the most raced guys in the world right now. The season is actually starting to wind down for me. I’ve only got this one, Alberta, and Quebec, Montreal. I’ll end a little early this year, but I’m excited to be here and we’ve got a good team.”
“It’ll be 85, 90 [race days] before it’s all said and done,” Stetina added. “I told the team I need a lot of races to get my old form back. It’ll be good to have a full season under my belt and have a normal offseason without having to do all of the rehab stuff. I’m already looking into next year. It’ll be nice to have a full offseason and go for results instead of surviving.
The 28-year-old targeted the Amgen Tour of California this year as a race he wanted do well in and show the world he was making his way back being the same the strong climber he was before the crash. Stetina rode to second place on the stage to Gibraltar Road after attacking early on the climb. He was only passed by a flying Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep), who went on to win the race overall. Stetina struggled in the time trial and a crash on the final day during the finishing circuits saw him plummet down the general classification, but he was excited to be back at the front on the climbs.
“I was so happy to be competitive and at the front of the race,” Stetina told CyclingTips prior to the Tour de France. “All spring I was trying to still come back for that and I had lost so much muscle mass I was still suffering just to be pack-fodder. I didn’t think cycling was fun anymore and I wasn’t enjoying my job as much. I kind of had just marked Cali as my target and bulls eye and if I could get to that and do something there then everything will be good. I’m really glad it happened. It was a shame I didn’t actually pull off the win…the time trial was pretty abysmal.
“That just goes to show I put so much effort into coming back to my old level on climbs and in road races that the time trial has really fallen by the wayside. In that crouch I still notice a bit of a left-right leg discrepancy, so that is going to be more of a wintertime project, but it just felt really good to be at the front of the race again. Everyone at home was really excited to see that again too. There have been a lot of people who have been integral at home. I’m a Californian and they were able to watch there in person.”
Stetina’s demeanor has changed drastically as his old form has come back. He’s motivatated, he’s confidence level seems to be growing with every race and the bottom line is that his love for cycling and racing is back.
Alain Gallopin, director sportif at Trek-Segafredo, has been impressed with Stetina’s mental strength as he overcame his injury and returned to the Tour de France to be Bauke Mollem’s high mountain super domestique.
“I’m very impressed with how strong he is in the head to be back,” Gallopin said. “I’m very impressed about that because when I saw him in the beginning of the year at the training camp in December, [it was a case of] ‘oh.’ [Peter] is very courageous and he never gives up. I explained to him also ‘you need to race, not only to train, but to race because when you’re racing you do more than in training.’ What I saw in the Tour this year, he’s really back now.”
“I think physically he has a big potential. For that, I think he needed to race to get back [on track]. At one moment in the program he said ‘I’ll make some training, but I want to race.’ It’s what you want and it’s good for him. We need this kind of guy in the team, especially for the team we expect to run next year.”
Trek-Segafredo is expected to announce the signing of Alberto Contador to the team, further bolstering its general classification ambitions. As one of the pure climbers on the squad, Stetina will be put to the test to provide support in the mountains.
Stetina spoke with the confidence of someone who overcame a potentially life-altering challenge and came out still being able to do the job that brings him happiness. He is stress-free and relaxed after completing the Tour de France, a race which tested him not only physically, but mentally. The stress of the Tour wears on a rider and Stetina is happy to be back racing on American soil.
“The Franken leg,” as Stetina calls his mended leg, may not be back to full-strength, but he is well on his way to reaching the form and level he had achieved prior to his crash. Mentally, the long journey to back has made Stetina rock solid. It’s a valuable asset in an endurance sport that frequently requires one to dig deep within themselves and push beyond what they may have physically thought possible.