Peter Stetina Bet On Himself In 2020. He’s Still Waiting for the Payoff.

bill gifford
Photo credit: Wil Matthews
Photo credit: Wil Matthews

From Bicycling

Pete Stetina was lying in bed one April morning last year, when his phone buzzed. Still groggy with jet lag, he saw a message from his team, Trek-Segafredo. Another rider was unable to line up for the Tour de Romandie, a six-day Swiss stage race. Perhaps Stetina could take his place?

Ordinarily, he might have said yes. But there were two problems. One, he had just flown back from Europe to his home in northern California; it would be difficult if not impossible to make it back to Switzerland in time. And two, the Swiss race overlapped with one of his primary 2019 goals: a 138-mile on/off-road race in San Diego called the Belgian Waffle Ride.

His traditional WorldTour team directors were nonplussed—the Belgian What Ride?—but his contract specified that he was allowed to do three gravel events during the 2019 season: The Waffle Ride, DK (the 200-mile gravel epic in the Flint Hills of Kansas), and the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. Stetina went back to bed and thought no more of it. He did not yet suspect that the ride, and the kerfuffle around it, would become a decisive episode that changed the course of his career.

A few days later, he woke up early and rolled to the start line of the Waffle Ride. Now in its 10th year, the Waffle Ride is meant to be an American version of a spring Classic, with a mix of road and dirt and climbs as steep as 23 percent. He had just finished an actual classic in Belgium, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but here he was the only current WorldTour rider taking the line, along with about 800 amateurs and a smattering of domestic road and mountain bike pros, including friend and former WorldTour pro Ted King, who had embraced gravel after retiring in 2015. This was no small local gravel event, either. There was a jam-packed expo, a live band, and an amped-up announcer—more like what you’d expect at a major race like the Tour of California.

Photo credit: Wil Matthews
Photo credit: Wil Matthews
Photo credit: Wil Matthews
Photo credit: Wil Matthews

Stetina won the race, but it was far from easy. “I was so blown out,” he says. His power file for the race was not too different from Liège a week earlier. “The field just wasn’t as deep,” he says. The win proved to be the high point of his season, and it brought him kudos and instant credibility in the fast-growing world of gravel racing. His Instagram blew up. “Trek-Segafredo and Trek Bikes, my team’s bike sponsor, were pleased,” he says.

Four months later, though, the team cut him loose. “It was probably a pretty massive strike against me,” he says of his choice to stay in California and race gravel. “They thought I wasn’t committed anymore. And I don’t blame them. But in the end, it was a very good thing for me.”

Stetina is recounting this story via Zoom in early May, sitting at a table in his backyard in Santa Rosa, California. His wife, Dyanna, moves around in the kitchen behind him; one of their dogs, a rescue named Loba, comes up to say hi to Dad. His trademark handlebar mustache and pointy soul patch have been joined by a full beard. It’s almost exactly one year after Stetina’s Belgian Waffle Ride win, and his world looks very different.

The Waffle Ride, as well as his experiences at Leadville and DK, had ushered him down an intriguing new path in bike racing, the only job he has ever had. Long known as a thoroughbred climber, with eight Grand Tour finishes in eight starts, Stetina found that he really loved gravel, with its long and dusty days off road. “I’m good at attrition,” he says. “I don’t break.”

And in late 2019, when he failed to find a team that would let him race both WorldTour and stateside gravel events, he decided to race gravel full-time this season as a team of one—a “privateer,” in mountain-bike parlance—with his own sponsors, his own branding, and most importantly, as his own boss.

It was a huge leap of faith. No longer could he live inside the protective cocoon of a well-funded team, with meals, race entries, transportation, and wrenching all taken care of. He would have to mix his own bottles, buy his own pre-race breakfast burritos, and—perhaps hardest of all for a coddled pro—get good at fixing a flat tire on the fly. But it made business sense: At least in the US, road racing is in a long-term tailspin. When the Tour of California announced a “hiatus” for 2020, that left just one major US stage race, the Tour of Utah (which has also been canceled this year, thanks to COVID). Meanwhile, gravel racing is booming—DK’s field size gets bigger each year, while selling out faster and faster.

“He saw the opportunity to make it work and he went after it, guns blazing,” says Kiel Reijnen, his former Trek-Segafredo teammate and longtime friend. And it worked out well—at first. Nine sponsors signed on, including CLIF, Canyon, Wahoo, Sportful, IRC Tires, and Shimano. Athletic Brewing, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, and Floyd’s of Leadville helped round out the hipster profile. He took a bit of a pay cut from his WorldTour days, but now he was able to stay home and train, spending more time with Dyanna and the dogs, and less time flying to Europe and back. And he had a little more leeway in both his training and his lifestyle—as we talk, he sips an IPA called “Leafy Greens,” a 4/20-themed offering from Revision Brewing in Sparks, Nevada. It’s Friday, after all.

“My second-favorite hobby after riding is craft beer,” Stetina says. He’s even had his face on a beer label: “Pete’s Secret ’Stache,” a limited-release IPA from Revision, produced in conjunction with “Stetina’s Paydirt,” his September gravel fondo (the brewery is an event partner). This might be a liability for a WorldTour rider—I’ve had athletes insist that their beers remain off the record—but in the world of gravel, where every event is practically required to have a beer sponsor, it might even be considered “training.”

Photo credit: Courtesy Peter Stetina
Photo credit: Courtesy Peter Stetina

Speaking of training, Stetina’s five-hour ride today included a swimming-hole stop at an undisclosed location deep in the woods of coastal Sonoma County. “Now that I’m doing gravel, and a lot of gravel roads are private, it’s kind of my job to poach,” he jokes. The route went unrecorded on Strava—but a skinny-dipping shot was proudly posted on social media. He hasn’t done an interval in weeks. One more barometer of how much his life has changed: For the first time since he was 16, he doesn’t even have a USA Cycling racing license, since gravel events don’t require them.

That’s all to the good. Less good: Well, you know. When the coronavirus hit, he had done exactly one major gravel event—the very muddy Mid South, in Oklahoma in March, where he led until he suffered a mechanical, then finished fourth. One after another, the big races were postponed until the fall. Some, like Leadville, were canceled outright. California temporarily closed the state parks where he liked to train. He was already trying to reinvent what it means to be a professional bike racer in the gravel era; the coronavirus meant that he would now have to reinvent his reinvention.

“I’m trying to view it as an opportunity to have a new relationship with the bike,” he says philosophically, taking another sip from his beer. “It’s ok to say, I’m going on an adventure ride, with no speed desires, no intervals. At the same time, I’m a competitive motherfucker. If you challenge me to peel an orange, I’m gonna frickin’ race you at peeling that orange. That’s hard for me to turn off.”

Photo credit: Wil Matthews
Photo credit: Wil Matthews

Stetina’s competitiveness is hard-wired into his genes. He grew up in a legendary family of American cycling pioneers. His father, Dale, was a two-time national champion and twice winner of the legendary Coors Classic in the 1970s; his uncle Wayne also won the Coors, and as a student at Indiana University he twice led teams that won the “Little 500” relay race featured in Breaking Away.

Bike racing brought the Stetinas to Boulder, where Peter was born in 1987. He played soccer until he was a teenager, but then he discovered mountain biking. One trip to the 24 Hours of Moab with a YMCA junior relay team, and he was hooked. By the time he graduated from high school, he was already riding for Jonathan Vaughters’s 5280/TIAA-CREF junior development squad.

As the team grew and evolved into what is now EF Pro Cycling, Stetina improved enough to be able to “make the cut,” he says. After success in races like the Tour de l’Avenir, the under-23 Tour de France, Stetina matured into a reliable lieutenant in the mountains. He helped Ryder Hesjedal win the Giro d’Italia in 2012, and helped Dan Martin take Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2013. He moved to BMC in 2014, then Trek-Segafredo in 2016, where he supported Alberto Contador in the Spanish star’s final Grand Tour, the 2017 Vuelta. “That was my favorite race,” Stetina says. “Contador lost time early, and he could never catch up, so every single day, he just sent it.”

Photo credit: Luis Angel Gomez/Bettini Photo
Photo credit: Luis Angel Gomez/Bettini Photo

He had leadership roles at races like Tour of California and the Tour of Utah, and some podium finishes, but the top step always seemed to elude him. And over the years, he’s had his share of misfortune. In August of 2013, his father was descending Left Hand Canyon into Boulder when a driver blindly pulled into his path. Dale Stetina sustained a traumatic brain injury that left his cognitive abilities intact but drastically altered his personality.

“We were trying to say as his family, ‘Dad, slow down, try and focus on getting better.’ And he would say ‘No, screw you, you’re trying to hold me back. You’re against me,’” he says. “[It] ripped our family apart.” His parents divorced, there was an ugly state-initiated legal battle, and eventually the elder Stetina was moved to long-term care in Indiana. “Our relationship has had to pivot to the place where if there’s a major issue, I can try to step in and help,” Stetina says. “But there’s not really a father-son relationship anymore.”

Two years later, racing for Team BMC in Spain’s Tour of the Basque Country, Stetina smashed into an unmarked metal pole in the road at high speed, shattering his lower right leg and breaking his kneecap and four ribs. Recovery involved relearning how to walk. BMC let him go, and he was afraid his career might be finished, but eventually Trek-Segafredo took a chance on him with a one-year deal.

He still loved racing, but after his crash, he lacked the fearlessness to mix it up in the bunch or fly down a mountain descent. “Once I made it back to the WorldTour peloton, I didn’t push myself as much or take the same risks,” he says now. “I was like, I know what’s on the other side of that.”

The road life was turning out to be more stressful than enjoyable. “There’s more pressure, the races are more dangerous, and contracts are harder to come by all the time,” says Joao Correia, a former professional cyclist who is now an agent for WorldTour riders. “I think a lot of guys are starting to say, what the fuck am I doing in this sport?”

Photo credit: Christopher Keiser
Photo credit: Christopher Keiser

Restless and busy by nature, Stetina had grown bored by the long empty hours in a rider’s life, many of them spent resting and recovering in hotels far from home. “You just sit with your legs up in a hotel room and watch Netflix, and train,” he says. “I’m not good at that monk life. I go crazy.” As he endeavored to build more gravel events into his contract, eventually he began to feel like a misfit on his traditional WorldTour team. “It was like they thought I was this beer-drinking gravel rider who sometimes raced on the road,” he says.

Gravel offered a new challenge, and a new relationship with bike racing. The races are hard, but they’re also fun—and more communal than a pro road race. There are no racing categories or separate heats; everyone rides the same course at the same time, on whatever bike they think is best. There’s less of a divide between athletes and fans. “The camaraderie of two wheels is something I always missed when I was a pro on the road,” Stetina says. “After a stage, you get back on the bus, and you take the protein shake, and go back to the hotel.” In gravel, you finish the race, then drink beers on Commercial Street in Emporia.

“If there’s any way to open up cycling to the masses, gravel is it,” Stetina says. But were the gravel masses ready for a seasoned WorldTour pro? Or a half-dozen of them?

If Stetina felt out of place on his WorldTour team, he has been equally alone, at times, in the gravel world. At the 2019 DK, a Twitter feud erupted over Stetina’s decision to put aero bars on his bike.

It was, of course, about more than just handlebars. Last year’s event saw an influx of WorldTour pros, including Stetina’s teammate Kiel Reijnen and EF Pro Cycling riders Alex Howes, Taylor Phinney (since retired), and Lachlan Morton. EF had declared that it would be emphasizing “alternative racing” in its program going forward. This year, in addition to Stetina, former pros Laurens ten Dam and Ian Boswell have also moved over to gravel. Was the laid-back discipline becoming professionalized by roadies?

“The term ‘pro gravel racing’ just absolutely grates on me,” says Ted King, who has been competing in gravel events since he retired in 2015 (winning DK twice). “If you’re purely hellbent on winning, then I think you’re doing gravel wrong.”

As it turned out, DK was won last year by a relative unknown, Colin Strickland, who attacked with around 100 miles to go, and used aerobars to full advantage. Stetina lasted the longest of all the chasers, and finished second in the event. When he finally did decide to go full gravel, Stetina decided to embrace the controversy, with an ironic-but-not-so-ironic hashtag, #peteruinedgravel. “It was a funny, tongue-in-cheek move,” he insists. “Just own it: I’m a pro and I race gravel. I’ll play the villain.”

Stetina had been training hard to defend his Belgian Waffle Ride title this year—and also to win DK, which he calls “the gravel world championships.” At the same time, he was trying not to come across as the bigfoot pro who was actually #ruininggravel. His new job demands fitness, but it also requires occasional stunts like a post-ride beer-chugging competition with a journalist, on video (which he lost). “I’m probably carrying an extra kilo of beer belly,” he told me, with a hint of pride.

Photo credit: Wil Matthews
Photo credit: Wil Matthews

The point was rendered moot this spring, when all the races on the gravel calendar were postponed or canceled. He fell into a funk for a while, lacking the motivation or even the ability to train seriously. He posted often to Instagram, cajoling Dyanna to help him shoot pics for sponsors. They had stuck by him, so he felt he owed them some content. “I’m just trying to create some stoke around the bike,” he said. He posted other shots, a pour-over coffee taste test and the obligatory homemade sourdough bread. His beard grew out.

“I’m still shaving the legs, because I’m trying to hold on and feel like a rider and racer,” he told me when we first chatted. Only instead of racing, he found himself hosting Zwift “gravel” rides with old friends and rivals like Dave Zabriskie, Rebecca Rusch, and King. On outdoor training rides, he stayed motivated by contesting Strava KOMs with his training buddies. But he was clearly floundering as he tried to find his way as a pro bike racer in this new, bike-race-less world.

“Riding a bike is the easy part,” says King. “You need to be dexterous off the bike, you need to be creative and be able to pivot.”

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

Stetina is a few minutes late to our last Zoom happy hour in mid-May. He’d felt the need to squeeze in some intervals before he had a beer.

Wait, intervals?

He nods. “It’s like a switch flipped, or something,” he says. “I’m trying to hold onto form, structure, and some intensity.” He is apparently serious—the beer he cracks open this time is a nonalcoholic IPA from Athletic Brewing, a sponsor.

But what is he training for, exactly? Just the previous day, another major cancellation had been announced—the SBT race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which Stetina had been targeting. His own fondo, Stetina’s Paydirt, was about to be postponed until 2021. A few events are still left on the calendar, but most if not all of them had been pushed into the late fall, including the Belgian Waffle Ride.

DK, too, was cancelled, and its future up in the air after its founder and director, Jim Cummins, was fired for a Facebook post where he opined that the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by police in Atlanta in June was “justified.” Coming on the heels of controversy over the event’s name, which is a derogatory slur referring to the Indigenous people of the Kaw Nation, it was a jarring reminder that perhaps gravel was not as mellow and inclusive as people think. (The event organizers announced in June that race will return in 2021 with a new name and a commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” within the event and organization.)

“I don’t know Jim’s politics,” Stetina says, “but I thought that the issue with the name had been put to bed. It is the naiveté of white folks such as myself, where even if you’re not a racist, you might not even be aware that something like that could be a racial slur. That’s something that I’m personally trying to be more aware of.” He adds, “I’m trying to work on things with sponsors, to figure out how to address racial inequality in cycling, in a way that’s real beyond social media.”

Photo credit: Courtesy Peter Stetina
Photo credit: Courtesy Peter Stetina

The day after the Belgian Waffle Ride was supposed to happen in early May, Stetina had done his own BWR in response to King’s #DIYGravel challenge, where riders do a version of a given event’s course, equivalent in mileage and vertical feet of climbing. He did the remote/substitute DK ride organized by fellow gravel freelancer Laurens Ten Dam; Stetina and Levi Leipheimer rode 200 miles from Tahoe to the Black Rock Desert site of Burning Man in Nevada.

With other races cancelled or in doubt, Stetina is focusing instead on FKTs, racing for the fastest known time on a given route. FKT is a thing in running and mountaineering, but is still fairly new in cycling. Stetina has his eyes on Moab’s White Rim Trail, a 145-mile loop in Canyonlands National Park (where mountain biker Keegan Swenson currently holds the record), and on some other routes near Tahoe and in Colorado. “There might still be some way to compete, somehow,” he says. “It gives me a little bit of hope.”

On the day we spoke, he had spent a few hours on Craigslist, searching for a Sprinter van for traveling to races or rides, without having to fly or stay in hotels. That way, he can be even more self-sufficient. “Maybe the new tag can be #peteruinedvanlife,” he jokes. Whatever our new world is going to look like, he figures, it will probably be a good thing to have a Sprinter (he eventually found one on the East Coast, and road-tripped back across the country with it, stopping on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, in Emporia, Kansas, and Moab, Utah). Meanwhile, his friends and former colleagues from the professional ranks are watching him try to navigate his new reality. “Pete’s a survivor,” says Reijnen, his old friend. “He’s highly adaptable, and he’s done a brilliant job of sorting this out.”

A few days after our last Zoom call, Stetina will head up to Lake Tahoe, where he keeps a cabin for altitude training and off-season getaways. He used to go there to prepare for Grand Tours and the Tour of California, honing his climbing legs on epic Sierra mountain passes.

This time, he isn’t as clear on his plan. He might revisit some of his old favorite training routes. Or he might just set out into the Nevada desert and keep riding east on fresh, unknown roads.

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