All-around good guy: A conversation with Peter Stetina
March 4, 2021 § 1 Comment
Monster engine. Big smile. Hearty draught. Boon companion. All in.
That’s Peter Stetina, U.S. professional bike racer who is deep in the throes of his second career at a time when most World Tour riders are trying to figure out what to do after hanging up the cleats. But as this interview shows, it’s about far more than winning this second time around–it’s about enjoyment while racing in the inclusive, fair-fight, community-oriented environment that makes America’s most popular and fastest-growing genre of cycling the epicenter of U.S. bike racing.
It might seem hard to square “enjoyment” with “race that lasts eight hours or more.” But for Stetina, whose chops include a decade on the World Tour, eight starts and eight Grand Tour finishes, and the unsung accolade of linchpin domestique in the first North American Giro win since Andy Hampsten, difficulty, endurance, and “the grind” are things that he is, quite simply, wired to do.
Landing in the middle of the modern American gravel scene hasn’t been without its conflicts; some view Stetina as the first in a wave of hardened World Tour professionals who, through their horsepower and racing experience, will rob gravel racing of its grass-roots allure. Maybe. But what is certain is that whatever Stetina’s will to win, it is second to his desire to promote the broader enjoyment of cycling and to help others find “the stoke.”
A proponent for gender equality who matches his words with his actions, an engaging and friendly person on the phone, you nonetheless get the message at the end: Whether he calls it “gravel” or I call it “bike racing,” pin on a number and he’ll rip your legs off.
Seth Davidson: Bike racing is blowing up in the US. Why?
Peter Stetina: I don’t know if bike racing is blowing up but bike riding is blowing up. The pandemic may be the best thing that’s ever happened to bike riding. Gyms closed and a lot of people have taken up the bike. I can’t say if bike racing is blowing up, but gravel racing is blowing up. There were over 700 gravel events slated for 2020 before covid. How much of that is offset by people not road racing, I can’t say. Road racing isn’t blowing up.
Seth Davidson: Historically road racing was never on paved roads; they were dirt, cobbles, or goat paths. Why don’t we call the current boom “road racing”?
Peter Stetina: Because road racing isn’t that anymore. For the last many years it has been all tarmac. It is a novelty if racers touch anything off-road. So as more and more roads got paved, that’s where road racing continued. Gravel is a shift in desire, people wanting to get away from traffic, cars, and into the woods. It’s definitely not road racing. It’s not the same ethos. Road racing is team tactics, pulling for one guy, sitting on, and gravel racing is largely free of that right now, which is refreshing to everybody. But it’s not at all what we think of as road racing now. I don’t think the boom of gravel is an allure to the good old days, it’s a totally new format and it has inclusivity and is mass start and apart from categories, tiers, and governing bodies.
Seth Davidson: Why so few women professionals?
Peter Stetina: That’s not a fair question. There is a huge push especially by the organizers of the big events, you have Amy Charity of SBT, Kristi Mohn of Unbound and Rebecca Rusch for example, headlining the biggest events, and it trickles down to the grassroots. They’re all trying to get more women on bikes. You’re seeing headlines for higher minimum wages and equal prize money and it’s in the media. It’s like any industry. My wife’s an engineer and she’s had to fight uphill in her industry, predominantly white and male, so it’s not just cycling. Cycling is trying pretty hard right now.
Seth Davidson: How can organizers put women on the same footing as men?
Peter Stetina: That is a hard question and I don’t have all the answers. You’re seeing what makes gravel so special is the mass start. However, that means that women’s races are affected by the men’s race because if the women can hang on a little bit longer with the men the gaps open up, but if they’d started in their own field those gaps wouldn’t be there. You are seeing an issue of “How do organizers answer this? Do we start women separately?” Then it loses the festival atmosphere. How do you combat the issue that if one woman can hang over one hill longer, then they get the tow on the flat valley after that and there’s a ten-minute gap. That’s the big issue now. MTB and road racing are already divided in categories. So in women’s road racing it’s just more tv coverage, equal pay, and matching sponsorship dollars. Despite the UCI not viewing gravel as its own discipline, it’s very much its own discipline. The answers are different for each discipline.
Seth Davidson: You’ve worked with Kathy Pruitt and her new pro career. At 38. During covid. Why aren’t other men doing the same?
Peter Stetina: Some are. It depends on everyone’s angle and there are men doing that. Colin Strickland is, if you go back to 2018, Amity Rockwell was part of Colin’s Meteor-Giordana team, Hannah Finchamp is a main part of the Orange Sealed team of Payson McElveen, there are male pros trying to help their female counterparts but it’s not a charity case. With Kathy there are so many commonalities and I see similarities in our journeys. There are also massive women’s movements supported by women. Girls Gone Gravel podcast is humongous and these races are opening up women’s entries earlier, giving incentives to women to register.
Seth Davidson: Phil Gaimon blazed the way in post-Pro Tour “pro” marketing without ever entering a race. Were you cognizant of his personal marketing efforts? Influenced by them in your quest to become a privateer?
Peter Stetina: Not so much. We have very different models. I’m still racing. I’m blending competition with brand alignment. Phil has a great business model and it’s been interesting to watch him go down his journey. I think you’re seeing across the board you can’t just be a me-go-fast-bike-racer anymore. With the rise of social media you have to be a whole person who promotes oneself across all angles of life. That’s why riders have gotten in trouble for non-bike comments online. I respect Phil’s hustle and it’s fun to banter with him. The privateer model is based on MTB. The only thing nuanced for me is jumping straight from the World Tour to this gravel opening to make this happen.
Seth Davidson: You have effectively extended your career by 5-10 years. How will you not ride yourself down as you age with more big, must-do events?
Peter Stetina: I’m excited for all the big, must-do events, as they’re largely new for me! Right now I’m enjoying it. What was going to burn me out wasn’t the racing but time away from family, lifestyle, and travel all the time. Even last year I’ve had more fun on the bike than the last 5-6 years. If it’s this fun I can do this at least until I’m forty. I’ve extended my career for the fun, because it’s a lifestyle versus purely a profession. Not that I didn’t love my time in the World Tour.
Seth Davidson: Eddie Anderson used BWR to launch his Pro Tour career. You used the Pro Tour to launch your US pro career at BWR. What is the significance of that?
Peter Stetina: It’s a platform. For me I fell in love with gravel at the BWR and had that lightbulb moment and saw the attention it was getting and said, “I could do something with this and take on this lifestyle that I like more.” I realize however that I wouldn’t be able to do it without my decade in the World Tour. It’s a symbiotic relationship. When Ted King shows up, and an up-and-coming rider comes up and gives him a run for his money, it’s almost like a scouting circumstance which you can only do on gravel or maybe a tiered invite race like the Tour of Utah. If someone brings a great game against an established name, that can help launch your career as it did Colin’s gravel career by beating us.
Seth Davidson: Are the US races you’re doing on the level of World Tour races in terms of difficulty?
Peter Stetina: Different. In terms of power and watts, no. I don’t think anyone can really fathom how fast and strong the riders are in the World Tour. Because that is the cream of the crop, the best in the world, and it is power-based. However, a World Tour body doesn’t mean they’re going to crush a gravel race. You don’t race for 7-10 hours on the World Tour. I normally rode 4-5 hours at high power intervals all the time. Now it’s grinding, steady-state stuff for hours on end. I wasn’t ready for Unbound Gravel. It’s harder on the World Tour, obviously. I wasn’t winning on the World Tour, and in gravel there isn’t as deep a field, but the grind and not breaking for hours is something I’m genetically suited to. You don’t do 5-hr tt’s in the World Tour. They’re different athletic feats.
Seth Davidson: You have 10k to go in the 2019 BWR. Eddie has caught you on the descent. What was your finishing strategy?
Peter Stetina: I pulled all my old vet tricks out of the book. I’d gapped him on Double Peak, but he was descending better and I was caught behind two riders finishing the Wafer on the single track. Then he started skipping pulls. So I started smack talking, “You gonna win like that?” And he was a good sport and poker faced and didn’t take the bait, but then the little riser came and I just had to hit him once or twice as hard as I possibly could and he cracked.
Seth Davidson: What do you think about lining up with pros on one side and avid recreational cyclists on the other?
Peter Stetina: I love it right now. It’s the beauty of the gravel movement. It’s the shared experience and it’s why I made this move. I was tired of the World Tour isolationism and wanted to be part of the event, and race together and party together. The nice thing is there is a separation pretty quick, but all bike handling isn’t the same and you have to make sure you’re ahead of someone who may not have the handling skills that you do.
Seth Davidson: Who inspired you as a kid?
Peter Stetina: I grew up in the Lance era. As a junior I was watching Lance during his Tour streak. Lance and the Ullrich battles were a massive inspiration. My dad and uncle were a source of inspiration because they were pros in the 70s and 80s and were a wealth of knowledge to rely on.
Seth Davidson: Who inspires you now?
Peter Stetina: There are so many! Not so much in cycling; the top pros are colleagues. I think my gravel counterparts, we inspire each other to train harder or create a cool piece of content, Payson, Ted, Keegan all feeding off each other bike-wise.
Seth Davidson: What drives you?
Peter Stetina: Promoting bikes and its community drives me. Goal number one is I love riding my bike, and I’m very competitive, and I want to get paid to ride my bike. That’s the dream and the end goal for everybody who loves to ride, right? However you’re doing it, as a journalist, pro, influencer, manufacturer, we love bikes and want to get paid to ride our bikes. And this is the best way I’ve found; my dream job is to get paid to race and stoke others to ride. Everyone has their own nuance but that’s the broad goal.
Seth Davidson: Your dad was one of the American road greats. Did he encourage you to race?
Peter Stetina: No. Never. Growing up in the Stetina household you wouldn’t have known he was a pro. All his winners jerseys were in a duffelbag in the attic. I found the sport on my own. However, once I did, I had my dad and uncle to help foster it and really drive it forward. There was never any pressure.
Seth Davidson: A lot of modern tech is designed to take the “off” out of “off-road.” Is easier better?
Peter Stetina: That’s the way that all technology goes. Yeah, you can do more. You are seeing the industry follow the money and you can do more, longer, more rugged things. I would say that gravel riding and racing is the harshest testing ground for road bikes. We are riding modified a road/’cross bike and realize you can go faster with wider tires, etc. It’s all for the better. I’m all for innovation. If your bike can handle that kind of carnage and the constant bumpy hammering of equipment, that’s where a bike company can make sure their bikes stand up.
Seth Davidson: Bike racing in America booms and busts. Is the current boom for real?
Peter Stetina: It’s booming in gravel. You’re being too generic there. Jim Miller of USAC thinks it’s cyclical but after saturation with gravel, crits/road races will come back. There’s a supply demand question. I think right now it will continue to boom. I hope all riders who’ve found the bike will keep participating. It would be great to grow our two-wheeled family.
Seth Davidson: Do professional bike racers have an obligation to advocate for bikes-as-transportation?
Peter Stetina: I don’t know. I see bike advocacy as an entirely different thing. I want to support it because the more ingrained the act of bike riding is, the safer it is, the more infrastructure, road engineering for bikes you’ll have, but it’s not a prerequisite because bike racing on the road is a pro sport. Our stadium is on public roads. So you shouldn’t be required to be an overall advocate if you’re a pro athlete, but with gravel you kind of are, because it’s more lifestyle-based it’s more important and expected.
Seth Davidson: E-bikes are already racing. How do you feel about that?
Peter Stetina: They’re not in cars. I’m happy with it. The more bikes, the better. I’m happy they’re in different classes. I’m not interested in riding an E-bike yet, but if people are interested in it, more power to them, they’re pedaling bikes.
Seth Davidson: Are you more or less data-driven than when you raced on the World Tour?
Peter Stetina: Less than the World Tour but I’m very data-driven, probably one of the more data-driven racers out there in gravel because I do intervals, know how to ride with a power meter, but that said I step on the scales less and drink more beer! I’m type A, it’s all about marginal gains and I like geeking out on that, I like knowing I’ve left no stone unturned and can pour more into the effort. That’s part of who I am. I like the tech around it all. I’m a bit of a perfectionist in training or bike weight or equipment or whatever it is.
Seth Davidson: Why would anyone sponsor a team when they can spend a fraction on an ambassador who wins races and keeps the brand buzz alive?
Peter Stetina: That’s a good question. With the pandemic, that’s where you saw the ambassadors flourish. If you look at the start of the lockdown, everything that a World Tour team did, I did as well as a solo privateer, I had a Zwift series, adventure from home, a column, Fastest Known Time stuff, if you look at any other pro team, they did the same thing. They have no Plan B if the Tour doesn’t go forward. But the Tour is a lot bigger than anything I could ever do. So sponsors got the same thing with a lower investment during the lockdown, but that’s different when the Tour is on. It depends on every brand’s marketing objectives and I think you see that between brands. If you look at Canyon North America, not globally, they have a whole slew of riders and ambassadors. However I don’t know if they have any domestic elite teams; Trek has no privateers that I know of, more teams.
Seth Davidson: What would you say to someone who said the current gravel racing boom looks white and very bro-ish.
Peter Stetina: I haven’t heard that. If someone were to say that to me? I don’t think gravel is bro-ish. There has been a push unlike anywhere else trying to support BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) initiatives. Steamboat has a massive effort around that as do many other races. There is more of that around gravel than any other discipline. Bro-ish? I don’t know. People are excited about riding together, men and women. I get comments from women who are eager to hang out and have a beer together after the race. I and many others recognize that cycling is inherently a very white sport and that needs to be fixed. And the industry is turning attention to it. It’s been a bit of a reckoning for the better and it’s going to have to start from the ground up. Fostering up and coming riders who have potential, who don’t have that background. It starts from a grassroots development. I’m trying to be supportive of that movement.
Seth Davidson: Who is a woman who inspires you and why?
Peter Stetina: Rebecca Rusch impresses me. She’ s one of the OGs of privateering. You look at the way she has reinvented herself so many times and gives back to her communities, she is a role model and impressive. My wife inspires me. She’s a much better person than I am, and helps me with a lot of the behind the scenes stuff; this is a team effort. For example, every Groad Trip article, she reads and edits.
Seth Davidson: What do you think about Major Taylor?
Peter Stetina: I think he was a trail blazer and seems he didn’t back down in the face of oppression, which I respect massively.
Seth Davidson: Do you ever see yourself riding purely for fun?
Peter Stetina: All the time. I ride for fun all the time! I’m in this for #allthefuns. For me, fast is fun sometimes, but other times it’s the cookie stop or finding that swimming hole. I want my profession to be riding or racing a bike. As long as it’s a bike, I’m riding for fun. There’s my angle in gravel which is performance riding; I’ve almost played the villain to a part, the “pros are ruining gravel,” but I think anyone who meets me realizes that it’s a joke.
Seth Davidson: What do you think about bike touring?
Peter Stetina: I’m interested in it. I plan to do a bit more bikepacking adventure stuff in the coming future. I have a few projects up my sleeve. I’m still more focused on fast things while this is where my body is at right now. If I were going to bike tour I’d be doing it very fast. That’s why I’m limiting FKT efforts to a day rather than the Colorado Trail; the long distances are basically sleep-deprivation contests. I wouldn’t enjoy sleeping in a bivy and then riding at 2 am. I’m currently drawing my line at a day, even if it’s a long day.
Seth Davidson: BWR is now a series. What do you think about that?
Peter Stetina: That’s the growth of gravel. Michael Marckx is a creative genius and it’s been fun to see where they’ve taken it; they have a style that’s enticing to many, it’s a natural movement and I hope it continues.
Seth Davidson: What advice would you give to a kid today? Shoot for the World Tour or race domestically? I include gravel in that.
Peter Stetina: A happy racer is a fast racer. If your goal is the Tour, then go for it. But with the rise of social media, there is more than one way to get paid to race or ride a bike. Find your strong suit, there’s no one cut and dried way to make it.
Seth Davidson: You’re an excellent writer and insightful commentator. Where and how did you develop as a writer?
Peter Stetina: Just trying. I wouldn’t consider myself good. I just practice. I don’t have a college degree or anything. I have always enjoyed bike magazines and reading about the ride and the adventure around it. It’s more just mimicking those who are better than me.
Seth Davidson: What’s the interview question you wish people would ask?
Peter Stetina: There are so many! But there are many different points of me. I take the social media world too seriously these days. My character or persona on social media is the pro-cyclist-now-racing-gravel. Sometimes I play the villain. I think I’m generally a good guy and I’m here to promote the sport. No one asks about how I’m fostering the sport in general. Some see me as a selfish performance-oriented rider who just now wants to win gravel races. My overarching goal is to promote bikes and gravel racing for everyone. I went there for the fun and lifestyle just like everyone else. I’ve been open in sharing World Tour tips and tricks. I get that it’s fun to follow the different characters, men and women, we all have a unique story.
Seth Davidson: Are you more well known now than at the peak of your World Tour career?
Peter Stetina: I think so, but I wouldn’t be where I am without my World Tour career. I’m that World Tour pro who jumped ship early for gravel, but that move created, struck a chord with a lot of people. If you base my popularity off social media then yes, I’m more popular now. I became more of a name because of this unique career trajectory.
Seth Davidson: Was there a decisive moment when your work as a teammate ensured Ryder’s Giro victory?
Peter Stetina: Yeah. I would say in the 2012 Giro, with Ryder, there were two days for me. There was the best known case, the day of the Stelvio, the penultimate day. What had happened is we were the underdogs. Ryder was on the form of his life, I and Christian Vande Velde were the mountain domestiques. Stage 20 we were to climb the Mortirolo and finish on the Stelvio. The race blew up on the Mortirolo. I’d just gotten gapped. There was the break and then the faves with Ryder, Ivan Basso. I chased on the descent and all the faves were looking at each other without domestiques and the race going up the road. I went to the front and started time-trialing that valley. Christian waited for us in the valley, caught on, and I was burning everything, and told him to sit on. I committed to the valley tt-ed as hard as I could, kept Thomas de Gendt in check, and Christian took over on the Stelvio, then Ryder clawed back time to eventually win. Christian likes to joke that that was the day I got hair on my chest as a pro. At the end of the stage, Ryder had a shot at the win, he’d been whisked away. I got to the top of the highest pass in Europe, and I had doping control. The team had left, I had no food, got a coke from a fan, was sugar bonked, hallucinating, and I had to go pee, dehydrated in a little tin can of an rv with no heating. The doc gave me a puffy coat but I got so sick I never recovered. I finished the TT on the last day, though. Earlier in that race, the day to Pampiaggo, we did a double ascent. I had made the selection. That was where I remember Kreuziger was up the road, on the lower slopes, and we weren’t being taken so seriously. I took the initiative, went to the front and whittled down the lead and then Ryder took over and made a big move, dropping all the favorites.
Seth Davidson: You described your final Vuelta in an interview as a catch-up race where every day Contador had to send it. What did you mean?
Peter Stetina: Well, Alberto had gotten a stomach bug on Stage 2 or 3 to Andorra and we’d been talking about fighting for the overall but suddenly I had to pull him to the line. He was empty, had diarrhea, and he lost a couple of minutes, and you lose a couple to Froome, it’s game over. He relaxed after that. “It’s still my final race and I’m going out guns blazing,” he said. And every day in the hills he attacked full gas. It was a lot of fun because we didn’t know his plan. He’d come up to me 6km before a climb and just whisper, because the radio frequency had been hijacked by the other teams, “Go full gas,” I’d slam a gel and get ready. Every day later in the race riders would come up and say “Is Alberto going for it today? Because if not I’d like to move up on GC.” I would say, “Your guess is as good as mine!”
Seth Davidson: It’s your last day on earth. You have one final breath. Who would you thank?
Peter Stetina: My wife because we met early and young and she is very much a better person than I am, and it’s because of her that I have made this career that and my life has become what it is.