A strong performance in the queen stage at the Amgen Tour of California changed everything. A surging attack almost delivered victory, and after four surgeries and a painful rehab, he suddenly felt like a bike racer again. That led to a berth on the 2016 Tour de France squad, and eventually to a two-year contract extension.
“Last spring, I was pretty close to calling it quits,” Stetina said. “I was doing everything I could. Here I am, doing training on top of rehab, and I was a shell of what I used to be, and I wasn’t getting any better. I was getting dropped on climbs before the sprinters were getting dropped.”
Last spring was crunch time for the 29-year-old Stetina, who turned pro in 2010 as one of America’s most promising pure climbers in a generation. After showing glimpses of greatness, including helping Ryder Hesjedal clinch the 2012 Giro d’Italia with huge pulls on the Stelvio in the decisive battle of the pink jersey, Stetina’s world came crashing down in stage 2 of the 2015 Tour of the Basque Country.
It’s a gruesome story no matter how many times it’s told. Stetina slammed into a meter-high metal pole that was left in the closing kilometer of the stage. (He’s since had an artist friend make a sculpture with all the metal they eventually pulled out of his leg). No one knows exactly why a metal pole was left in the roadway of a WorldTour race — and legal challenges are still pending — but all that didn’t matter then.
Stetina was left with a broken tibia, four broken ribs, a shattered kneecap, and tattered dreams. After a lonely, four-day odyssey to return to the United States with his leg in a cast, Stetina began a slow, painful recovery. Despite overcoming four surgeries — including one to trim a piece of metal that was protruding out of his kneecap when he would bend his knee — and a remarkable return to racing in the summer of 2015, by spring this year, he was beginning to have his doubts.
“I was pretty close to stopping,” he explained. “You can only take so much, and not see any progress, and see that you are not anywhere near what your natural ability is. You eventually ask yourself, why I am I doing this? It was deep [lows] and emotional highs, it was a roller coaster for sure.”
Those doubts evaporated on the flanks of a California mountain. The Tour of California is among Stetina’s favorite races, one that he targets each year in the state he now calls home. So if he was going to retire, he wanted to go out swinging for the fences. So he attacked, and almost magically his legs were back. Only the counter-attacking Julian Alaphilippe — who eventually won the overall — denied him the victory.
But for Stetina, in the context of what he had been through, that performance was bigger than any ride he’s ever had.
“That stage to Gibraltar showed I was back, and it really gave me a new lease on my career,” Stetina said. “After that, I was hungry again. I don’t know if it was the power of positive thought, of having that goal all year, but it really saved me.”
Stetina eventually finished 20th overall and then rolled strong through the Tour de Suisse, performances that earned him a berth in the Tour de France. He’s since grown close to team captain Bauke Mollema, and Stetina buried himself for the team as Mollema came tantalizingly close to the Tour podium.
“I made it through the Tour pretty good,” Stetina said. “And I’ve had a good off-season. My leg is nearly 100 percent again, and it’s only getting better. I feel like a bike racer again.”
Going into 2017, being a “normal” bike racer again is music to his ears. Those retirement plans are on hold, at least for two more seasons.