On Wednesday, Peter Stetina of Garmin-Sharp celebrated his 25th birthday. His Garmin-Sharp team came up with the perfect birthday present. They won the day’s stage with a smoking fast time trial around the Miller Motorsports Park outside Salt Lake City. Thanks to the team’s victory, Christian Vande Velde took over the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah leader’s jersey.
Of course, Stetina had to earn his birthday present, and it was not an easy day for him. The young American is best known for his climbing talents, and riding a team time trial with the big-engine specialists like seven-time U.S. national champion David Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde, and Tyler Farrar is a challenge. “We went so fast, I could barely contribute,” he said after the stage. “I came off with three kilometers to go, and I was still faster than the second-placed team.”
Garmin-Sharp have become one of the top teams in the world in the specialized discipline of the team time trial. It is not enough to have a team filled with big engines. Producing lots of lightbulbs on the bike is only part of the story of a successful team time trial. “It’s an art form,” said Stetina. “You start by having won, if everything goes perfect.” The strongest team to make the fewest mistakes wins the day.
On Wednesday, that team was Garmin-Sharp. Though the team’s big engines dropped Stetina off the back at three kilometers to go, he remains fourth in the general classification behind his teammates Vande Velde, Danielson, and Zabriskie. With his favorite terrain still to come, it is a nice position for Stetina.
Stetina turned professional in 2009, after riding for the Slipstream development team. Stetina’s first major victory came when he won the junior national road race title in 2005. That year, the race was held on a difficult loop around Park City, Utah. Stetina also won an U23 national title in the time trial and claimed a podium spot in the U23 road race in 2008.
The Garmin-Sharp rider comes from a family rich with cycling history. Both his father Dale and his uncle Wayne raced professionally in the late 1980’s. They traded wins at the Coors Classic stage race, the precursor to the present-day USA Pro Challenge, and both brothers won national championship titles. Dale Stetina shares the record with Greg Lemond for the most victories at the Coors Classic.
For American riders like Stetina, the growing calendar of stage races in the United States is a dream come true. Three major stage races —the Amgen Tour of California, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, and Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge — now draw top level international talent. “It just makes it so much more fun,” said Stetina. Racing in Europe far from family and friends can be isolating. “We have to be solo over there. Over here, you get to enjoy your life more rather than living solely around the bike.”
Stetina now looks forward to the late season double of Utah and Colorado. “Now we’re in the fun part of the season where you’re not in Europe all the time suffering,” he said. Stetina and his American teammates can live at home and follow the more familiar patterns of their home country. “It just makes life more fun and when you’re having fun, the results just come.”
Last year, Stetina came to the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah with hopes of a high general classification finish. An early crash put an end to that idea. Though he recovered in time to do a good ride on the climb to Snowbird, Stetina finished more than ten minutes behind overall winner Levi Leipheimer. His Garmin-Sharp team, meanwhile, put a heavier emphasis on the USA Pro Challenge, because of the team’s deep Colorado roots.
Garmin-Sharp comes to Utah with different ambitions this year after a disappointing run of luck in July. The team’s hopes of chasing the yellow jersey at the Tour de France came to a screeching halt when a massive crash ripped through the field during the first week. Tom Danielson and Ryder Hesjedal, the team’s general classification hopes, were forced to abandon. Vande Velde continued the race, and came achingly close to scoring a stage victory from a breakaway. It was not the Tour that Garmin-Sharp envisioned at the start in Liège, by any means.
Stetina expects his teammates to ride hard for the general classification this week in Utah. “I think we’re treating it differently, this year,” he said. “Tommy D didn’t have the best Tour and he’s motivated. Christian didn’t have the best Tour either, so he’s motivated.” The team time trial victory has put both Danielson and Vande Velde in a good position to win, but they will still have some hard riding to do when the race hits the two climbing stages this weekend.
Riding his third year as a professional, Stetina typically rides as the last support rider in the mountains. At the Giro d’Italia in May, Stetina rode at the front through Italy’s high mountain passes. On Alpe di Pampeago, he hit the climb at the front of the field to set up a decisive move from Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal. Hesjedal went on to win the overall at the Giro. For Stetina, the experience of defending the race lead at the Italian grand tour was a milestone in his career.
“It was career-changing,” he said. “To be on the winning team, we worked so hard for him to do that, to take that home, it was a huge success for all of us. To be part of that, you learn so much, and you have all this experience to dwell on later. It’s huge.”
Stetina’s role at this Tour of Utah depends on his teammates. If Tom Danielson and Christian Vande Velde have good legs for the climbs, Stetina will ride in their support. “It kind of depends on where those guy’s values lie,” he said. But Stetina is also confident in his own strength. “I have actually hit some new highs personally in terms of climbing, so maybe I’ll get my own chance,” he said.
The young American is at a potential turning point in his career. At age 25, he is heading toward his best years as a cyclist. He is clearly happy to ride in support of his teammates, especially if it means winning big races. “I’m always comfortable to fit into the mountain super-domestique role,” he said. “It’s fine.”
He sounds a little like he’s convincing himself, and it’s not hard to see that Stetina itches for a win of his own. Riding for a team like Garmin-Sharp means celebrating successes on some of cycling’s biggest stages. But there is a trade-off for a younger rider like Stetina, who must wait his turn and wait for his legs to catch up with his ambitions. “I’ve never had a break-out season. I have just consistently gotten a little bit more and a little bit more,” he said.
Stetina draws inspiration from Hesjedal’s Giro victory. “He was always good, but nobody ever called him a grand tour contender,” Stetina explained. “He just built up the base year after year after year.” When Hesjedal pulled on the Giro’s pink jersey in Milano, he offered Stetina an example of how a slow, but steady development as a rider could well lead to a big victory in the end.
For now, Stetina will celebrate his team’s time trial victory and his 25th birthday. He will prepare to ride in support of Danielson and Vande Velde when the road turns up. But Stetina will also look for his own opportunity. “I need to win a race,” he said. “It’s really good being the mountain domestique, but it’d be nice to cross the line first. I haven’t given up the dream.”