Peter Stetina on “Going Gravel”
Former World Tour pro Peter Stetina discusses his decision to launch a career in gravel racing—and taking the road less traveled in professional cycling.
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“Gravel is more of a style than a surface,” says former WorldTour pro cyclist Peter Stetina. In 2020, Stetina’s career is riding off the known path of the typical professional bicycle racer. “Gravel is where the fun is right now,” says Stetina of the decision to pursue multi-discipline cycling events full time. We spoke with Stetina to get a look at how this dedicated bike racer plans to enjoy the sport—all the time, on and off the racecourse—as he aims to redefine what it means to be a professional cyclist.
Images by JPOV
Peloton Magazine: Tell us about the path that led you to pro in 2010.
Peter Stetina: I grew up in Colorado on the mountain bike—I always kinda loved mountain biking more. Racing on the road was just a natural progression. So I grew up riding a road bike on these dirt roads in the high mountains of Colorado.
PM: What led you back into the dirt?
PS: I can honestly say that the Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride was the turning point. That was when I dipped my toe into the gravel world—and I really fell in love with it there. Winning BWR had such an immediate and large imprint on my career. And then Leadville and Dirty Kanza simply strengthened that idea—it became this thing that I knew I needed to be a part of, in some capacity. At BWR I realized, “I love this. I want to do a lot of this.”
PM: What was the social response after BWR?
PS: The outpouring, the interest, and the social media metrics were staggering. And the amount of fun I had—it was so perfect. [After BWR], that’s really when the light bulb went off and I realized [gravel] could be something on its own. [In 2019] I was still racing road full time—these events were very much “side projects” for me. They were really keeping the stoke, and the fun, alive for me. I was racing the Vuelta and the Tour of Utah right after Leadville, so I was still focused on the road. But as my agent was starting to talk to more road teams for 2020, we insisted that these events had to be a part of my calendar. There was no going back to being a traditional road racer for me.
PM: What was the most persuasive aspect of pursuing this new genre of racing?
PS: The motivation was getting to be me. Gravel presents everything that attracted me to cycling. These races were unimaginably hard, and testing, but afterwards I didn’t have to be shy about hanging out with people—having a beer together—and all the community that is cycling. In many ways, [gravel] represents what many of us fell in love with about cycling in the first place. Seeing how you can really have more of a real life around the bike event and the community of bike racing—beyond just racing and then getting back in the team bus. Selfishly, it’s believing that speed and performance isn’t the only thing that matters. In the World Tour, especially, it’s a very hard job—and I have the utmost respect for all my World Tour colleagues. [Racing on the World Tour] is a very difficult job. It’s freakin’ hard, but it’s also a selfish job. It’s a simple job. You really do just focus on you and going fast. For me, I felt like I got more enjoyment out of the sport and out of myself being a more well-rounded person and being in a more social atmosphere. At the BWR, I realized, “Wait. I can have my cake and eat it, too.” I realized I could be the person I want to be—and still be a bike racer.
PM: So we’re a few months into the 2020 season, a few gravel races have gone down, what has the vibe been like at these events?
PS: I feel the 2020 season really hasn’t “hit” yet. There have been a few Grasshoppers, but they are very much grassroots events—that’s their origin; I think the organizer is happy playing in that realm. The Old Man Winter, in my old hometown of Boulder, was intended to be more of a season opener—but, unfortunately it was snowed-out and canceled. That’s Colorado in February, man. But it was so cool to see the excitement. We woke up to 5 inches of fresh, wet snow and it was accumulating fast. Add to it, there was black ice underneath. And everybody still showed up. And there were all types of bikes—cyclocross and gravel and fat bikes and mountain bikes and franken-bikes, and everyone was out there doing it, sliding around and doing it until the county shut us down. So everyone went and partied in the snow around these campfires in the park—it was a lot of fun. So the events have been a lot of fun even though the season has yet to kick off in a big way… These are events that are more open road, group ride feel, and for me the season really kicks off at Mid South. That said, I’ve been riding my bike a ton. And I’ve been enjoying riding my bike more than ever.
PM: How has your pre-season preparation differed from years past?
PS: Sometimes, instead of just intervals, my job is to adventure now. And, unfortunately, that comes in the gray area of poaching sometimes, but that’s a necessity of the job. It’s also been a lot more work setting this thing up. I’ve been pulling 12-hour days—between the training, the conference calls and computer work. Instead of getting home from a ride and just stretching and focusing on your body and the recovery, it’s coming home to emails and phone calls and juggling all the pieces to the puzzle. It’s been a lot of work. It’s been setting up a new business. But at the same time, it’s your project. It’s your connections. And it’s so much more rewarding. Now, everything has sort of fallen into place so I am able to focus more on the bike.
PM: Do you feel like you’re breaking the mold for the typical pro cyclist’s career path?
PS: I don’t necessarily feel like it’s trendsetting. I think from the typical road racing mindset, it is different. And it’s drawn a lot of interested eyes. I think a bunch of Euro counterparts are seeing how much fun I’m having and they’re definitely curious. But at the same time, this has been done in mountain biking for a while and it’s also been done in triathlon for a while—in the more individual sports. There is somewhat of a template, so it’s been all about finding what my specific angle would be as an athlete and a person and a brand.
PM: How has gravel been conducive to an individualistic approach?
PS: The whole idea is that gravel is inclusive. I hope more riders see this and I hope more people come join the party. There’s more to go around. I don’t want to be one of the only gravel pros. I want more people to come, do this, and foster this movement.
PM: So we’re a few months into the 2020 season, a few gravel races have gone down, what have been the major learning lessons so far?
PS: Well, as far as true competitions, there have really only been two of the Grasshopper events. And, for one, the ‘hoppers have really been blowing my mind. You know, the Grasshoppers are simply our local group rides. They’re our weekend races where you show up with your buddies and shred. And now that they’re getting coverage, and film production from the cycling media, it’s crazy.
PM: Have you seen the cycling culture following gravel more closely?
PS: Absolutely! I was told by one of the bigger online outlets that their coverage of the first Grasshopper received more views than the Tour Down Under coverage—that’s mind boggling. A group ride! And that just shows that road is kind of stagnating—it’s just the same thing, every year. That’s wild to me.
PM: Tell us more about the first two Grasshoppers—what were your key takeaways?
PS: Well, Geoff [Kabush] won the first event at Low Gap, and I won the second at Sweetwater. They were both group ride/race vibe, on open roads, and at the first one I definitely learned that it ain’t over until it’s over. At race one, I had a pretty hefty lead at the top of a mountain and I was like, “Okay, don’t flat—cruise down.” Unfortunately, I had mentally checked out a bit. And [Kabush] was going for it. At the same time, it could have been a different story if there had been a local driver in a pickup truck on that downhill… But it was fun, though. It was definitely few-rules-type racing, just smashing it with buddies, and hanging out afterward.
PM: Anything you changed on your setup between race one and two?
PS: Not really. Thankfully, the first two races simply reinforced the importance to be an individual in this genre of racing. You play to your strengths. After race one, to hear the low tire pressures that Kabush was running—that’s mountain bikers, man. Again, play to your strengths. He played it for the downhill with that setup. For me, I played it for the first half of the race—which was on pavement—to build up a hefty lead. Unfortunately, his strategy paid off at race one. Fortunately at race two, my strategy paid off and I was able to put it together to take the win. That’s the cool thing about gravel: you’re going to run what ya brung. Someone’s going to come out on top, but there are going to be points where we’re all at a disadvantage and there are going to be points when we’re all at an advantage.
PM: You’ve been on a range of bikes this season, training on MTB, road and gravel-specific bikes. How have you been adjusting to the new equipment?
PS: I’ve been really enjoying the Grail—it’s super compliant over the rough stuff. With the slit seat post design, I’ve noticed the difference. The large frame capacity has been great for frame bags and tall water bottles, which is awesome. And it’s super light—almost as light as my road bike. And the Grail bars and cockpit are unique so I’ve discovered a lot of different, inventive hand positions you can do. I’ve found I can drape my arms over the tops to grab and pull on the bottom base bar to get some leverage and stability, like a pseudo aero bar. When I’m in the drops, I’ve learned I can wrap my thumb around the base bar and it can be super stable to create more control when descending—it can increase fatigue to stay in that position, but being able to quickly switch to that position for really technical terrain has been great to utilize its advantages for this type of riding. Initially, the bar seemed like a bit of an optical illusion. I thought it was positioning me much higher, but in its stock configuration I was only a bit higher than my World Tour setup—and with a few spacer swaps I was able to get into a position that worked for me.
PM: What does the arc of your season look like?
PS: The first big part of my season will hit in May with the Belgian Waffle Ride and Dirty Kanza—those are obviously big objectives. Then we’ll hit again in late summer with the BWR in Asheville and the Leadboat challenge of Leadville and Steamboat in Colorado.
PM: Speaking of Leadville, how much time will you spend competing in endurance mountain bike races in between?
PS: Tons of play. Tons of adventure throughout the year. But as far as competitions, I will do the Whiskey 50, Carson City Off-Road and Leadville and possibly a few local events just for fun.
PM: Do you put more emphasis on being prepared for any specific events?
PS: You know, I don’t really have specific goals. [pauses] Well, wait, let me backup. I had a really nice winter. I had a really fun time riding my bike. I have a massive base in me. And the thing is, there are so many cool gravel races. And they’re all so unique. And they all have their own vibe. And I want to do them all. My wife does not want me to do them all [laughs]. Because I won’t ever be home. I just want to get stoked and try to experience all that I can. That said, I want to have a nice fitness base all year—I always want to show up and be competitive. Each race, it’s still a competition—whether it’s against yourself or against others. The point is to push yourself. That’s what I want to do: I want to always be pushing myself to the utmost of my ability. And I want to push myself against the other guys, but then I also want to come together at the end and have a great time, have a beer together, regardless of the outcome. As long as you put the work in, there are going to be days when I win and there are going to be days that I might walk in hours behind the winner. Knowing you showed up right, and prepared, you can be content and happy with the outcome.