Be careful what you ask for. That's one of the lessons Trek-Segafredo's Peter Stetina took away from this year as he continued his return from a potential career-threatening injury at the 2015 Tour of the Basque Country, where he collided with poorly marked traffic bollards while riding for BMC and fractured his tibia, kneecap and four ribs.
The now-29-year-old American was out of competition for four months and returned at the Tour of Utah in August of 2015, still walking with a considerable limp and with the help of a cane. He finished the high-altitude race that features a considerable amount of climbing, but then dropped out of the USA Pro Challenge two weeks later in Colorado. He ended his 2015 season in Asia with a 29th-place finish at the Japan Cup, then signed with his new team in the off-season.
"I raced so much this year," he told Cyclingnews last week at the Tour of Alberta before lining up for his final two races of the year at the WorldTour events in Quebec and Montreal.
"I told the team that to come back and get to my old level I needed to race a lot, and they took that to heart," he said. "After Utah I already had 77 race days, so I got more in by August than some guys have in a season. I've been training since I came back last year in August – I didn't take an off-season – so I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel pretty early now."
Stetina concluded his 2016 season with 84 race days, including finishing his fifth Grand Tour at the Tour de France, where he helped support Bauke Mollema's ill-fated podium run and was 46th overall himself. He told Cyclingnews he's happy with what he was able to accomplish this year, especially considering he seriously thought about walking away from the sport this spring.
Stetina suffered through his season opener at the Tour Down Under, then continued to soldier through tough days at the Vuelta a Andalucia, the Volta a Catalunya and a return to the scene of his crash at Pais Vasco. He supported the team through Fleche Wallonne and Leige-Bastogne-Liege, then rode Tour de Romandie, all the while wondering if he would ever find the form that made him a highly sought after WorldTour domestique who could climb at the front of the pack.
He got his answer at the Tour of California, where he finished second to eventual overall winner Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) during the summit finish on Gilbraltar road and climbed to second overall. A disappointing time trial knocked him out of GC contention there and he ended the race in 20th place, but the return of his climbing legs landed him a spot on Trek-Segafredo's Tour de France team and motivated him for the rest of the season.
"If you had told me that I would make the Tour team, have a good performance in Cali, get my old strength back and have my leg be strong, then I would have signed on the dot last year in a hearbeat," he said. "I would have sold my soul to the devil. But then you still realize you have a ways to go.
"I didn't have that big result, that big win, and I suffered through the spring. I considered hanging it up in April-March, just because it wasn't happening. It's satisfying, but I'm also more hungry to get back in the gym in the offseason and actually race in the front and what I knew I was capable of instead of just bashing my head against the wall all spring."
In Alberta, Stetina rode well in support of defending champion Mollema, making it into the initial first-day breakaway that helped establish Mollema as one of the handful of GC contenders remaining. He got another morale boost with a solid time trial on the penultimate day.
"There hasn't been results in terms of numbers, but the power numbers are there and I'm contributing to the team, making the breakaways and I had a good time trial [during Alberta's fourth stage], which was another personal confirmation that I'm on the way, because the California time trial was so bad," he said. "So to be top 20 again was a nice little boost for the morale. I'm just kind of ticking off boxes still."
Perhaps the most important box he ticked off this year was securing a two-year deal with Trek-Segafredo that will take him through 2018.
"It's good," he said. "I salvaged the career and I'm happy here. Trek's a good family to be with and I have a lot of fun. [Trek-Segafredo teammate and fellow American] Kiel Reijnen is one of my best buddies, so yeah, it's good. I basically lost a season of my career just coming back, so next year I hope to be back at full speed all the time."
The team Stetina returns to next year will look considerably different. Longtime Trek rider Fabian Cancellara is set to retire after this season, as is Frank Schleck and 2012 Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal, who came to Trek this season after riding with the Cannondale and Garmin teams for nearly a decade.
Although the team hasn't made an official announcement, Cyclingnews reported in July that Trek-Segafredo signed Alberto Contador for the 2017 season. Other notable additions include Colombian climbing ace Jarlinson Pantano from IAM Cycling and 2015 Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix winner John Degenkolb from Giant-Alpecin.
"It's a transition year, but Trek obviously has shown their commitment to continuing and stepping up to being a bigger player in the WorldTour with GC riders and Degenkolb coming on for the Classics," he said. "So I think the plan is to be able to be a player in every race in the WorldTour and be one of the top teams. I'm happy that I can support the team's goals in the stage races. I'll be pulling in the mountains, and then Cali is always my big goal of the year, and with it stepping up to the WorldTour I need to step it up as well."
For now, however, Stetina is going to take the long-awaited off-season he missed last year and recharge his batteries for a new season that he hopes will put any talk of a continuing comeback behind him.
"I have a few weddings after Quebec and Montreal with some family and relax," he said. "Then I'll get back in the gym."