Peter Stetina (Trek Segafredo) toed the start line at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec on Friday in what could be one of the last road races of his professional cycling career. Affected by illness and injuries that have led to sub-par performances, and combined with a turbulent job market where several teams have folded, could force the American to retire earlier than expected.
"I currently don't know," an emotional Stetina told Cyclingnews on Friday just moments ahead of the start of the race in Quebec City. "It's a forced retirement.
"My agents are working on it and I'm trying to stay positive but I'm definitely stressed out about it. There are some potentials but nothing concrete. Things are still in discussions."
Stetina, 31, is reaching the end of his tenth season competing on the highest level of professional bike racing. He started his career as a young talent out of Colorado with Jonathan Vaughters' Slipstream programs TIAA-Cref and then moving up to the WorldTour with its upper-level Garmin squad.
After five seasons, he made the switch to BMC in 2014 where he stayed for two years before side-stepping to the Trek-Segafredo in 2016.
His top results have been ninth at the USA Pro Challenge (2012), fourth at the Tour de Langkawi (2013), sixth at the Tour of California (2014) and fifth at the Colorado Classic (2017). But he has spent much of his career on the WorldTour assisting overall contenders Ryder Hesjedal, Bauke Mollema and Alberto Contador.
Trek-Segafredo announced in July that they hired Richie Porte to be their main overall contender at the Grand Tours in 2019, and they have renewed their agreement with Mollema, a rider that Stetina has supported at the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France during the last two seasons.
Trek-Segafredo's management have not yet, however, offered Stetina a contract renewal. He said that there was a possibility that an agreement could still be reached but as the season approaches the end-of-summer and fall one-day race, the likelihood of securing a contract is slim.
"I like the Trek family and that could still be a possibility but it's getting very late in the season," Stetina said. "The goal was to stay with Trek, but with Richie and Bauke, they need guys who can climb, maybe that will still happen for me there, but it's getting late."
Stetina showed good form at the start of the season with sixth on the Green Mountain summit in stage 5 at the Tour of Oman. He had hoped to carry that form to Europe and have a strong spring campaign but that didn't materialise. Bad weather forced organisers of the Volta a Catalunya to make significant cuts to the mountain stages that would have suited Stetina. He then suffered a sinus infection while racing Pais Vasco and abandoned on the final stage.
He regrouped and hoped to lead Trek-Segafredo to a strong result in the overall classification at the Tour of California, but he only just broke through the top 20, placing 17th behind overall winner and Colombian revelation Egan Bernal (Team Sky).
He suffered a broken collarbone in a training crash in May but showed signs of coming back to good form when he placed eighth overall at the Adriatica Ionica Race in June. But despite the respectable performance, Stetina was not selected to compete with the team at the Tour de France.
In August, he travelled back to the US for the Tour of Utah, a mountain stage race that suited his strengths, but only managed 10th overall, and then went on to place 25th overall at the Colorado Classic.
Stetina said that his lack of top-level performances during the summer months sparked health concerns and after seeking medical advice and going through proper testing, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus.
"I've had the toughest season of my career," Stetina said. "I realised a little bit ago that I had been racing all spring and summer with the Epstein-Barr virus, which was undiagnosed. I spoke with a few people who suggested I get tested for this virus, given my symptoms and that things just didn't seem to be clicking right. It's over now and I'm recovered, but the antibodies were in my system, I couldn't push hard and that's why I was always missing a little bit of strength.
"If you couple Epstein-Barr with a broken collarbone right before the Tour de France, it was a perfect storm of bad luck in a season where a lot of teams are downsizing, four US teams are completely folding, and a hundred riders are out of a contract."
Trek-Segafredo and Team Sky have chosen to reduce their rosters for the 2019 season, while BMC struggled to find a replacement sponsor until management announced that CCC would take over the title sponsorship of the program. Sniper Cycling and Roompot have announced that they will merge to form Roompot-Crelan, but teams Aqua Blue, UnitedHealthcare, Jelly Belly and Silber Pro Cycling have indicated that they will not exist beyond this season.
"I'm 31 and it's a tough pill to swallow," Stetina said. "It's an unfortunate sign of the times; a perfect storm of bad luck during a season when there is a lot of turmoil and I'm on the receiving end of that.
"We've looked at Professional Continental and Continental teams, and it's non-existing right now.
"I'm not passed my prime. I'm honestly a little surprised that I don't have anything. It's a really weird situation. I've pushed and fought back and clawed but it's felt like a slow bleeding out.
"I'm never going to be the guy who is going to grovel around just to keep ticking. I have other passions in life. I have had to come to terms with this decision and if retirement happens a couple of years earlier than planned than that's just the way the cards fall.
"I think every pro wants to leave on their own terms. You don't want to be pushed out before you're ready. We will see what happens. There is still potential with a couple of teams. I'm trying to stay positive but I can only take so many hits."
After the two WorldTour races in Quebec and Montreal, Stetina will head back to Europe to compete in the series of Italian one-day races this fall. There is also a possibility that he could compete for the US national team at the World Championships in Austria at the end of the month.
As Stetina nervously awaits news of a contract from his agents, he is taking nothing for granted, and treating every event like it could be his last in a what could be a career cut short.
"I'm treating these races like my last races," Stetina said. "I'm still motivated, training as hard as I can, even with the set-back of the virus. I'm not going to win here, we have guys who can and I want to be a good teammate for them.
"I've been in the WorldTour for nine years and right now it's looking like I'm not anymore. Retirement might be the case, and I'll know more after these races."