BMC Racing's Peter Stetina is starting to see the end of a long road to recovery after a dramatic crash during the finish of Pais Vasco's first stage on April 6 left him with broken ribs, tibia and patella. His progress report includes the removal of hardware once needed to hold his knee cap together, putting full weight on his injured right leg, and he will soon be strong enough to get back on his bike. All the signs indicate a possible return to racing before the end of the season.
"My goals are always ambitious…," Stetina said in a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday. "I have to set my goals high, so I do plan on racing this year still, maybe extremely soon, basically as soon as I can get some basic fitness.
"I know that I will be basically a shell of myself for the rest of this year but – and the BMC director team and medical team are behind this – we think if I can hop into a few races and help the guys early on, make the gruppetto in a few races, then it will set me up better going into the off season when I can really focus on left- and right-leg imbalances, regain the muscle mass that I've lost, and any lingering joint pain that may arise. I plan on being full strength by next year but I hope that you guys will see me a few times this year."
Stetina crashed during the final 500 metres of stage 1 at the Pais Vasco, when the peloton encountered a group of unprotected and barely marked, four-foot-high steel poles sticking up from the road along the curb.
BMC Racing's team physician Dr. Max Testa confirmed that Stetina’s injuries included four fractured ribs, a minimally displaced lateral tibial plateau fracture on the right leg and a displaced complex fracture of his patella, "which exploded into multiple fragments."
Stetina underwent corrective surgery on his tibia and patella in Spain, where he remained in hospital for one week before travelling back to the US for further treatment.
"Internal fixation for his fractures... so they put some hardware; a plate to correct the tibial plateau fracture and a lot of wires to put together the pieces of the knee cap, and some fragments have been removed," Testa said.
Upon his return to the US, Stetina's recovery process started with aggressive physiotherapy to regain range of motion. His leg was non-weight bearing for the majority of the last 11 weeks, so he focused on cardiovascular activities using his upper body. But he had a breakthrough in his progress this week when surgeons decided on an early removal of the wiring used to hold his patella intact.
"The images that were taken looked promising," Testa said. "Peter is going to take a couple of weeks easy and then we will start to put him back on the bike and we are going to see some further improvement in the next few weeks.”
Stetina could be training on his bike again as early as next week but Testa cautioned that it is still too soon to give an exact date for his return to the peloton. "At this time we don't have a specific date for a return to competition but we are really optimistic about this happening in the next couple of months," Testa said. "That is the goal that we will keep in mind.”
Stetina added that even though his recover is going well, time away from training and racing has tested his patience, and he is looking forward to riding again.
"With such a bad break like this, it is still slow," Stetina said. "It's coming along bit by bit and now I got the metal out of the knee, which makes a world of difference because there was a lot of metal in there. I've been fully weight bearing, weaning myself off the crutches and doing some old-man hikes in the forest and what not."
Stetina's injuries were similar to ones that his teammate Taylor Phinney sustained in a crash at the 2014 USA Cycling Professional Road Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where a race motorcycle stopped on a descent, forcing Phinney into a guard rail.
"He had similar injures, his were worse than mine, but it's the process of getting the joint to move again that is so slow," Stetina said. "I see that now he is finally riding and training full gas again, it looks like, so it helps me to see the light at the end of the tunnel because I'm still in the phase where you just sit on the medical table and they bend your knee as much as you can tolerate, until you're about to black-out from pain, and then they release it and do it again. But he's been there and that helps. It helps that there's a bit of misery-in-company."
Following the incident at Pais Vasco, the UCI set out to investigate the circumstances that led to Stetina's crash, which also injured more than half a dozen other riders. The details of the investigation have not yet been released but Stetina hopes the event's organisers are properly punished for their role in the incident.
"I know the UCI was looking into it and I know that they have either compiled documents or have finished their investigation into the race," Stetina said. "I'm really hopeful they do more than just give the race a little slap on the wrist, which is looking like it could be a possibility."
When asked if he has considered taking legal action, Stetina said, "We are looking at all of our options still. It's a possibility that we will definitely open it up, but it's just that with international and Spanish laws, it's pretty complex…
"I am taking it very seriously, not just for myself but for the entire peloton because this is just so out of the ordinary, just for riders' safety, and I don't want my cause to be brushed under the rug until something else bad happens.
"We are trying to reform the sport in so many ways and rider safety is a hot topic, and I think that my crash can be one of the various examples of it, and so I think it should count for something."
Understandably, Stetina has deferred any potential paperwork surrounding the incident to his SEG Racing agent, Martijn Berkhout, so that he can focus solely on his own recovery. "I just want to get back to where I was as an athlete," Stetina said.
Stetina's contract with BMC Racing is up for renewal at the end of the year. He refrained from answering whether his team has extended a new offer for 2016, only saying that he was appreciative of their support and that team policy prevented him from discussing contractual details.
In light of his injuries, Stetina has kept a positive attitude. Although he will not take part in this year's Tour de France, he will be watching the three weeks of racing on TV from the comfort of his home in the US, especially as his teammate Tejay van Garderen attempts to finish on the overall podium in Paris.
"I plan on watching every day in July," Stetina said. "It will give me some motivation in the morning for going out and dealing with whatever training I have coming up.
"It's a bummer that I can't be there with Tejay and the guys… It'll be fun to watch though. It's not going to be too painful because I'm so far from racing the Tour right now, in my current state, so it's not like I just missed out on a selection. I think I'll be able to watch it with pleasure."