After 10 days of being bed-ridden in a Spanish hospital, American Peter Stetina is itching to get home and get started on recovering from his dramatic crash on the first stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. On Friday, he will get his wish, getting the dubious honour of flying business class because his broken leg and shattered kneecap prevent him from being able to bend his knee. He is due to arrive in Salt Lake City on Saturday, where he will begin the process of rebuilding his strength and re-starting his career as a professional cyclist.
"I'm finally past the point of the intense pain, and now every day is exponentially better," Stetina told Cyclingnews from his hospital bed in Bilbao, the same town in which his last race day came to a sudden halt when the bunch sprint plowed into two unobstructed waist-high posts in what appears to be an egregious lack of precautions by the race organisers.
"We were 500m to go in the sprint ... and guys had their heads down. A few guys were swerving at the last minute, a few guys clipped them, and I was in the middle of the bunch that plowed into it," Stetina said. "It was one of those crashes where you didn't even have time to realize you're going down. It was just knee-first directly into a metal pole at 60 kilometres per hour."
The resulting injury was strikingly similar to that of his teammate, Taylor Phinney, whose crash at the US Pro road race championships last May left him with a broken tibia and severed patellar tendon, and a massive scar around his knee and down his lower leg. After surgery to repair his kneecap and tibia, Stetina has the same scars.
"Mine looks pretty much the same. I have staples all down the leg. We can be the franken-twins now," he joked.
"I have a plate all along the tibia and I have a bunch of chicken wire and needles holding my kneecap together ... The best news of all is that it's all bone, and there's no tendon damage, which is a big problem. That's what Taylor [Phinney] has been battling so much. Bone can heal. No doctor I've spoken with has said this is career ending. There will be a comeback."
Stetina's crash was also reminiscent of his teammate's, in that Phinney's incident, which was caused by a race official who stopped in the midst of a descent and left him with a year-long recovery, brings up potential legal issues which prevent him from discussing much of the case.
"It's infuriating. The sport is so dangerous already - we shouldn't have obstacles in the middle of a field sprint," was all Stetina would say, leaving the representatives from his and other teams, the UCI and his agent to look into whether the race organisation was negligent. "It could have been so much worse. It's unnecessary in an already inherently dangerous sport when you're going 60kph in glorified underwear."
The incident is just one more reason to justify creating a rider's union, something that Stetina was already involved in as part of the board of directors of the nascent Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists.
"I have recused myself from this incident, but the ANAPRC was created to be a stronger voice for the riders, so we have a seat at the table, and we have a voice and rights as riders instead of just using us up and spitting us out. I hope that in mine and Sergio Pardilla's case that people really learn from this incident, and it's not just forgotten about until something crazy happens again and it's a big news story. People have to learn from this experience. It would make me so happy to use this for good instead of just another story to tell.
"The ANAPRC is not out to start a revolt and change everything. They're trying to work within the system and better the sport with the other governing bodies. We have to bring more accountability and professionalism to the sport. Now that social media has latched on, you see that riders have voices. You hear more of the quotes, but the union is starting to strengthen and there's a backing from the business side, rather than just a bunch of farm boys complaining that this was scary. Hopefully the sport is progressing in a professional manner to be much more like other major leagues sports, like we should be."
Stetina's main goal of the season was the Tour of California, where he was to be given the freedom to go for his own results, before going on to support the team's other leaders like Tejay van Garderen at the Tour de France. Now, he has to look ahead to future editions and hope for another route that suits him as well as this year's.
"Today I was supposed to be doing a recon ride with my uncle Wayne on Mt. Baldy. The course this year, I finally felt like this was my chance to contend for the top spot because of the high altitude TT, which helps me more, and the Mt Baldy climb that has none of these shallow, drafting sections. It's a true climb with steep gradients that can make the race. Everything was geared toward peaking in that second week in May. Everything was on track, Pais Vasco was just the final tune up before some altitude training.
"It's disappointing, but there are other Tours of California, they've used Baldy in the past ... I'm not even 30 yet.. They've said this is by no means career-ending, and I plan on being back."
Until then, Stetina must go through the complicated procedure of getting back to the US with only one good leg, and is fortunate to have the help of his wife and team.
"I will fly from Bilbao to Paris on Friday night, and stay at the hotel in the terminal, so we don't have to worry about rushing to make a change. Saturday morning I will have the long flight from Paris directly to Salt Lake City. My leg can't bend, so we have business class tickets so I can lay flat for all the flights. I'll probably have an ambulance ride from the hospital to the airport. We've arranged for wheelchairs throughout the airport.
"This has all been done amazingly by BMC. This team - I have to say - it's blown me away, the infrastructure they have, they've been working with the insurance ... I haven't had to do anything on my own. They've organized everything, they've changed my flights based on what the doctors come in and tell me. It's been unbelievable the level of support."
Support has also come from fans, friends and family around the globe, including his teammate Phinney.
"Taylor sent me a short note right after the accident, but it was one of the most poignant notes I've read. He knows a lot of what I'm going through. Once I'm stateside I plan on ringing him up and getting a few of his thoughts on how to deal with the mental side of things and the rehab, and what has worked for him and what hasn't. I'm sure he'll be a valuable person to gain some knowledge from."