Just as Trek-Segafredo's Peter Stetina is getting used to the atmosphere and racing style of the Vuelta a España, he's very much aware that one of his teammates is heading for the exit door both on the Grand Tour and on his career.
Stetina, who has just turned 30, is racing the 2017 Vuelta as a climbing domestique for Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). As a Vuelta rookie, the first thing that has struck Stetina is the huge degree of support for the Spaniard.
"Alberto's actually really relaxed, he seems very calm with the decision he's made, there's no stress at the dinner table, we're enjoying every day," Stetina said, although – as the deafeningly loud and huge crowd in Benicassim around the Trek-Segafredo bus once again proved – the level of local support can be a shade unnerving at times.
"We have the biggest scrum of people yelling for him every day outside the bus. For these Spanish Alberto fans, it's like Michael Jordan's last game in the US. This is the end of an era for a lot of people. And to shepherd him through the mountains in his final Grand Tour and race, that's big."
After racing the Giro this spring and the Tour de France in other years, the American has now begun to be able to gain a perspective into all three Grand Tours, although he's cautious about drawing definitive conclusions yet.
"I'm enjoying my first Vuelta, although really to compare it to the Giro and Tour I've got to get a few more days into it. The racing at each is the same but the culture is different, the way the organisation is run. The Tour is pretty strict. The Giro is a gran casino, with people grabbing you all the time. The Vuelta seems very Spanish: no real rules and relaxed. There's a lot more people sneaking into the VIPs area and so on. But I enjoy it all. There's a reason why I live in Spain when I'm over here training."
Stetina has recently had a chance to re-experience racing back home in the USA, where he won a stage of the Cascade Classic. He says the process of adaption between the US racing scene and then heading to one of cycling's three Grand Tours is not too tricky, although each are very different experiences.
"Cascade was a week of racing with my best friends and eating dinner at breweries, and remembering what it was like winning bike races too. I don't get many chances of going for a win, I'm in the mountains supporting Alberto and [Bauke] Mollema at the Giro, so it's important as a professional to remember that killer instinct of going for it. Also, I love racing in the US, that's my happy place," Stetina said.
"The [Cascade] organisation is definitely a level below [the Vuelta]. We don't have the big team buses, the infrastructure. But then you remember why you liked cycling in the first place – hanging out with your best friends, drinking beers and racing bikes."
Prior to the Vuelta a España, however, Stetina moved back into full-time work mode. "You have to be physically much more ready for something like the Vuelta. So after Cascade I went straight to my cabin and ate salads and did six hour mountain rides at 2,500 metres above sea level," he said. "I definitively stepped up a level since Cascade and that's needed to handle this. It's a big show, a Grand Tour, so you've got to be ready."
When the Vuelta is over, Stetina will be back in the States. "I have my own event, Stetina's Sierra Prospect, in Lake Tahoe, that I created," he said.
"That's the same weekend as the World Championships, and I'll maybe do Lombardia. But I'm definitely doing [the new WorldTour race in] China. I've never been there, so it'll be something new to see, too."
For now, though, Stetina is already getting in some more new experience at the Vuelta, alongside Contador in his last race to boot, and he won't be the only person benefiting from that. As he said with a grin: "I made sure to get a signed jersey from all my team members on this Grand Tour, and it's going to go to my charity so it should fetch some good money."
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