There's no place like home, and for Peter Stetina, home is at the Tour of California. After skipping last year's race in favour of expanding his Grand Tour horizons to include a double at the Giro d'Italia and later at the Vuelta a España, the American is back on more familiar ground, stateside, as he prepares to lead Trek-Segafredo to a top overall place at the seven-day race.
"California is my home race, one of few US races for me to compete in, and it was tough to miss it last year, but it was fun to try something different," Stetina told Cyclingnews. "This year, I'm back on track with California, which is a big target for me, ahead of Tour de Suisse, Tour de France and then back to the US for Colorado."
Stetina owns a cabin in South Lake Tahoe, a city that hosts the finish of stage 6 at this year's Tour of California. During downtime throughout the season, he spends time in the fresh mountain air and quiet surroundings around Lake Tahoe. After racing most of the spring months overseas, he arrived home two weeks ago, with his family, for a specific altitude training camp ahead of the Tour of California.
"We've been living high, training big and having fun together," said Stetina, who invited teammate Kiel Reijnen for training, along with Reijnen's wife and new baby. Reijnen also has big plans to target stages and sprints in the California race.
"It's better being here in a cabin than doing the Euro-style altitude training camps where we just go sit off in a hotel… More hotel time. This is why I live in Tahoe because it's home."
Bad luck, bad weather and illness
Stetina started his season in Argentina at the Vuelta a San Juan. He then travelled to the Middle East to compete at the Tour of Oman, where he showed signs of good form after an aggressive attack on Al Jabal Street in stage 4 and then finished sixth on the Green Mountain summit in stage 5. "There were good moves out of that race, and everything was going in the right direction; I was aggressive and in good form," Stetina said.
He had hoped to keep the ball rolling in Europe, but bad weather, mechanicals and illness struck. At the Volta a Catalunya, snow conditions and risk of avalanche forced organisers to cancel stage 3's summit finish of Vallter 2000 and then alter stage 6 to remove two of the three categorised climbs, which were sections of the race that suited Stetina's climbing strengths. He then suffered a sinus infection while racing Pais Vasco and abandoned on the final stage.
"I had a poor spring, and I was pretty disappointed in it," Stetina said. "I had a lot of bad luck and I couldn't seem to get my feet under me. It was hard racing, but in the end, I had nothing to write home about. Basque Country is one of the hardest races on the calendar, and if you're not 100 per cent, it puts you under the bus.
"I really struggled this spring with bad luck, sickness and not entirely being there, and that was frustrating. It was hard to leave Europe this spring with no good emotions, to be honest.
"I think I got all my bad karma points out of the way, and hopefully things are trending up now."
Back in California, and healthy, Stetina is confident that he can have a good performance for Trek-Segafredo, where he will be the designated team leader in the hunt for a top place in the overall classification. He will then shift into a support role for Bauke Mollema ahead of the Tour de France.
"It's a big, important race for my team, and they've given me the opportunity to fly the flag here," Stetina said. "I'm happy in that role on the team; where I can have my own opportunities in some stage races in the US, like at California and Colorado, but in other big races, I can play a support role and do a nice job for guys like Bauke Mollema.
"That keeps my job fresh, and I enjoy playing different roles throughout the season. Having both personal ambitions and team ambitions is a great way to keep things fresh and in the right blend for my career.
"I'll target the GC in California, and we have some promising young climbers coming, too, and Kiel will be our card for the sprints – he has a big star on this race as well."
Tour of California – The key stages
Stetina provided an overview of what he believes are the key stages for anyone looking for a top GC result at the Tour of California.
He highlighted stage 2's summit finish on Gibraltar Road as the first place for overall contenders to separate themselves from the rest of the peloton. The 157km stage starts in Ventura and finishes in Santa Barbara County on Gibraltar Road.
"Gibraltar is the hardest climb of the race, and it's a mountaintop finish, so it's ultra-important. It's where the climbers, like me, need to take as much time as they can. It's also flat until then, and you can hide and sit in all day and then have an explosive final on the last climb."
Stetina is familiar with the Gibraltar Road ascent after placing second on the stage in 2016. He attacked the steeper slopes but was overtaken by Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) with roughly 200 metres to the finish line.
"It's great to know the climb since we've already raced on it," Stetina said. "It's the defining climb of the race: iconic, packed with fans and it's beautiful and photogenic.
"Anyone who wants a shot at the overall needs to be there, ready to play, and it's early in the race. Gibraltar is a major target for me, again, and I hope that I can go one better than the last time around."
This year's race includes a 34.7km time trial in San Jose on stage 4, and Stetina believes this will be the most decisive stage because of its length.
"This year's time trial is a complete package: long, uphill with a technical downhill, and flat highway sections, so it has everything. As always in this race, the overall classification is time trial heavy, so I've been riding my time trial bike a lot."
If the summit finish on Gibraltar Road is expected to set the tone for the GC contenders, then the queen stage 6 will likely decide the overall winner. The penultimate stage from Folsom to South Lake Tahoe boasts 13,000 feet of climbing, six KOMs that include a climb over Kingsbury Grade, and a final uphill finish to Heavenly Mountain Resort.
"It's a brute. It's the queen stage, in my mind," Stetina said. "I know all those roads, and I train on Kingsbury all the time. The fact that it comes after so much climbing already, and it is so hard, and at such a high elevation, means that it's going to be a stage of attrition.
"It's also the last point for anyone who has unfinished business with the race to make amends."