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Stetina on devastating crash: ‘My life now is entirely different’

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — A second can last forever. Peter Stetina is still living the consequences of his disastrous crash at last year’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country).

In an instant, Stetina slammed at 60 kph into a metal pole inexplicably left in the finishing stretch of the first stage, leaving him with a broken leg and a thrashed kneecap, throwing his cycling future into doubt. There were no warning signs, no hay bales, just a small plastic orange cone perched on top. As Stetina prepares to start the Santos Tour Down Under on Tuesday, he only shakes his head in frustration about that life-changing instant nine months ago.

“It’s still just so disappointing,” Stetina, who rode for BMC Racing last year and is now a member of Trek – Segafredo, told VeloNews. “I’ve had to spend so much time of my life on something that took one second of total time, and the consequences were huge. My life now is entirely different, and this is going to be an issue for the rest of my life.”

Now four surgeries later, Stetina’s long recovery enters a new chapter this week in Australia as he starts his first WorldTour race since his crash last April. Injuries from the Basque Country incident will haunt him for the rest of his life. He still cannot fully bend his knee. Every ride requires special recovery. Pain has taken on a whole new meaning.

Here is an interview with Stetina as he describes the consequences of his crash:

VeloNews: How do you reflect on your crash all these months later?
Peter Stetina: It’s still something that wasn’t OK. Racing is dangerous enough, when you’re rider against rider, but to have something like that, on the finishing straight, and it is full speed ahead, where there are normally barriers. It is still inexcusable. Every rider’s life was in danger that day. I’ve spoken to multiple riders on different teams who said they missed that pole by 5cm. My teammate said the same thing. And when they heard it behind, they knew it was bad.

VN: How is your recovery and ability to race?
PS: Really good. I am not 100 percent. The cycling part is really coming along. The power numbers are really good for off-season numbers. They are some of the best off-season I’ve ever had. After my crash, I wasn’t even walking for three months, so you lose all the muscle mass and basic movement. I rode for about two weeks, just to a coffee shop and back. Then I could start to train, and ride for three hours. I raced the Tour of Utah with three weeks’ training, and I still needed a crutch to walk around.

VN: How important was it to you to return to racing last season?
PS: That was important just getting back into things, for my head, and to show teams that I could still race. Utah was a little bit early, but the bone was solid and it was the best-case scenario because it was an altitude race, and I could rely upon that genetic lung capacity instead of that power that I would need to sprint. I did Utah and Colorado, and then I went back for surgery to take all the metal out. I still had all the metal inside at that point, in case of a crash.

VN: How much metal did you have removed during the surgeries?
PS: It was one really long screw and 14 pins at the time of the race at Utah. They had taken all the other stuff out of my knee before that. The doctors in the U.S. said they had never seen that much metal inside of a leg. It’s full-on threaded screws, with washer and everything. It was so much freer in there once they took out the stuff around my knee. You don’t realize how specialized walking is, just a millimeter this way or that, and it changes everything. It freed up after that surgery, then I went back to race in Japan. Just to do a little bit more of racing helped. Then I just kept training after Japan. After I had all the metal out, I hired a buddy who is an artist, he made a sculpture for me. Now I have some good scars, but at least I have my leg.

VN: In the aftermath of the crash, did you ever hear from the race organizers?
PS: I never received a call, never had an e-mail. I was there for 11 days in the hospital [in Bilbao], never had a visit. I saw that they still haven’t spoken to Sergio Pardilla, either [another rider involved in the crash]. That’s disappointing. I don’t how much of a legal thing it would be if they reached out to say, are you OK? We’ll see how that all plays out.

VN: Did you ever hear from the UCI?
PS: No. They did an investigation. I haven’t seen the final documents, but last I heard, it was a slap on the wrist, not a real sanction. It was, “that was wrong, don’t do that again.”

VN: While you were in the hospital, who was there with you?
PS: The team was still racing, so the team doctor would come around to see me. My wife arrived the day after my surgery, and that was the soonest she could arrive, and she stayed in a nearby hotel. I was just sitting in bed on morphine. Your marriage reaches a new level when you go through something like that.

VN: How did the Spanish doctors treat you?
PS: I was working with [team doctor] Eric Heiden back in the U.S. He needed to see the X-rays because he was getting very little information from Spain. I had to translate everything when I was on morphine. I wasn’t quite sure what they were doing to me, and I was trying to figure out the medical lingo in Spanish. They were just doing things to me, and I was asking questions. They were kind of surprised that I was asking so many questions. I’ve had four surgeries in total. The first surgery was in Spain, and was about four hours to put all the metal in.

VN: So after 11 days in a Spanish hospital, how did you manage to return to the United States?
PS: It was a nightmare trying to get out of Europe. It took us four days to get from Bilbao back to the U.S. I had to stabilize my condition before I could fly, and I finally got discharged and was cleared to fly. I was in crutches and a wheelchair, and my wife had four suitcases trying to get me to the airport. The flight was from Bilbao, to Paris, then to Salt Lake City direct. I was in first-class so I could stretch out my leg, and I had clearance from the doctors that I could fly, but when we got to the airport, they said I could not get on the plane. It was on a regional carrier, and their only business seat was on an emergency row, and they wouldn’t let me fly with my leg like that in that row. I said I would buy the entire row and sit sideways, but they said I could not do that, either. They were almost considering ripping out a seat to give me room, then they looked at the manual and it said they couldn’t do it. So we ended up renting a car, and we drive five hours until the middle of the night into Bordeaux. The next morning, we caught a TGV train to Paris, and we almost missed it because they told us the wrong way to go with the wheelchair. We barely got on the TGV, and then we had to change to Charles de Gaulle airport, and finally I got on the plane. Then my blood thinners were starting to wear off, so I had to inject myself in the plane as we were taking off to fly to Utah. So it took four days from discharge to Salt Lake City. After seeing doctors, I flew home to California, and really started rehab there. The team connected with a doctor and physical therapist. It was a nightmare.

VN: So how did the rehab go?
PS: As my swelling started to go down, the Spaniards had left some of the staples too long in my knee, so they started to come out of the skin. Every time I would bend my knee in rehab, there would be this pin starting to push out of my kneecap, and it was really painful. I went in for a quick surgery to trim that pin down and sew it back up so I could continue with my rehab. After three months, they opened me up again, to take all the metal out of my knee. They closed that back up, and I started to ride. I was able to get just enough flexibility in the knee so that I could train and race Utah. After Colorado, they took out the rest of the metal, the bone was solid, and then I’ve been in the weight room since.

VN: Did you ever think your career might be over?
PS: I am sure 20 years ago my career would have been over. Medicine is so different now. I’ve been told that I can finish my professional career, that it will hold up, but I am going to need a knee replacement at some point of my life because there is so much damage in there. As far as cycling is concerned, my power numbers are great. They’re where they should be, and I am excited to race the Tour Down Under. I am talking more about full recovery, in terms of playing soccer with my kids some day or being able to run a 5K some day. I still can’t get my heel to my butt. In cycling, you don’t bend your knee that much, but other things will be a challenge. I don’t know if skiing is ever going to happen.

VN: So how is your racing schedule lining up?
PS: I have decent form because I didn’t take an off-season. After the Tour Down Under, I will have a big focus on Tour of California and try to lead the team there. And then I am going to try to build up for the Tour de France and help Bauke [Mollema]. I believe he can get top-5. And as an American, I’d love to go to [the] Rio [Olympics]. It’s a climber’s course, I am 29, and Tokyo [2020] is going to be flat. This is my shot. That’s the basis of the season.

VN: Was there ever a moment when you thought you might not be able to race again?
PS: I thought a lot about what I want to do next in my life. I do realize that I want to keep racing. I don’t want to give up. There are things that I do want to accomplish. If anything, it kicks your ass into gear even more.

VN: How has this experience changed you?
PS: I was never a very patient person, now I can just wait for everyone. You’ve got to wait for the bone to heal. There’s nothing you can do in therapy to speed up that process. I have a new pain tolerance. Breaking down scar tissue, I can tell you, is way more painful than suffering on a climb. I had four months of no riding, and that was pain-tolerance training. That became my training, pain-tolerance training. I hope I can use that to my advantage in the races.

VN: How important is it for you to return to racing?
PS: I am really happy to be back. When I first raced at Utah, you just miss the speed. It’s like a drug; to go fast again with the group. It really is good to be here, and this team is so inviting. I am looking forward to a new set of eyes. I feel reinvigorated, and I hope I can prove something this year. I was almost becoming a bit jaded and complacent, at being a good climbing domestique for the rest of my career. And I’ve realized that I cannot do that for the rest of my career.

VN: How did the deal to move to Trek-Segafredo come together?
PS: They had always been interested. When the crash happened, a lot of teams backed off. Most people thought my career was done. My agent always kept the teams informed, and I kept surpassing expectations. Trek said if you’re going to race Utah, we believe you can come back with enough time. I surprised everyone that I could finish, and they got serious real fast. BMC wasn’t ready to be concrete. I certainly wasn’t in a bargaining position, and riders are like a stock market — my price was pretty low. I was a big unknown at that point. BMC wasn’t ready to commit, but I knew I couldn’t wait until September or October to sign. So this deal was done by the time Colorado was wrapping up.