Peter Stetina: ‘I am lucky to be alive’

In an exclusive interview, Peter Stetina speaks to VeloNews about his horrific crash, outrage over rider safety, and plans for a comeback

Photo: TDW

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BMC rider speaks out about horrific crash

Peter Stetina (BMC Racing) prides himself on being a safe racer. You never see him taking risks in the sprints or doing anything crazy on the downhills. Probably that’s why he’s never been in the hospital in his 10-year pro racing career. Until now.

On April 6, in the final sprint to the finish line in the opening stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), it didn’t matter how careful Stetina — or anyone else — was in the peloton that day. Just 400 meters from the finish line, on the right side of the finish straight, two metal poles, about one meter high, remained in the roadway. In images that later went viral on the Internet, the only safety measure to highlight the danger were small, orange traffic cones sitting on top of the poles.

Stetina, 27, was riding safely in the middle of a reduced lead group of about 60 riders. It wasn’t his type of finale, so he was tucked in, content to ride in with the lead group. Without warning or even time to react, he struck the first metal pole at full speed. He estimates his speed was about 60kph (37mph). His right leg took the full impact with the pole, and he catapulted over his bike, breaking three ribs as he crashed onto the pavement. Stunned, he immediately felt the searing pain in his leg. He tried to get up, as bike racers always do, but he couldn’t. The next morning, outraged cyclists protested in a pre-stage strike.

Nearly two weeks later, Stetina remains in a Spanish hospital. He’s undergone surgery to repair a broken tibia and patella. Gone in an instant are his primary season goals of the Amgen Tour of California podium and a return to the Tour de France. Instead, he’s facing months of rehabilitation and painful recovery. With luck, he’s hoping to be on a flight back to the United States in the coming days.

Stetina took a call from VeloNews to recount the crash, the extent of his injuries, and his reflections on how two metal poles were left unattended and unmarked at a WorldTour-level race. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: Peter, thanks for taking our call. First, can you update everyone on where you are and how you are doing?
Peter Stetina: I am still in Spain. I am still in the hospital. I’ve been here since my crash last Monday. It was a pretty bad break and pretty heavy duty surgery. The doctors, they’ve been pleasant, and every day it’s been a bit better. The doctors are surprised at the recovery rate of an elite athlete, but it was a big one. I’ve been bed-ridden for 10 days in a hospital in Bilbao. After the crash, they whisked me through, the whole flashing, searing pain, and trying to deal with everything. The hospital has been really good. They’ve been keeping me on pain medication. The crash happened last Monday, and by Thursday, I was stable enough to undergo surgery. Since then, the pain has started to subside. It’s been the worst week of my life.

VN: Any idea when you might be able to return to the United States?
PS: The problem is trying to fly internationally. I’ve got to be a bit more patient. The plan is to go Friday to Charles De Gaulle in Paris. It’s a short flight, and they have a Sheraton inside the terminal, so I can have a layover to sleep without having to move around, then Saturday, a long flight from Paris to Park City, Utah, where I meet up with Max Testa and Erik Heiden [Park City Medical Center], and begin my rehab.

VN: Do you have anyone with you at the hospital, anyone from the team, family or friends?
PS: My wife is here now. This [BMC] has got to be the best team in the world, with the insurance they have, the doctors they have. They’ve been dealing with insurance, with ambulances, flights, all the hospital details. Dyanna, my wife, flew out. The good thing about the Basque Country race is that there were no hotel transfers, so the team was just 10km from hospital, so someone from the team was always coming by to visit.

VN: So how did the surgery go, and what are the prospects of recovery?
PS: It was a very big, invasive surgery. One minor ligament was torn, and that needed reattachment. I have a plate in my tibia, and my kneecap was reconstructed. The kneecap was shattered. The good thing, if there is a good thing in all of this, is that it was all bones. There was no tendon damage. Bones heal faster, and they’re more durable. No one is saying this means a career-ending injury.

VN: That’s good news. Looking back at the accident, what do you remember of the crash?
PS: We came over a climb, and there were about 60 guys in a select group. I was in the middle of the group, 30th or 40th wheel. We rounded a bend with about 400 meters to go, and a lot times in sprints, the peloton will serpentine from side to side. Then there were green metal parking poles, poles placed so that people cannot park in front of garbage containers. They’re about one meter high. Sometimes they can be removed or lowered into the ground, but no one had done anything. I don’t know what’s going to happen legally. There is a lot of outrage about this incident. Someone put an orange cone on the tip of the pole. There was no protection, nothing. Obstacles in the middle of a field sprint with 400 meters to go? A few guys got around it. At 60kph, I didn’t have time to even react. I looked up, and plowed knee-first right into the metal pole at 60kph. Some guy clipped one in front of me. We couldn’t believe it. Even if they had had padding or hay bales, or a moto-referee waving flags, or even had cars parked on the side of the road. Two poles in the middle of the road. There was open road before them, and open road after them.

VN: What happened immediately after impact? Did you remain conscious?
PS: I was fully conscious the whole time. I slammed into the pole, and maybe I hit the other pole, because I also broke three ribs. I was on the ground, and I tried to get up. There’s so much adrenaline after a crash, I could move my arms and upper body, but my leg wouldn’t move. My team director was there, and he was holding me down, holding my head, telling me not to move. It was just searing pain. The tibia fractured, and my knee cap was shattered. It was instantaneous pain.

VN: Have you ever experienced anything like this before?
PS: Nothing like this has happened during my career, no. This just shouldn’t happen in a bike race. This was blunt-force trauma. I am known as one of the more cautious riders in the bunch. I am not taking risks, and I don’t crash at all. By far, this is the worst injury of my career. I’ve never even been in the hospital before.

VN: Have you had any contact with the race organizers or anyone from Spain?
PS: I cannot talk about that right now. I am just trying to get out of the hospital, and get my recovery going. Those are issues for agents, team managers, the UCI, officials; I just want to start my recovery.

VN: What happens once you return to the U.S.?
PS: Once I am out of the hospital, and back in Utah, we can make further evaluation, and make a comeback plan. I plan on racing again, hopefully by the end of this season. We will see. Nobody has said this is a career-ending injury. This is a comeback.

VN: What are your emotions considering that California and the Tour de France were on your radar this season?
PS: California was my big goal. The team was giving me 100 percent support for it. I was so excited about the race. In fact, today I was supposed to be doing recon of the Mount Baldy stage. The way the course lended itself to a high-altitude time trial and a true climber’s finale, I really felt this was my year to challenge for the overall. Everything we did so far this season was working to peak for California. There will be more Californias, more Colorados. I am not yet 30.

VN: So right now you’re hoping to be able to race by the end of the year, but it’s too early to say when?
PS: I’ve got to get to Utah, and we can start rehabbing. Start with bending the knee, then starting to train, but initially, it will be six- to eight-weeks of no weight-bearing on the leg. But every day it changes. Things are almost fluctuating by the hour. The rehab plan will be more definitive once I can meet with doctors in Utah.

VN: Were you aware of the public outrage via social media about how fans reacted to the crash and the fact the poles were left in the roadway?
PS: It was pure outrage. Even the nurses in the hospital were saying something like that should never happen. There’s been a lot of movement in terms of a riders’ union becoming stronger, with things like extreme weather protocol and rider safety. If we’re bumping bars in little more than glorified underwear, we don’t need things that risk human safety. Sport is not supposed to be dangerous. It’s about entertainment, about who’s the strongest. Protocols need to be taken more seriously. I think things are moving in the right way, but I hope what happened to me, and others, is not just thrown out the window. I hope people learn from this, and use it as an example, and make serious changes.

VN: Is there anything you would like to say to fans?
PS: It’s been unbelievable how many people have reached out, and the outpouring of support from thousands of people. Och [BMC general manager Jim Ochowicz] made a surprise trip to visit. We have been so appreciative of everyone’s thoughts and messages. We have read every message, be it from Facebook, Twitter, emails, it’s been incredible. I am lucky to be alive. Something like this could have been a lot worse. Bones heal. I still love cycling too much to give it up.

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