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CARCASSONNE, France (VN) — Peter Stetina (BMC Racing) reclined on a folding chair outside the team bus, looking surprisingly calm, cool, and collected after what’s been a brutal two weeks of his first Tour de France.
After a hectic, tension-filled opening two weeks of racing, the Colorado native is ready for the final battle that looms in three days across the Pyrénées. With team captain Tejay van Garderen in the pole position for a spot on the final podium in Paris, there is a mix of anticipation and growing confidence around the BMC dinner table each night.
“The first 10 days, it was hard to have fun. It was so stressful with the weather, the wind, the rain, the crashes. I was really glad to get through that. I was trying to stay as safe as possible, and I stayed at the back, and tried to avoid the mayhem,” Stetina told journalists on the Tour’s final rest day. “Knock on wood, I’ve kept all my skin on so far, and I got over a cold that first week as well.”
Despite losing Colombian climber Darwin Atapuma, the remainder of the team has shrugged off some early crashes and battled through chest colds to be ready to go all-in for van Garderen’s push to Paris.
“It’s really good. It’s the same as when the race started. At the start of the race, there was a lot of hope and motivation, and nothing has happened to change that,” Stetina continued. “We’re keeping it light, we’re keeping it fun at the dinner table. There is general smack-talk, nothing really bike-race related. We’re all ready for the task at hand, and we can see the podium actually becoming a possibility.”
Behind the scenes, BMC was walking on eggshells, especially after van Garderen’s fourth crash, on the road to Nancy, just before the start of the Vosges climbing stages. Also dogged by a minor chest infection, no one was quite sure how their team captain would react, but van Garderen stayed at the nose of the action when the roads tipped upward.
Since then, van Garderen’s health has been improving after Dr. Max Testa put him on antibiotics. BMC rides into the Pyrénées on Tuesday for the first of three decisive climbing stages with everything possible.
“I think the podium is a reality. We batted around the idea even before the Tour started, and now that we’re closer to Paris, it is a real possibility,” Stetina said. “But every day something has happened. We’re looking at a podium, but we’re still doing the day-to-day program, because even [Sunday], someone could have lost the Tour because of wind or a stupid crash.”
Stetina kept his head low in the first half of the Tour and picked his way through the opening stages, doing his best to get the feel for racing in the Tour peloton — a different, more marauding beast than anything he’s ever seen.
“This is the big show, and everyone has brought their A game,” Stetina said. “The climbs are not any different, but the field is a lot deeper. On some races, when there might be only 10 guys left, there are 40 guys over a top of a pass. It’s really just a few points of percentage from being dropped and not getting dropped, so you have to do everything right, and even before the climb even starts.”
Things changed dramatically for Stetina when Atapuma crashed out on the road to Nancy. On the same day van Garderen went down, Atapuma, who was expected to be the last man for van Garderen in the deep mountains, was suddenly out of the race.
“Darwin was a key player in the mountains. Darwin and I were supposed to be the last men in the mountains for Tejay, but now that he’s out, I have more responsibility on my shoulders,” Stetina said. “I have to be a lot more consistent, but we also have [Amael] Moinard and [Peter] Velits, and they’ve really stepped up.”
Stetina and his BMC teammates know if van Garderen can roll out of the Pyrénées within striking distance of the French climbers and second-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), the podium could be theirs.
“Everyone is looking at Tejay to pull out a final time trial, but he’s climbing great, and if there’s a chance to take time out on the road, we’ll do it,” he said. “I want to stay with Tejay and keep those French climbers and Valverde in check until stage 20.”
If Stetina and his teammates do their job and deliver van Garderen within striking distance of the podium for the final time trial, the ride into Paris could be the best one since leaving Leeds.