Peter Stetina looked comfortable, sitting calmly around sixth wheel on the tough 12-kilometer Gibraltar climb that concluded stage three in the Amgen Tour of California Tuesday. When the first serious attack went – by Lachlan Morton (Team Jelly-Belly) – Stetina answered.
The two riders quickly caught the sole leader on the climb, 19-year old Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman) who had opened a surprising 30-second lead, and then Stetina pressed the accelerator and left the pair behind. With two kilometers to go he set his sight on the finish, and under the one kilometer to go banner he still held a significant gap.
They are always looking after me and to have seven hearts on your side helps you push harder when you don't want to.
But the glory of victory was spoiled by Julian Alaphillipe (Etixx-Quick Step), who seemingly came out of nowhere to ruin what would have been a fairy-tale ending for Stetina in his first big goal after a near-career ending injury.
"I earmarked the five kilometers to go mark when it pitched up again," explained Stetina. "I knew that if I want any chance in the overall I can't wait until the final explosion, I had to go to put the time trial specialists in trouble. Lachie (Lachlan Morton) was a rider I had earmarked as someone who needed to be aggressive as well, and I worked with him.
"I knew it really pitched up right at the 2k to go mark after a small downhill and I faked being in trouble so that [Lachlan] pulled the downhill and then I hit it hard. Unfortunately, it was around 700 meters too early because it was a bit of a headwind on the top. I just went too deep in oxygen debt and Alaphilippe had a pretty big kick out of the field. I am glad that I could hang on to second, but I was even starting to think about a victory salute. Now that will have to wait," Stetina smiled.
Alaphilippe quickly caught Stetina and with 500 meters remaining attacked to take the win and the leader's jersey. Stetina held on for second, 10 seconds ahead of George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) in third.
"This is confirmation that I am finally back to my old level," continued Stetina. "I salvaged my career, and making a dream turn into reality is great. I am really happy that I could deliver for the Trek-Segafredo boys, too. The last three stage they have put me in a protective cocoon right at the front and I never had to stress, especially in today's run-in to the climb. They are always looking after me and to have seven hearts on your side helps you push harder when you don't want to."
Honorable mentions on the day go to Julian Arredondo, representing the team in the seven-man breakaway that stayed away until just before the final climb, and Haimar Zubeldia, who climbed with the select group up the summit finish for 12th place (+59") and sits in 10th overall. And, of course, to the rest of the team for safeguarding Stetina for over 150 kilometers.
With a few big stages remaining, including a decisive time trial Friday, the GC fight has just begun, but for Stetina, who today silenced any doubts of returning to the top echelons of cycling, he is enjoying the moment.
"There are a few more tricky stages," pointed out Stetina. "I have been riding my time trial bike more than ever, but the pressure is on BMC with their TT specialists." He paused, then added, "I love this."