Peter Stetina arrived four seconds behind winner Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac) and TJ Eisenhart (Holowesko-Citadel) to claim third place in a brutal stage two at the Colorado Classic Friday.
It was not a long race at just over 100 kilometers, but the 10-kilometer circuit, raced at altitude and with a steep climb each lap, was tackled 10 times, and in the end, it was two Colorado natives - and long-time friends - who left the rest of the peloton behind.
"I know Alex well – he was a groomsman at my wedding," said Stetina. "I was hoping for more today, but the climb did not suit me as well as Alex, he is better at the punchy climbs."
With a two-man breakaway animating the action at the front, followed by a 13-rider chase group that contained teammates Julien Bernard and Kiel Reijnen, Stetina bided his time in the peloton until three laps to go.
"The team executed the plan perfectly today, we wanted to have a couple guys up the road, and then when I caught Kiel he drilled it at the bottom of the climb, then we caught Julien, and he drilled it to the top," Stetina explained.
The three riders quickly ate into the lead of the riders up the road, catching and passing most of the splintered chasing group and finally latching onto two riders with only a solo, but fatiguing, Eisenhart ahead.
I hit at him like four times, but he's better at these punchy climbs.
Starting the final lap with 10 kilometers to go the five chasers were 35 seconds behind Eisenhart, who had been solo for over four laps.
"We worked well together, all of us pulling through until we caught the two riders," said Stetina. "I knew I was the strongest climber, and I knew Alex was the strongest sprinter, and I went all-in to the top of the climb. I hit at him like four times, but he's better at these punchy climbs."
Stetina accelerations on the steepest part of the stair-stepped climb erased three riders from the mix, but he could not shake Howes.
Stetina and Howes caught Eisenhart near the top, and after more attempts to rid his two rivals, Stetina began the fast four-kilometer descent to the line with them.
Howes and Eisenhart quickly opened a small gap to Stetina, whose fight was gone: he had given everything he had on the climb and he waved the white towel to his faster adversaries on the downhill.
"My finish was at the top, and I went all-in until there. I knew even if I came with these guys to the finish I would probably be third, so I went full gas to the top, and that was it," he said, then reiterated: "I had already played my cards, so that was it."
Howes won the sprint, but the 23-year-old Eisenhart took the combative award and the leader's jersey for his valiant effort. Stetina crossed the line four seconds later for third place in the stage and the overall classification.
Stage five is the only non-circuit race of the four-day event, and the one long climb comes early in the 130-kilometer stage, offering more an opportunity for a reduced bunch sprint than a GC battle. Although it should not see much changes in the leaderboard, Stetina knows that Howes, only one second behind Eisenhart, will not go down without a fight.
"I know Alex, and I know Cannondale will try to be aggressive. I will have to keep my head up, but tomorrow is for Kiel," said Stetina. "It is a stage he had marked, and Kiel can win tomorrow; he deserves a chance. The climb is hard, but it's far out from the finish."