Pete Stetina / Gravel privateer

I’m a racer for hire. Kind of a lone wolf mentality.

Sandwiched between racing Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Tour of California, Pete Stetina lined up at the 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride in the colours of his World Tour team Trek-Segafredo. A 133-mile gravel race out of San Marcos, California, his first place finish set in motion a seismic shift in the way he now rides a race bike; Pete swapping team buses for van life as he balances the demands of training with negotiating sponsor deals and maintaining his social media presence.

Engagingly honest and self-aware, Pete sat down to take a deep dive into the reasons he races and the reality of life as a gravel privateer—a candid conversation that freewheels from flights of beer to family time on the couch.


cyclespeak
It’s eight in the morning for you. Have you already got a ride in?

Pete
God, no! My wife works a normal 8 – 5 so we’re up at 6:30am getting the coffee going and walking the dogs. The usual morning routine. And then come 10:00am, if the weather is good I might head out. Old pro habits die hard [laughs].

cyclespeak
You’re out on the West Coast?

Pete
That’s right. Northern California; about one hour north of San Francisco.

cyclespeak
Quite a kind climate?

Pete
It’s Mediterranean. Where all the Napa Valley wine comes from. So it’s vineyard riding and steep coastal hills. You get a lot of rain in the winter and a big temperature swing but you can ride 350 days a year.

cyclespeak
On your Instagram bio you describe yourself as a bike privateer—a term I really enjoy as it sounds kind of outside the law, almost swashbuckling. What does it mean to you?

Pete
It can be a little bit of that. I suppose it denotes a way of riding outside the traditional format. A little bit mercenary, I guess. I’m a racer for hire that contracts out to different companies. I’m not beholden to a set template so I can do what I want and make ends meet that way. Kind of a lone wolf mentality.

cyclespeak
A new concept when applied to bike racing?

Pete
It’s always existed – especially in mountain biking – although no one particularly used the term privateer. But then I did this film project during the 2020 lockdown called ‘Let’s Privateer’ that talked about following your heart. And it’s funny, once I started to promote this attitude, how it kinda grew to be an industry-wide term [laughs].

cyclespeak
And how does the term apply to you?

Pete
I’m a team of one. I’m doing my own contracts, my own deals, my own logistics.

cyclespeak
That’s an interesting point you make – you being a team of one – especially considering you enjoyed a 10-year career as a World Tour professional with eight Grand Tours along the way. Is there anything you miss from that time?

Pete
The camaraderie you get with your teammates in a Grand Tour—you feel like you’re going into battle together and long-standing friendships can be built on those shared experiences. And I do miss the simplicity of World Tour life. And when I say simple, I don’t mean that in a negative way. But your job is your body and you just have to be fit and pedal—everything else is taken care of. So whilst it’s very hard physically – the suffering, the diet, the monk lifestyle – it is simple.

cyclespeak
I get the impression that what you do now is anything but?

Pete
It’s so vast [laughs]. I was recently having to do some documents that involved entering my weekly hours and it’s not unusual for me to do a 70-hour week. So I’m doing pro hours training for these ultra-distance events but then everything else on the back end. Emails, social media and all my sponsor obligations. But like they say—it doesn’t always feel like work if you love it.

cyclespeak
Did the World Tour feel like work?

Pete
Towards the end, I did begin to feel a little disillusioned with some of the politics. Constantly having to deal with team managers who act friendly but, come contract time, try and undercut you to get a better price with your agent. So the whole business side of things did begin to grate on me. I don’t mean anything negative about that system but I’m more effective doing it my own way and definitely feel in a better place.

Image: Jake Orness

cyclespeak
Does that translate into performance gains?

Pete
During my best climbing days I was doing top ten finishes on mountain stages but I was never going to win a Grand Tour. And just because someone has a bigger engine doesn’t at all mean they will succeed at gravel at the moment. There are so many other factors that influence whether you’re successful. With this whole privateer model and how it fits in with gravel and its anti-establishment roots, you have to be entrepreneurial.

cyclespeak
You made gravel racing headlines with your BWR [Belgian Waffle Ride] win in 2019. A pretty awesome achievement and I was wondering how it felt to cross the line in first place?

Pete
I honestly didn’t realise how big it would be. I was still racing professionally with Trek-Segafredo and had it in my contract to do three of these alternative races. BWR was the first one and, living as I do in California, it was this super big gravel race. The week before, I’d raced Liège–Bastogne–Liège and was flying back to the US for the Tour of California. My team director wasn’t at all happy that I was returning a week early for some gravel race. And I remember he dropped me off at the airport in Belgium, looked at me and said, ‘You better win’ before shutting the car door and driving off. And I was like, ‘What the hell?’ [laughs].

cyclespeak
But you did win.

Pete
Crossing the line in first place, I guess it was a feeling of relief in that regard.

cyclespeak
And, in a sense, life changing?

Pete
It was an amazing day on the bike and I loved every minute of it. But I never expected it to be this catalyst for changing my career. And then afterwards, the attention it got was like this lightbulb moment when I finally realised that something had shifted. A feeling confirmed a week later as I’m going up a climb in the Tour of California – swinging off after helping Richie Porte – and people are yelling, ‘There’s the Belgian Waffle winner!’

cyclespeak
That’s so cool.

Pete
It helped me to understand that people care and that got the gears turning. And then my second place at the 2019 Dirty Kanza – or Unbound as it’s now known – just acted as confirmation. But it was the BWR repeat in 2021 that was a much more emotional moment.

cyclespeak
Was there a lot more pressure lining up as the previous edition’s winner?

Pete
A lot. Mostly internal but there was public pressure too. I was the guy who’d jumped away from the World Tour and staked his career on gravel racing. But then 2020 didn’t happen with all the races being cancelled, so 2021 was my first, full gravel season. And the reality is that I’d sold all my sponsors on my ability to perform and win some of these races—that BWR 2019 wasn’t a fluke and just down to World Tour watts.

cyclespeak
A lot of mental baggage to carry?

Pete
I’d put all this debilitating pressure on myself to do well at BWR 2021 – especially seeing as Canyon was the headline sponsor – and then the race went so poorly with stupid issues that I thought I was out of it five times or more.

cyclespeak
Is that just the nature of gravel racing? The unpredictability?

Pete
I kind of view a race as a test. If I prepare and do everything just right, then I ace the test which translates to me winning. A very analytical approach that I get pleasure out of. So once again crossing the line in first place, I’m not a very emotional bike racer but it felt like this huge weight that I’d been carrying since 2019 had been suddenly lifted. A sense of brief euphoria that I’d made good on what I’d sold to my sponsors. A very emotional win and something that still gives me a lot of pleasure to look back on.

cyclespeak
Hypothetically, would you swap your BWR wins for a stage victory in the Tour?

Pete
I don’t know if I can answer that. Maybe but…

cyclespeak
I realise they’re very different.

Pete
A stage win in the Tour—the one bike race everyone follows [laughs].

cyclespeak
It’s what many professional cyclists spend a career seeking?

Pete
But those stages happen 21 times a year, every year. So it’s huge for a day but in terms of your job as a bike racer, I’m not absolutely certain it moves the needle that much. Whereas, being the early gravel adopter and then going on to win the BWR twice—that’s been more of a career defining moment.

Image: Linda Guerrette

cyclespeak
You come across in the Wahoo films as a chilled, relaxed kind of chap.

Pete
It’s all a charade [laughs].

cyclespeak
No. Really [laughs]?

Pete
I think the relaxed figure that you see is my natural persona when hanging out. And I think, right now, I’m able to be more comfortable in my own skin. The perception of me was very different as a World Tour roady—because that’s what was needed of me to get the most out of myself. I had close friends in my professional racing days and people that probably didn’t like me that much. I wasn’t mean but very, very focused.

cyclespeak
And now?

Pete
I sometimes wonder if people think it’s a big act but it’s not. I feel I can let my hair down and be my own, organic self. But saying that, it’s also hard to switch off too. You think about the demands of social media and the need to have an online presence with the positives but also the negatives. And that’s something myself and my colleagues living this hybrid lifestyle do struggle with.

cyclespeak
You recently posted a reference to another struggle. This year’s race calendar.

Pete
The gravel race calendar is a headache in itself [laughs]. It’s a good headache because I’m very much a supporter of an unsanctioned gravel world. It doesn’t need a heavy-handed UCI influence—it’s healthy enough on its own.

cyclespeak
I’m sensing a ‘but’…

Pete
But the flip side to that is race organisers just checking their permits and choosing their dates. I’ll get texts about a new event in Utah and they’ve decided on the same day as the biggest existing gravel race in Utah. And I’m like, go a week before or a week after. Don’t fight over the same race entry. Just think [laughs]!

cyclespeak
So how did you go about building your own race calendar?

Pete
It involved a whole bunch of research on small grassroots events that would be fun in a storytelling kind of way. But also the big ones that demand your attention. And then this massive jigsaw has to come together to make sure I can physically get to the races. Because, as a privateer, that’s on you. And if you do miss the registration? Then you have to beg, borrow and steal to get that spot.

cyclespeak
You mentioned the UCI. As an ex-World Tour racer, what’s your take on their interest in gravel racing?

Pete
I don’t see how they’re going to help. I’m pessimistic and see it as a money grab. On the one hand you have this rapidly growing segment of the sport that’s unregulated and free of handcuffs. And the UCI see how they’ve missed the boat and want to come in because it’s lucrative.

cyclespeak
Is it a question of the UCI imposing their own vision?

Pete
You take mountain bike racing as an example. There’s a healthy scene in Europe but gone are the days of big, long loops. It’s a spectator sport on a short circuit with grandstands and concessions. But at the same time, we need to welcome inclusivity and recognise that Europe is very gravel-curious from a racing perspective. And it’s all about community so who am I to say what anyone can or can’t do? I’m not the gatekeeper and if the UCI creates events that people want to race, then good for them. You vote with your registration.

cyclespeak
When you’re not travelling to events and racing, do you train or just ride your bike?

Pete
Both [laughs]. This might be a relatively new race discipline but people are training as hard as they can. And road racing in the US is not particularly healthy at the moment so a lot of riders from the road scene are coming over to gravel. Not so much the sprinters because they have crit racing but if you’re an endurance specialist, you’ve got to do gravel.

cyclespeak
So that means more competition?

Pete
Gravel is only getting faster and the racing is so hard—I’m hitting career-high numbers that eclipse my World Tour days. Which means I do have to train but that’s only half my job. I don’t have a coach and I have to fit in training around media commitments and sponsorship calls.

cyclespeak
So what does your training look like?

Pete
You see this relaxed guy riding the Lost Coast and at home he’s really doing trainer intervals everyday? You’ve got to live what you preach and this sport was founded on adventure so a lot of my training is off-road—feeling the dirt and just being happy riding my bike. 

cyclespeak
I was hoping you were out, doing long rides into the mountains.

Pete
These events, they’re all attrition based. Six, seven, ten hours. So, in a sense, going out on long rides is training.

cyclespeak
Looking at your race calendar, you’ll need to cover a lot of ground to attend these events. So can you talk me through the various stages of your van life?

Pete
Coming from the World Tour, it was always planes, hotels, team buses. And when I started gravel, my plan was to just keep on doing that—have a bike bag, fly in, rent a car from the airport. The van life never interested me. It just seemed like a lot of work, having another automobile.

cyclespeak
So what changed?

Pete
COVID happened, air fares were sketchy and I needed a way of providing value for my sponsors. So I looked at the van thing again and decided that if I was on the road, sleeping in the back, then I’d be free. I wouldn’t be locked down—I could go anywhere in the great wide, western US.

cyclespeak
Sounds exciting.

Pete
I did my research and bought a very used van from a friend. And it immediately opened up this door of possibility. I love the lifestyle of freedom—you’re not beholden to air travel transfer times, lost luggage. I can drive into the evening, carrying all my gear, before sleeping somewhere quiet on my own memory foam mattress. And secondly, it’s fun. Every square inch of space in that van is used with infinite possibilities to customise it to your individual needs. 

cyclespeak
So you were off, exploring wide open places.

Pete
And then my van broke down. Multiple times [laughs].

cyclespeak
You mentioned it was very used.

Pete
Being a privateer, that was a big headache. But one of the benefits of the gravel scene exploding is other industries beyond cycling seeing promotional opportunities. So I landed a van sponsor and now get to drive a very swanky rig [smiles].

cyclespeak
I saw your post that showed the integrated bike racks. Very cool.

Pete
It’s this custom tray that fits beneath my bed that holds three bikes. My road, mountain and gravel bikes neatly slotted together without needing to take the seats off.

cyclespeak
Do you ever suffer from trailer envy when you see Colin’s* Spartan?

[*Gravel racer Colin Strickland]

Pete
I’ve never hauled. That just seems like another headache [laughs]. I like that I can parallel park my van downtown at the market.

cyclespeak
Speaking of Colin, I watched a short video he made before last year’s Unbound when he talked – in some considerable detail – about every aspect of his bike build and race prep. Do you also delight in the details?

Pete
Certain details. And with gravel racing, it’s so detail orientated. From how many tyre plugs and where to carry them for fast access. A much more holistic view on bike racing than just pedalling. And Colin’s a good friend but he’s an engineer in a bike racer’s body. So he likes making his own stuff and doing his own mechanic work. I’m not that way inclined so I have Big Tall Wayne rolling with me. We’re best buddies, he’s an amazing mechanic and we travel the circuit together, drinking beers.

cyclespeak
One notable date on the circuit is for Paydirt, your own event?

Pete
You could say it was part of my move to gravel. It started life as Stetina’s Sierra Prospect out of Lake Tahoe. I live up there for half the year in a little cabin—it’s where I do all my altitude training. I thought it would be good to have my own event and I wanted a way to give back to the community after my shattered leg in 2015 and the consequences of my Dad’s traumatic brain injury after a car / bike collision. So I created this road Gran Fondo with a local charity that supports brain and spinal cord injuries as the beneficiary. But I was still riding the World Tour and the team managers weren’t that into me having other non-racing interests.

cyclespeak
So you switched things up?

Pete
As I was transitioning into gravel, I would go out exploring this range called the Pine Nut Mountains just down the way from Tahoe. It truly is the Wild West out there so I decided to swap the road Sierra Prospect to a gravel format and because mining is a feature of this region, Paydirt was a fitting name for the event.

cyclespeak
It’s a great name.

Pete
We support the High Fives Foundation and it’s my idea of what an amazing day on the bike looks like. Instead of sprinting for seconds on the road, we have a mechanical bull at the finish line and you ride it for a time bonus. We’ve had two years of postponements with COVID and the Californian fires so it’s third time a charm for this year’s event.

cyclespeak
On a more personal note, you’re recognisable for sporting a luxurious moustache. Whenever I go down that route my wife gives me hell. How do you navigate these important issues of individual style?

Pete
You could say the moustache was born out of public pressure. I came out of off-season in 2017 with a very robust, winter beard. Travelling to the Tour Down Under where it’s 40℃, I went to a local barber and asked him to clean it up but he left the moustache. I still had it in the spring at the Giro but then I got sick during the second week of the race and had to go on antibiotics. I was on this one particular hour long climb and my nose was running and dripping into my moustache and it was so gross. So I shaved it off and the next day when I signed on, everyone was booing me. So I brought it back and it’s kind of become my calling card. And in gravel, a sense of individualism is appreciated.

cyclespeak
I haven’t signed-on at the Giro so can’t use that as an excuse.

Pete
If you keep with it long enough, it might grow on her? Maybe then it will become weird if it wasn’t there [laughs].

cyclespeak
I know that you’re passionate about craft beer and have your own namesake brew. I believe this hobby raised a few eyebrows back in your World Tour days?

Pete
The beer – Pete’s Secret Stache – was created for the event I had in Tahoe. I teamed up with a local brewery and the proceeds were going to the charity. And to have my face on a beer can was a point of pride. It’s better than a Tour de France stage win [laughs].

cyclespeak
So why was your team upset?

Pete
Every time I saw it at the local store, I’d take a picture for social media. But the team didn’t like that—they considered it unprofessional. And then later that year, I got a top ten result in a Fall classic and the team was really surprised. They assumed I’d just been partying and drinking beer [laughs].

cyclespeak
But now you don’t have a team to answer to.

Pete
Craft beer and the IPA thing is definitely big in the US and I’ve always been a bit of a beer geek. It’s kind of like fine wine, in the different varieties and tasting notes. Maybe not the best passion to have second to bike racing in terms of performance but there’s always a time and place. And with all the gravel travelling I do, there’s always a brewery where you can sample the local beers.

cyclespeak
Are you by nature a rule breaker? Does challenging the norms come naturally?

Pete
I don’t know if I’m a rule breaker. I’m a practicalist if that’s even a word [laughs].

cyclespeak
Well, it is now.

Pete
If something makes sense to me then I’ll do it. If it doesn’t, then I probably won’t.

cyclespeak
So what are the basic elements of life that you seek to be happy?

Pete
In terms of my career, a happy racer is a fast racer.

cyclespeak
And in more general terms?

Pete
Beer makes me happy. Hanging out with family at home makes me happy. The little things in your relationship or job that, when you add them up, make a big difference. Whether that’s making sure you give your significant-other a kiss when you leave the house, it’s these little things that bring a lot of joy and satisfaction. And I’ve learned that I need to stay true to myself—I have to follow my heart. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable but, so far, it seems to have led me in the right direction.

cyclespeak
What would be a pretty perfect day for Pete Stetina?

Pete
A really nice coffee in the morning. Preferably black—I think if you have to add milk, then you’re trying to hide something. And then an adventurous gravel bike ride followed by a flight of beers at a well-respected craft brewery. Just a three or four ounce taste of every beer they make that you can enjoy with some friends. And the day ending with some family time with my wife and the dogs on the couch at home. I do that a lot and it’s always a good day.

Postscript / A few days after I sat down to chat with Pete, he flew out to Colombia ready to race the Transcordilleras—an eight stage, bike packing gravel rally that traverses the Andes. Over 1,000 km in length and ridden at high altitude, Pete came away with three stages and the overall win.

Pete Stetina / peterstetina.com

Let’s privateer

Feature image by Transcordilleras. Unless otherwise stated, all other photography with kind permission of Pete Stetina.