The delicate dance of discomfort: Finding balance between recovery and competition

At the Belgian Waffle Ride, Peter Stetina rode with a broken wrist; Amber Neben could still feel where her pelvis fractured just months ago.

Peter Stetina competes at the 2022 Belgian Waffle Ride
(Image credit: Freddie Jimenez // Canyon Bicycles )

Three weeks ago, Peter Stetina broke his wrist after crashing just minutes into a 50-mile mountain bike race. He finished the event — the first race in the LifeTime GrandPrix— but knew something was wrong.

"It wasn't the smartest move," the former WorldTour pro said. "But I thought if it was just sprained, I could still ride. It was a trial by fire. It didn't worsen, so I figure it was pretty stable even though it turned out to be a decent fracture."

The fracture travelled up into a joint, which complicated things, but, as Stetina said gesturing to his bike, "this is my job."

Stetina made the choice to line up at the hotly contested Belgian Waffle Ride (BWR) in San Marcos, California, last Saturday, knowing he'd be on the back foot despite being the two-time defending champion. 

In the three weeks leading up to the 212-kilometer race, he trained mainly on the road and on a stationary bike in his garage, focusing on intensity instead of endurance while resting his hand as much as possible. Last week, x-rays showed his hand was doing well, so he took a light gamble in minimizing his splint, which was already custom-designed around the hood of his handlebars, to allow for more movement during BWR.

"It's very much personal for me, so I wanted to give myself every chance I could to line up," he said. "That included an aggressive and alternative rehab protocol, meaning you have to let pain be your guide."

Knowing how to delineate between normal pain and 'this bone is starting to crack again' pain is a delicate dance. It requires an athlete to keep pushing while at the same time, remain conscious of how the body is responding, something that comes only with experience.

Peter Stetina with his wrist in a cast on the honor podium of the 2022 Belgian Waffle Ride.

(Image credit: Freddie Jimenez // Canyon Bicycles )

In Saturday's race, Stetina had to relinquish his reign when he finished fifth behind an all-star cast of Alexey Vermeulen (Jukebox Enve), Matt Beers (Toyota-Specialized), Griffin Easter (OpiCure Foundation-Orange Seal), and Alex Howes (EF Education-EasyPost).

The technical downhill descent was where Stetina eventually lost contact with the leaders, knowing he had to back off from pushing his body too far.

"It's sore right now, but I think that's just the bump abuse. I feel like it's okay. I knew I had to race differently. My fitness is fine, but bike racing is the sum of many different movements. I knew the downhill section was going to be difficult for me," Stetina said.

"I promised my wife and my doctors that I would back off if things were starting to feel out of control. I have to be smart. There are a lot of other races yet to come, but I wanted to be here and do this race, but at the same time, you have to look at the big picture."

Amber Neben during the Tokyo Olympic games, just weeks before she got hit by a car and sustained serious injuries

(Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Multi-time national and former world champion Amber Neben knows all about the big picture. The decorated veteran was hit by a car during a training ride after the 2021 Olympics. The impact broke her pelvis, giving her only a few months to heal before the world championships.

"It wasn't the first time I'd been through something traumatic," 47-year-old Neben recalled. "Coming back from an injury is a lot like being an athlete. When you first start on the bike, you're a completely different person compared to where you are three years later. You've learned things along the way. Throughout all my other injuries, mild or traumatic, I've learned to listen to my body and understand how to push it to create a stimulus for it to respond, and get stronger and healthier, versus pushing it so far you go backwards. It's a fine line between being able to push and listen and push and listen. And do a little more, a little bit more, without getting impatient and doing so much it sends you backwards."

Like Stetina, Neben used the tools she developed during her 20-year cycling career to navigate her recovery. Now that she's focused on a full gravel calendar in 2022, it's even more important to listen to the "whispers," as she calls it. Whether it's training and fatigue, balancing nutrition and hydration or recovering from an injury.

"I think early on as athletes, we're kind of in denial because you don't want to stop, and you don't want to get hurt, and you deny, deny," she said after finishing ninth at Saturday's Belgian Waffle Ride, some 48 minutes behind winner Mo Wilson.

"If you ignore those or deny them, your body starts yelling and eventually screaming, and you have nothing – you've broken yourself, and you need to take a really long break. It's always a balance. That's perspective, and that's another tool."

Neben considers herself back to 100 percent after that horrible collision last year. Every once in a while, she'll hit something and feel where the break was, but it won't stop her from continuing that delicate dance.

"I like riding my bike. I like the people," Neben said. "It's a cool classroom. It's a great parallel to life."

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A former pro, Clara Beard has been rooted in the cycling scene for more than 20 years. After working as a newspaper reporter for several years, her love of the sport prompted a full-time return as a journalist in 2011. Since then, Clara has reported on more bike races than she can count, both domestic and international.