By Anthony O’Malley
On September 8th 2011, George Suter, Die-Hard/Think Racing arrived in Belgium for the World Amateur TT and road race. Having qualified at the New York Grand Fondo, Suter felt strong and ready to take on all comers in the 45-49 field with competitors from across the world – Australians, Americans, Belgians, Italians, Dutchmen and many, many others.
“There were around 10 Americans in my field,” said Suter during an interview I did with him in late September at his house, conducted from his bed.
As he lined up on day one, September 9th for the TT, Belgian rain poured down and Suter stood ready to roll at the start house.
O’M: What was going though your mind as you got ready?
Suter: I was thinking in my head how treacherous this was going to be. And during the TT [on part of Liege course] in the pouring rain, I slid off the road and into a farmer’s driveway, but kept the bike upright. It was a tricky descent and turn. I slipped again and backed off on the descent.
O’M: The roads were mostly rural right?
Suter: Yeah in Europe there’s diesel all over the roads. It was like a roller coast on ice with very little traction.
After completing the TT on September 9th, Suter prepared for the road race on September 11th. It was an important date for an American and Suter wanted to do his best for all those deployed and who lost their lives on that fateful day ten years ago. One of his team mates, Frank Leija had been recently deployed to Afghanistan.
Suter: There were other Americans with me at the Worlds, Joe Tonin – Team Director of Destination Cycling, from Marble Head, MA, Dean Brizel, local New Yorker and Scott Gregoire from Major Taylor.
O’M: So what was September 11th like weather wise?
Rain on Road Course
Suter: Well the day before we did some recon on the course. Even though there was bright sunshine on September 10th, the descent was going to be treacherous, but doable.
O’M: How were you feeling?
Suter: On the 11th I woke up to sunshine and everyone was in good spirits. Still a little nervous. There was serious international competition. So I’m giving other racers pep talks, like ‘ride within yourself, just do what you can do’, that type of thing. We get to the race start where there was an area set up with 2 soigneurs, Danny Vervecken and Luc Vandenburgh, both from Belgian. [NOTE: Erwin Vervecken, Danny’s brother, was 3 times world cyclo-cross champion and the race director]
O’M: And then you rode to the start?
Suter: We took a van, five of us to the start, about 30 km from the hotel, got to the start and began pinning our numbers. I was very methodical with food. You can’t afford to make a mistake with food in a 110 km race in Belgium.
O’M: And the weather?
Suter: [Laughing] Right at the start line the sky starts to cloud over, so I change my lens to clear. As the officials were setting up the grid for the start there was a 30% chance of rain. Then as we wait to start the first cold drops of rain begin to fall on my forearm. I’m thinking ‘uh oh – need to be more alert because this race is going to shatter to pieces on the first uncategorized climbs’. At 20 km it will shatter!
O’M: So how did the race go?
Suter: There were big wide roads until 40 km and then we hit the first climb. The guy in front of me hits railroad tracks and another guy crashes into him. I had to unclip, get around him and chase up the climb.
O’M: How did that pan out for you?
Suter: I’m chasing for 5 km in the rain. There are sheets of rain pouring down and my morale isn’t great, but I’m forcing myself to eat food. I chase over the first uncategorized climb and catch a group of 15 with Scott and Dean off the back and a bunch of Aussies.
O’M: What’s going through your mind at that stage?
Suter: I’m thinking about three things ONLY: eat all the food BEFORE half way mark; not depend on anyone else to close the gap, close it myself; stay calm no over reaction and make the final group. Be patient!
O’M: So what happened next?
Suter: Well I’m at the front of the group of 15, pulling at about 550 watts for ¾ of a mile and we get back too the peleton which is now greatly diminished, maybe 40-50 guys left. One of the Aussies says, ‘Thanks mate that was an incredible pull.’ I said to him, ‘Today is 9-11 and I’m from NYC and lost a lot of people that day’. The Aussie says to me: ‘When you bleed in the US we bleed with you’. And I said to him, ‘I hope none of us bleed today!’
As the race progressed we hit the first categorized climb that cut the group down to about 25 guys. After a long descent, we hit the second cat climb with 20% sections in it. There were 12 guys on this section.
O’M: So you’re all on the descent right before the crash?
Suter: Yeah and the rain is pouring and suddenly this guy goes down at the turn and I try to avoid him. Then BANG! A pile of guys from behind me plough into the back of me, like a truck hit me.
O’M: And you’re off the bike now?
Suter: No! I’m heading for this tree that’s like as wide as a doorway and I threw the bike to the left of the tree. Everything is happening really fast but slow motion in my mind. I hit a barbed wire fence. It was so vivid I remember clearly the rain drops of the fence, the brand new silver barbs glistening in the rain. Then everything went BLANK!
O’M: You were out like a light?
Suter: Ten minutes out stone cold! I came to and all I remember was staring into the rain filled sky and I could see the silver barbs, they weren’t rusty and the glistening strand of barbed wire. It will be embedded in my memory for a long time.
O’M: And wounds embedded in your leg.
Suter: Yeah. I thought only seconds had passed while I lay there on my back staring at the sky in the rain in a Belgian field. When I came to and I couldn’t move. There was a loud humming in my head.
O’M: What did you do?
Suter: I stood up, tried to walk around and felt something tugging at my right foot. The UCI course marshal came running over, eased me down by the shoulders and said in broken English, ‘You must stay down, very bad crash, wait for ambulance.’ I fell down on my back stared up again at the sky, gray with rain, tree branches above me with no concept of what was going on. It was a big fuzzy blur.
O’M: So you had no clue what had happened or what injuries you had sustained?
Suter: None! Then I heard B-U-B-U sound of an ambulance.
Barbed Wire Wounds: Hoogerland-Style
Suter remembers what happened next, something that I didn’t expect to be writing about in this interview. He steadies himself and sits up in the bed, his two cats, Romeo and Felix, constant companions stared at me.
Bullet holes in Stavelot [WW-II]
Suter: I started to figure out what was going on. There were other guys all scattered around the road who had crashed. I got up and said: ‘I’m fine. I want to continue. I want to get up on my bike. I want to finish the race.’
O’M: It was 9-11 and you’re thinking you had to finish?
Suter: Yeah, I have to finish this. The paramedics weren’t too thrilled and were trying to make me lie down on the board, but I wasn’t cooperating. They started asking me questions: ‘What are you doing? Where are you? What is your birthday?’ I didn’t know it. I think I gave my son James’ birthday. One of the paramedics threw his hands up while the course marshal unraveled my bike from the barbed wire fence. He helped me back on the bike and onto the road.
O’M: Was your bike damaged?
Suter: No but it was all entangled in wire.
O’M: How much more of the race had to be done?
Suter: 40 k to go and I had to struggle on. I didn’t want to quit.
O’M: And your bike got damaged?
Suter: No it was okay.
Unbeknown to Suter at the time, he had 4 fractures in his pelvis and 3 fractured ribs. But he wanted to finish the race and that was it!
Suter: One of the paramedics threw up his hands and the course marshal unraveled my bike from the barbed wire. He helped me back onto the road and off I went.
O’M: What was the rest of the course like? Were there hills?
Eddy in Bronze at Top of Stockeu
Suter: Five Cols, the last one was Stockeu with 23% in places. I struggled on and when I got to the last climb I walked up the last 300 meters. I actually dragged myself up using the bike as rolling crutch with my right arm on the seat and my left across the handlebars.
O’M: Were there people waiting for you?
Suter: Luc Vandenburgh was waiting for me at the base of the Stockeu, after the climb.
O’M: How long were you behind the lead group.
Suter: [Laughing] The winner finished in 3 hours 10 minutes. I came in in 5 hours! I felt like I was going to collapse and was in severe agony. Luc was running alongside the cobbled section with 300 meters to go, urging me to the finish line.
O’M: You must have been absolutely wrecked?
Suter: Luc was looking at me and he knew there was something wrong. He said, ‘How is it [hip]? Must be bad. Hip must be broken. If you rode this with a broken hip, you are an animal!’ I responded: ‘If I fall over catch me, but don’t push me.’
O’M: So you’re over the finish line and what happened next?
Suter: Luc grabbed the back of my saddle and wheeled me to the medical tent. He had to unclip my left foot because I couldn’t unclip from my pedal. I couldn’t swing my leg over the frame and he had to ease the bike from under me and carry me into the tent.
O’M: So you had to take an ambulance to a hospital in the vicinity? How was that?
Suter: Ambulance trip #1 was agonizing. Thirty minutes in the back. I had no cell phone, didn’t speak the language with no ID, nothing! There was a Danish guy who crashed in the race and he needed stitches. He spoke English. Just outside Liege there was a very old WW II triage hospital. They brought me in and shot me with morphine. Things became much more pleasant [smiling widely]!
O’M: What happened next?
Suter: The Dane didn’t want to hang around the hospital so I asked the Dane to go back to the start/finish line and locate the Americans, tell them where I was. After the Dane left, Danny Vervecken came by the hospital. He said: ‘This is not a good hospital. We need to get you out of here’. At the old hospital they found no fractures in my pelvis, but broken ribs [There were in fact 4!]. They wanted to keep me in case I had a punctured lung. Danny convinced them to let me go.
O’M: You were in a chair or on a bed or what?
Suter: Danny got me a wheelchair and got into his car and found the only pharmacy in town and got me lots of pain meds. Then we drove back to the hotel in Spa where I was staying.
O’M: You stayed overnight in the hotel?
Suter: Yes, the next morning Joe [Tonin] drove me three hours in a van to a much better hospital, St. Elizabeth’s in Herentals, where I was to meet a Dr. Claes. It was actually Erwin that got me an appointment with Dr. Claes who usually has a three month waiting list.
O’M: Dr. Claes has expertise in sports orthopedics? [especially pro cyclists]
Suter: Yes. I met Tom Boonen at the hospital!
Suter: As I was waiting to be admitted into the ER, Tom Boonen was coming out and saw me sitting there in the wheelchair and I said, ‘Hey Tom!’. He saw my leg all ripped up from the wire and replied, ‘That looks bad! Where did it happen?’ I told him. And Joe mentioned the Spineux descent on the course and Boonen said, ‘I know that descent well. It’s the one of the most dangerous in pro-cycling!’ Joe said it was raining and Boonen replied, ‘You are with the best.’ [Hospital and doctor] He walked outside and was swarmed by the Belgian media. Boonen was amazed that I finished the race.
Boonen Crash – Broke his hand (Stage 5)
O’M: Why was Boonen there anyway?
Suter: He was there for a follow up visit with Dr. Claes after his crash in the Vuelta [where he broke his wrist]. That night I was watching TV and saw the Belgian news. I saw Boonen leaving the hospital and saw the back of a head in a wheelchair behind the media scrum. It was me! [Laughing]
O’M: So what did Dr. Claes find after you were x-rayed?
Suter: I got a cat scan and they found that I had a fractured pelvis and fractured ribs. I was kept in the hospital for five days, Monday to Friday. On Friday morning I was released.
O’M: How did you get to the airport upon your release?
Suter: I was to be picked up at six-thirty in the morning by a company called Royal Concierge. They SUCK! At six-fifty AM they hadn’t arrived and my flight was at eleven from Brussels. They were en route to the WRONG St. Elizabeth’s in another part of Brussels. I was pissed and told him it was impossible to get to where I was. So I cancelled and one of the nurses, Rudy, called 20 car services to get me to the airport on time. There was nothing available. One of the car service owners got his father to drive me in his own private car!
O’M: What kind of car was it?
Suter: A black Mercedes. He took the back roads around the main highway, E-4 and drove like Mario Andretti to get me to the airport by ten-thirty!
O’M: How was the plane ride back to the US?
Suter: It sucked and Delta sucks. It was an agonizing eight and a half hour flight, stuck by the window seat with nowhere to go! The stewards and stewardesses were great. One of the stewardesses asked an American lady if she would swap seats as I was in agony. She replied that under no circumstances would she move because she had reserved the seat two months in advance. And besides she had a sprained ankle!
O’M: So you stayed put?
Suter: I had no choice.
O’M: How was the landing?
Suter: I was the last man off the plane and had a small Jamaican lady push my wheelchair with plywood and foam on it through the throngs of people in JFK. She was 5 foot 4 inches and was trying to negotiate and navigate through customs agents and hoards of travellers who didn’t give a shit. Every bump was tortuous. The customs officer who saw all of this stamped my papers and allowed me to proceed unimpeded and unmolested.
O’M: How long were you in bed when you got back?
Suter: Two months.
O’M: So you’re making a good recovery?
Suter: I’m back on my feet and I’ll be back on the bike next week.
O’M: George thanks for sharing your story. We wish you all the best and hope to see you out on the road spinning those gears!