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Road Racing

Commentary: Vandenbroucke was cycling’s up-and-down man

Frank Vandenbroucke lived in a world of excesses, which was fitting for cycling's go-go doping era of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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Editors’ Note: Author Samuel Abt was a long-time sports journalist and columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He covered the Tour de France and other professional cycling events for more than 30 years. A resident of the Paris area, Abt retired several years ago.

A bewildering rumor made the rounds days before the presentation of the 2019 Tour de France: The race would schedule a stage to honor Frank Vandenbroucke, the golden wastrel of Belgian cycling.

That made little sense for several reasons. For one, the Tour organizers were already lavishing their attention on another Belgian rider, Eddy Merckx, who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first Tour victory this year. For another, Vandenbroucke had been a classics specialist, not a star in the Tour, where he finished 50th in 1997 and did not finish in 2000. For a third, with his history of erratic behavior and doping suspicions, convictions, and confessions, Vandenbroucke made an unlikely Tour role model.

In the end. the rumor turned out to be just that, one more in a life full of rumors. Actual news about Vandenbroucke lately is limited to the fact that his daughter Cameron, 19, heretofore a runner, recently signed a contract with one of his many former teams, Lotto-Soudal.

Otherwise, Vandenbroucke’s name surfaced a few months ago when he became the subject of a new biography in his homeland nearly 10 years after his death. The Vandenbroucke family has called the book the first public biography of Frank. The book thrilled his mother.

“We wanted to show that his life couldn’t be summed up in scandals,” she said. “I want people to remember him as the swell person he was, not as a criminal.”

The book joins a handful of other accounts of the tumultuous life and long rap sheet of the rider once ranked third in the world. Among these works is an autobiography that he coyly titled: “I’m No God.”

Who said he was? For a while, nearly everybody in divided Belgium, French-speaking Wallonia in the south, Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, thought Vandenbroucke to be a cycling god. No matter where, including the somewhat neutral Brussels region, Vandenbroucke was known adoringly as VDB, the title of the new book.

Despite the Germanic sound of his name, Vandenbroucke was a pure Walloon, a native of Mouscron just across the border with France. He himself never seemed part of Belgium’s widespread linguistic chauvinism as exemplified by his uncle Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke, a serviceable rider in the 1980s and then the directeur sportif for the Lotto team from 1988 to 1999. Jean-Luc would guide his riders only in French while a deputy next to him in the team car instructed those speaking Flemish.

The uncle and VDB’s father, Jean-Jacques, long a mechanic with Jean-Luc’s teams, trained the young rider and signed him for Lotto in 1993 at the age of 19. By then he had won his country’s championship for new riders and then for juniors plus a bronze medal in the junior world championships.

VDB was a force from the start with Lotto, winning in 1994 a stage of the Tour of the Mediterranean and finishing on the podium in four lesser races. After he won the Cholet-Pays de Loire semi-classic in 1995 he decided that his career demanded more than Lotto, his uncle, and his father. “It was impossible to take orders from somebody in the family,” he said. “I couldn’t stand it.”

Going to court to void his contract, he signed with Mapei, the world’s top team. His ascent continued: victory in Paris-Brussels, the Tour of the Mediterranean, the Tour of Austria, the Grand Prix of Plouay, the Tour of Luxembourg, a clutch of podiums in other races and in 1998 victory in the weeklong Paris-Nice and Gent-Wevelgem.

He then left Mapei for Cofidis and in 1999 had his best season: victory in Het Volk and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, two stage victories and the points jersey in the Vuelta, second in the Tour of Flanders.

Ominously, despite his third-place world ranking, he became known to his Cofidis teammates and officials as “the headache.” Suspected but not convicted in a doping scandal in 1999, he was suspended by his team for several weeks.

The downward spiral continued as quickly as his ascent had. Every year he joined a new team — some big like Fassa Bortolo, Domo, Quick-Step and Lampre, others down the slope to Mr. Bookmaker, Unibet and, finally, both Mitsubishi and Cinelli-Down Under, known only to spelunkers. The problem was not simply lack of results, faulty conditioning, frequent injuries, or exorbitant salary demands. (“My financial requirements are not high,” he told the Gazet van Antwerpen.”It must have to do with my past.”)

Good guess, VDB. In 2002, a police raid on his home turned up EPO, clenbuterol, and morphine, some of which, he insisted, were for his dog. The Domo team dropped him and he was suspended for six months by the cycling federation in Flanders, but not the one in Wallonia. It was not true, but widely believed, that when the Tour of Wallonia passed through a village half-Flemish and half-Walloon, the pack rode on one side of the street — the Flemish side — and Vandenbroucke rode alone on the other side.

His pattern of self-destruction was formidable. During the 2000 Tour de France, while his team had dinner at its hotel, Vandenbroucke was seen at a chic restaurant with a gorgeous woman. She may or may not have been the wife with whom he had many highly publicized fights, including one in which he threatened them both with a shotgun. They divorced in 2007.

Amid his troubles and numerous comebacks under new colors, Vandenbroucke could be blithe, even charming. When I interviewed him at the Tour of Qatar in 2004, he talked mostly about a coming court hearing for doping and about the mysterious torching of his black Mercedes CL5SK (sales price about $150,000) as it was parked during the night behind his home.

“Who did it? Why? How?” he asked with a what-me-worry Alfred E. Neuman smile. “It was insured, no problem.”

The coming court hearing was no less troublesome. “Life is full of unhappiness,” he said.

Indeed his was. In 2006, he unsuccessfully attempted suicide. In 2008, the Belgian press identified him as a cocaine user. In 2009, he was dead. The end came in a resort hotel in Senegal, where VDB was vacationing while seeking a new team. A Senegalese woman who had spent the night with him was arrested and charged with stealing about $450 and two cellphones.

His death was ruled natural — a double pulmonary embolism as well as an existing heart problem — while the public prosecutor there said the body showed signs of drug and alcohol abuse.

“Sadly, this has only partly come as a surprise, for we knew he was not doing too well,” said Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke. “He was up and down, both in terms of his health and his morale.”

The up and down man: Rest in peace, Frank Vandenbroucke.

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