“RIP VDB” said the text from John Stollery, waiting for me, when I woke up; there were others too, from Dave and Stevie, all expressing sadness – for all his faults, he was a hard man to dislike. He was just 34, cause of death is cited as a ‘blood clot.’
Frank Vandenbroucke could hardly have been anything else but a pro cyclist – his dad was a pro and his uncle, Jean Luc, was a junior world champion and pro road star. Belgian novice champion in 1991; junior champion in ’92, “Franky Boy” moved seamlessly through the ranks.
Frank at the height of his powers as he took his magnificent win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
His first pro win came in ’94 – a stage in the Tour of the Med. By the end of the following season he was winning Paris-Brussels. In 1996 he took Laigueglia, the Scheldeprijs and Plouay.
Frank celebrates a breakthrough win at Gent-Wevelgem.
The following season he was winning events as diverse as the De Panne beach mountain bike race, Cologne and the Tour of Luxembourg. Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Nice fell to him in ’98. And in ’99 things went even better; Het Volk, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and two Vuelta stages – a majestic season.
At his best, Vandenbroucke could win seemingly everywhere – from the mountains to the hills to the cobbles. Here he is winning Het Volk.
But in that campaign were sewn the seeds of his long and painful slide. In the Worlds at Verona, he was the protected rider on the Belgian squad – with the likes of Johan Museuuw and Peter van Petegem at his service. Frank crashed, his teammates asked if he was OK, he said he was, but the truth was that he had fractured both wrists and couldn’t pull on the ‘bars.
The Verona Worlds were a disaster for Frank.
Museuuw and Van Petegem were furious, rightly saying that Vandenbroucke should have levelled with his compatriots and given them their freedom, instead of having them work for a lame duck.
Frank always rode well at Paris-Nice.
It was never the same again, he had team problems, women problems, driving problems and – drugs problems; Frank said that the pharmaceutical concoctions found by the police in his fridge were for his dog. The classic cartoon in the Miroir du Cyclisme from the time had a race podium, on it were Simoni’s dentist, Rumsas’s mother-in-law and, on the top step, with gold medal around it’s neck, Frank’s dog.
Frank’s volatile, on/off relationship with slim beauty, Sarah, was top Belgian tabloid fodder – his dad always maintained that the rot started, the day Frank met her.
Frank’s life with his family was always a turbulent one.
This year seemed different, though, Nico Mattan – a man who Frank liked and respected – signed him up for Cinelli-Down Under; he was training well and even winning – but the wheels came off again.
2009 started auspiciously when Frank teamed up with Nico Mattan at Cinelli/Down Under.
The last headline was that he would be working with top Italian coach Aldo Sassi, they were going to put Frank’s blood values on the ‘net to try and help the process of getting a ride with a team.
Despite the wilderness years, police dramas and embarrassments, Frank was still hugely popular in Belgium. His fan club was called the ‘Franky Boys’ and there was rejoicing among them, this year at Frank’s return to his winning ways.
Frank always rose to the occasion at De Ronde, but never managed to take the win.
I well remember, a few years ago, being at Het Volk when Frank was with Fassa Bortolo. The race was cancelled due to snow and ice on the course. Viktor had a hunch that Frank would maybe turn up at his mum and dad’s cafe down at Ploegstert. The hire car was duly pointed south, and sure enough, near Kuurne, we came upon the Fassa boys in two lines, drilling down the concrete section towards Ploegstert.
Frank started well with Fassa – it seemed like he started most every season well – but it fizzled as the year wore on.
There was a freezing block headwind, but the string was sitting at 40 kph, lead by – Frank. He looked lean and was chatting away and joking to Juan Antonio Flecha as they sliced through the icy blast. Whilst his team mates wore blue team issue Fassa winter hats, Frank wore a grey Tibetan style woolly hat, tie cords flapping in the wind.
Frank was just at home on cobbles of Flanders as he was in the mountains of Spain.
He looked different, cool, fit and in charge of his team.
We arrived at the cafe first, but the Fassa boys weren’t far behind; the espressos were lined up on the bar, there were brief chats, hand shakes, then Frank gave the signal – and they were off again.
He was top ten at Kuurne next day, but that season fizzled out, too.
Belgian guys all have their VDB anecdote, soigneur Etienne Illegems tells the story of Frank’s first six; “the big riders said to Frank that he would take so many laps, do this, do that. Frank was still a teenager but he replied – “I’ll be doing just what I want !”
Then there was the time we met the old soigneur who looked after both Frank and Museuuw – he explained to us that as well as his bike racing talents, VDB was one of the best break dancers in West Flanders!
After a while, nothing surprised you about Frank.
Frank visited the site of his most famous attack a little while back – La Redoute.
In his early days as a pro – when most youngsters are keeping their heads down – Frank would drive the team mechanics crazy, insisting that his bike should be as light as possible with all the ‘trick’ titanium bolts replacing team issue.
Frank gave Peter Van Petegem a run for his money in 2003 at De Ronde, but for the second time, it finished with Van Petegem on top, Frank 2nd.
Perhaps ex-pro Chris Tonge’s landlord summed up the root of Frank’s problems best; “he was living the life of a top pro bike rider from when he was a young teenager – it was too much, too soon!”
VDB’s psychologist, Jef Brouwers, compared VDB to Michael Jackson, VDB was no extrovert, but very introverted.
“VDB was a virtuoso” – Patrick Lefevere
“The James Dean of his generation” – Le Soir.
Frank Vandenbroucke; protege, star, troubled man, character, eccentric, winner, idol – we’ll miss you.