Frank Vandenbroucke 1974-2009

LIEGE BASTOGNE LIEGEAgence France Presse has reported the death of Frank Vandenbroucke. The one-time great Belgian cyclist who scored 51 wins in his career was on vacation in Senegal when he died. Preliminary reports are that he died of a pulmonary embolism.

Most recently, Vandenbroucke had been riding for the Cinelli-Down Under team and had been a columnist for the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. A byline had appeared as recently as last week.

Readers of RKP are well aware of Vandenbroucke’s troubled past. Following a stellar season in 1999 when he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Omloop Het Volk and two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, Vandenbroucke’s career spun out of control following an initial drug bust in 1999. His additional drug busts, DUI and suicide attempt are well documented and reducing his troubles to a handful of nouns is a disservice.

Vandenbroucke’s descent into depression and further drug use is eerily similar to that of Marco Pantani. It would be easy to reduce his story to a cautionary tale: Kids, don’t do drugs!

However, the reality is much more shocking. Our body of knowledge about the use of performance-enhancing drugs really hasn’t included the assumption that top-ranked cyclists busted for drugs will turn to recreational drugs and a plummet into depression. Following his bust, Vandenbroucke teammate David Millar says he fell into a terrible depression he buried in alcohol, but somehow he turned it around.

Could it be a pattern is emerging? Indications are Marco Pantani turned to recreational drugs following his bust for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Same for Jan Ullrich. We know Tyler Hamilton battled depression following his suspension for a positive test.

What do we have to expect from Mr. Full Disclosure, Bernard Kohl? (I’ll address his ongoing monthly interviews with new revelations in another post.)

I’ve made my peace with Vandenbroucke and the riders who won the Classics and Grand Tours of the 1990s. Given the circumstances, he was truly one of the better riders of his generation and deserves an extra measure of panache in our memories for announcing—before the race—on which hill he would attack at the ’99 L-B-L. The shot above of him at the finish has defined for many the hard-man style the Belgians are known for: the legs coated with embrocation, the shoe covers and arm warmers pushed to the wrists; only a man for the Classics can make 55 degrees look like a bright summer day.

Despite flashes of brilliance (what else would you call his second place at the 2003 Tour of Flanders), VdB never returned to his winning ways following his first bust.

Even if you hated Vandenbroucke for his drug use, I hope you can lament his death and the loss that means for cycling. He was, after all, one of our own, a guy who loved to go fast, a hard man who understood style, had a heart for the red line, and a family man who leaves behind both his parents and a daughter.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

, , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Da Robot

    Very well said, P. I would only add that sports like ours, especially at the top, attract people prone to extremes, to pushing their minds and bodies to the limits. Drugs of all kinds live at those extremes too, and once the two mix, the athletes and the drugs, some extremely bad outcomes are inevitable.

    I am deeply sad that so many of our best athletes ride down this path, and honestly, it does nothing to reduce my respect for them. It merely marks them as mortals, which, in my book, is completely forgivable.

  2. Pingback: Seagull Week – Day 2 «

  3. lachlan

    Sad indeed. In all respects, but of course mostly as a personal loss for his family. So young to die for any reason.

    And such a shame, as you note, that the pressures that seem to go along with many doping stories end up going further into riders lives, as this (once we know the full story) perhaps will be another example.

  4. jza

    Sure, some people do recreational drugs and it gets out of control. What I rarely here is the side effects of the PEDs. Many of the drugs commonly used by pro cyclists, especially the very strong painkillers such as Tramadol, are very addictive. Many of these painkillers are not outlawed by WADA or tested for by the UCI.

    Cycling teams consistently put riders in a position where addictive medications are a necessity. Only to toss these riders aside when they’re bodies and minds burn out. Nobody should be surprised that severe depression is a common side effect of being a pro cyclist. That teams themselves offer so little support to troubled riders is a true embarrassment to the sport.

  5. Rich Sfs

    I had lunch with Johann Museeuw the other, not to name drop but to let other people know how much Frank was loved by all. The sadness across his face was easy to read, it was like he had lost a brother. The media at large trys to give a picture a of a mad man, a trouble soul. Some of this maybe true, but the greatest sadness is that VDB was the most talented Belgium to click into some pedals since Eddy Merckx. I say that not because of his death but it is the trumpet I have blown for 10 years now.

    Belgium and the World has lost a great cyclist, we are the lucky ones. It is his family who must feel the pain the greatest. I have promised than I will don my Belgian Knee Warmers, overshoes and a red line heart rate for Frank soon. RIP.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *