VDB: 1974-2009

Every now and then, I see a headline that I know won’t soon drift from my memory.  Frank Vandenbroucke was found dead today in his hotel room; he had apparently died of  a blood clot.  The death reminds me of a similar headline in 2004, of the death of Marco Pantani. Both capable of incredible rides, both prone to devastating depression, both legends that end in a hotel room.

VDB was the picture of late 90’s cycling: extraordinary, jet-fueled exploits that made bike racing spectacular, if not realistic.  And when his wings were clipped by drug scandals, he picked himself up and returned to the sport, only to fall again and again.  His popularity never returned to where it was during 1999 when he won Het Volk and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

It’s hard for us fans to recover from the pain of a fallen hero.  We know it all too well.  When a rider we don’t like tests positive, we are angry.  When our favorites fall, it’s nothing short of heartbreak.  For me, it’s not so much disappointment that they doped (or attempted to dope).  I’m a realist about our sport and while I wish there was no doping, it is part of it.  For me, it’s not disappointment that they cheated – it’s disappointment that the fairytale is over, and my hero won’t be back in the bunch lighting up the races they way they once did.

I don’t think we kept VDB at arms length because of his past drug scandals; it was more that he was so easy to love and so prone to failure that we kept him at a distance in order to spare ourselves the heartache of his next fall.  I suppose that, in itself, is heartbreaking.

A glorious talent and spectacular rider.  A man I can’t help but believe was driven, tormented, and consumed by cycling.  One who welcomed the culture as it was when he was young, ambitious and was taught the ways of the sport by his own heroes – and who embraced it fully.

Here is Frank, at his finest.


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26 Replies to “VDB: 1974-2009”

  1. Very sad and reminded me not only of Pantani but also of Chad Gerlach, another gifted rider riddled with drug problems and depression (like drug problems and depression are even two separate things really).

  2. Well written post.

    Pros are super human on the bike – but when it comes down to it – are just as human as the rest of us.

  3. @Marko
    I’d forgotten about him. How many pros, over the years, have turned up like that. So brutal. There’s no support system or anything for these guys.

  4. @Dan O
    I have a quote somewhere from Pantani (I think it was in a Rouleur) that says something to the effect of how hard it is to push yourself to attack at the base of a mountain when you know the suffering that will come around the next corner.

    It’s hard to remember these guys are human, and feel the effort. Drug-fueled or not, it’s still true what they say: it never gets easier, you just go faster.

  5. Not even bringing the doping issue into play – the level at the pros ride is just amazing to me.

    By being human, I mean they just as easily fall into the “normal” problems of depression, drug use, etc.

    I’m sure these guys hurt at an amazing level to move at those speeds. As cyclists we can appreciate their efforts, since we feel the same during our efforts – just at slower speeds.

    So you’re right – it never gets easier, you just go faster.

  6. I wonder about these riders who never perform after they are busted. Was he a real hard man or EPOed to the gills? I don’t believe Frank did anything after he was busted except get booted off every team who gave him a contract. I did like, in his later years, he would ambush pro riders on training rides, get to the front and totally ride his brains out, blow himself and everyone else up and peel off and disappear. THAT would be fun.
    Growing up as a rider in Belgium with the drugs those guys mess with would ruin anyone, i.e. Pot Belge

  7. @Dan O
    Yeah, it really is amazing. That training and discipline it takes to make those speeds is incredible. To imagine riding Alpe d’Huez in less than 40 minutes makes my skull shudder.

  8. @john
    I’m reading A Dog in a Hat right now. WAY better than Kimage’s book, but the whole drug scene there in Belgium and Dutchland seems staggering. How do you grow up in that culture and not think that’s OK? And then the riders become the directors and on it goes.

  9. @frank

    I got a kick out of that book. Not as much for the doping stories but the overall culture of Belgian cycling and kermis races that it painted. Interesting too how riders buy others riders out of wins, takes some of the excitement out for me and makes me wonder how that practice is continued higher in the pro ranks. At the same time I can see how that lifestyle would be so alluring to a young cyclists looking to turn pro and cut his teeth in the pelotons of Europe. What could be more fun, in your early twenties, than living on the cheap in Europe and being ensconced in cycling culture?

  10. @Marko
    I’m really enjoying it. Much better than Rough Ride, but that’s another blog post for another time.

    I am really getting a kick out of the way the Dutch riders are being portrayed; their unabashed use of those drugs fits perfectly into my view of Dutch culture (which is to decide for or against something, but if you decide for it, you accept it and are not ashamed of your decision). I love it.

    I’ve been having a great time reading his translations of what the Flemish are saying. Flemish, of course, is basically a Dutch dialect and the phrases etc he keeps using are things we typically say, like calling someone a stupid chicken; I have been called that more times than I care to count.

    On that note, some of his actual Flemish sentences have grammatical errors in them, and I wonder if it’s a reflection of Joe having learned the language through exposure and he has some misunderstandings or whether that’s actually how the Flemish speak. If it’s really the way the Flemish speak, then that explains why the Dutch look down on the Belgians.

  11. @frank
    Heheheheee, I’ve thought that too, Fons de Wolf, what a name, perpetual the five o’clock shadow, no need for testosterone supplements for him.

    Regarding A Dog in a Hat, I can’t wait to read that. I remember reading an old Bob Roll story about him running into Joe (??the author) in a Belgian book store and being shocked to see this guy who was surviving as a solo American pro racer Belgium. Roll thought it was an extraordinary achievement doing that because it was so hard. Few Americans are tough enough to go there, stay there and be successful at it.

    I don’t know how any pro does it. The whole TdF at an average speed of 25mph? Are you shitting me? I can do 25mph for about five minutes. All freaks of nature.

  12. @john
    Dog in a Hat’s great. I can mail you my copy when I’m done if you want.

    How has Bobke stuck around? The guy’s IQ increases noticeably when he stands near a lightbulb. Mediocre road rider, crappy mountainbike rider, horseshit commentator, but somehow he remains one of US cycling’s biggest personalities.

    I guess I shouldn’t say he’s so dumb if he’s smart enough to make himself successful.

  13. @frank
    You funny boyeee. If Bobke can make a career at this, we all should.

    Yes please on the book. But don’t mail it to Mass. because I’m in North Platte, Nebraska as I type, en route to Hawaii, mid-life relocation madness. Wife, dog, cat all in a Honda FIT hauling ass for the West Coast.

    Haleakala outside the house, who doesn’t need a 39 mile 10,000′ climb nearby? It won’t help my climbing unfortunately.

  14. @john
    OHHOLYFUCK. Dude, you are moving to HA-WA-EE? I’m visiting you, beeyotch.

    When we moved from NC to Seattle, the mover justified his exorbitant fee by saying you couldn’t really move any farther across the country without requiring a boat. You require a boat. Ouch.

  15. Frank, interesting take on VdB in David Millar’s book…some insight into his manic character on the Cofidis team, but Millar not a fan… And have only just nowbjust realised what the RIP VDB on the back of my El Cyclista cycling cap now refers to having been wearing it for a year… Duh!

  16. I’d be a little more impressed by Millar’s book if he dumped shit on people who were still alive, instead of giving them false identities.

    Makes me wonder why…

  17. @Roadslave

    Frank, interesting take on VdB in David Millar’s book…some insight into his manic character on the Cofidis team, but Millar not a fan… And have only just nowbjust realised what the RIP VDB on the back of my El Cyclista cycling cap now refers to having been wearing it for a year… Duh!

    I really need to read that book. Just, finally, ordered Le Metier so at least I’ll have some cycling reading material for the long off season after the 15th (hangs his head and wanders off like a lost puppy).

  18. @Buck Rogers

    It’s well worth reading, not just for the insight into the doping culture but for a feel of what it’s like for a non euro rider to break into the big time.

    I’ve got alot of time time for Millar, I grew up in Hong Kong and kind of get what he says about how it shaped his personality. He also gets my vote for the way in which he’s moved on and faced up to what he did.

    He’s been tweeting about trying to get a couple of other pro who’ve written books together for a sort of book club discussion with readers. Could be an interesting evening out.

  19. @Chris
    Thanks. Definitely added to my next book order list. I still haven’t picked up a copy of “Slaying the Badger” either. Those, with Le Metier, should help pass the months until the Tour Down Under kicks off.

  20. Editor’s Note: The Weight, an original piece by Patrik dedicated to the enigma known as “VDB”.

    The Weight

    As a young boy he was special. At sign tables and start lines fathers would point him out and whisper to their boys, ” That’s him, the special one I told you about.” Greetings and praise met him at the start of even the smallest races.The big events were like coronations for the young Prince. “This one is going to be something special, you’ll see.” A Messiah had been born in Belgium.
    The Weight of Possibility.

    It all seemed so easy so preordained. His victories grew and appeared so effortless to the mere mortals that worshiped Him. When He won, He won in grand style, with spectacular attacks that disposed of his competition and drove the hero starved masses into a frenzy. They cheered , they cried, they drank Belguim dry. A culturally divided nation was now united under one God.

    The Weight of Responsibility.

    As much as they willed him to be a God he was as fragile as any other man. The Wind, Rain, and Cold wear down even the hardest stone. He looked to the shadows and to those who prey on self doubt to ease the suffering and fear. When He succumbed. The spell was broken. Adulation soured to disenchantment. ” He was a fraud,He made us believe. How dare he assume the Crown and all our hopes.
    The Weight of Expectation.

    It ends for him much as it started.
    In a misty rain, as they carry the coffin past the silent faithful, a father whisper to his young son.
    “That’s him, that’s the special one I told you about.”
    Entombed below the dirt of Flanders –

    The Weight of Belgium Upon Him for Eternity

  21. There’s a great cyclingnews piece on VDB at the ’99 Vuelta:

    “That Vuelta a España was the only time in my career that another rider made me lose the will to race my bike. I’m talking about Frank Vandenbroucke,” Miceli says, for the avoidance of any ambiguity. “He’d be coming back to the hotel in the small hours, with a girl, possibly drunk, and then going and killing us all on the road the next day. You know, you train hard, you go a month without sex before a grand tour – because you tell yourself that’s what it takes – then you see that. It makes you think, ‘What am I even doing here?'”


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