I learned of Frank Vandenbroucke’s death this evening, just after I’d gotten my infant daughter ready for bed and handed her to my wife. I sat back down to finish dinner while my son played on the floor behind me, checked VeloNews.com on my phone, and saw the headline. Vandenbroucke was 34. So am I.
Maybe it’s that shared age that made Vandenbroucke seem sort of like that friend everyone has from college – the one who, while everyone else has settled down, gotten married, and had kids, still always has a new insane story of a night out gone radically wrong (or right, depending on how you look at it). With VDB, it always seemed like another madcap misadventure – a dramatic fight with a girlfriend, racing in Italy with a license bearing a fake name and Tom Boonen’s picture – was always just around the corner. Sure, there would always be consequences for Frank, but nothing serious.
For me, that image somehow managed to coexist with the readily apparent and much darker truths behind all those incidents, as well as the common assumption that, like Marco Pantani before him, Vandenbroucke’s early demise was a foregone conclusion. The public scrutiny, the personal strife, the doping allegations, the substance abuse – all the signs of his ongoing personal destruction were just as plainly evident as his talent on a bike. But just as it was with Pantani, knowing ahead of time that Vandenbroucke wouldn’t be around forever didn’t do a bit to blunt the news.
By the time you get to this site, you’ll likely have already read the career recaps – the wins at Paris-Nice, Het Volk, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Vuelta. With any luck, the tales of those performances will be at least as prominent as the summaries of the various police actions, doping incidents, suicide threats, and abortive comebacks that have come to define his public life. I’ll leave it up to the big sites to do that work, and to the message boards and other blogs to either posthumously deify him as a dashing antihero, or vilify him as a cheater. As usual, the truth likely lies somewhere in between, but I wouldn't know.
Instead, I’ll share the one time I saw Vandenbroucke race firsthand, at the cobbled classics in 2004. If I hadn’t been looking for him, like everyone else, I’m not sure I would have seen him – racing for Fassa Bortolo, he was 44th at Flanders, didn’t start Gent-Wevelgem, and started but didn’t finish Paris-Roubaix. It wasn’t the performance anticipated by the Flemish fans who, encouraged by VDB’s second place at the previous year’s Ronde, enthusiastically splashed the message “God is Terug” (God Is Back) across roads, bedsheet banners, and newspaper headlines. And it certainly wasn’t the glory of 1999, with wins at Het Volk and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. That 1999 Vandenbroucke was exceptional; this one was just common. But in that spring of 2004, VDB was still in the big leagues, on a top team, in the biggest races. He looked good, even if he wasn't, and a different future still seemed possible. Unfortunately, he would never reach even those heights again. No, it wasn’t the VDB of 1999 that I saw, but it was a hell of a lot better than where we find ourselves five short years later.
Looking again at the list of VeloNews.com headlines, topped by the Vandenbroucke news, I also see, just below, news of Chad Gerlach’s renewed struggle with addiction and homelessness, and an update on David Clinger’s battle with addiction and depression. Knowing of the wars that riders including Vandenbroucke, Pantani, and Jose Maria Jimenez have fought with substance abuse, and how those lives ended, I can only hope that Gerlach's and Clinger's stories turn out differently.