Frank Vandenbroucke: Cyclist whose drug abuse and chaotic lifestyle sabotaged what might have been a glittering career

Frank Vandenbroucke, the Belgian rider once tipped to succeed cycling's all-time great Eddy Merckx, was found dead in a hotel room in Senegal on Monday. He was 34. The circumstances surrounding Vandenbroucke's demise while on holiday in Africa were almost as hazy as the last 10 years of his chaotic, drug-tainted life.

Initial reports said a pulmonary embolism was one possible cause of his death. But there were also rumours that Vandenbroucke could have been a victim of a robbery that turned violent, others that he had been drinking heavily, and reports, too, that three types of medication – an anxiolytic, insulin and sleeping pills – were found near his bedside.

The parallels of the life and death of VDB, as he was universally known, with another cycling prodigy, the 1998 Tour de France winner Marco Pantani, have been lost on nobody. Like Pantani in Italy, VDB was venerated in his own country as a sporting superstar. But after spiralling into a series of failed comebacks and drug abuse, in 2004 Pantani died alone in a hotel room from a cocaine overdose. Five years later, while the cause of VDB's death remains unknown, he has clearly followed the same tragic road.

The highly promising beginning of Vandenbroucke's career paralleled Pantani's, too. Born in Mouscron in 1974, he turned professional at 19 and almost immediately racked up race wins in events as prestigious as Paris-Nice and Het Volk.

The Belgian's biggest success came in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic, a 260-kilometre grind through an unending succession of Ardennes climbs, in 1999. Vandenbroucke was so confident of victory he told journalists beforehand the exact spot where he would make his race-winning attack – and attack there, and win, the 25-year-old surely did. But rather than the victory acting as a springboard for his career, instead a decade would go by before he won again, and Liège became a bitter reminder of the waste of his huge talent.

That same year VDB's long history of drug abuse began to run out of control. Initiated into the recreational uses of Stilnox, a sleeping pill, in 1998 by a team-mate, he was already linked to a drugs scandal in 1999 when he was arrested by French police. Three years later, in 2002, he was suspended for six months for testing positive for a banned substance.

Vandenbroucke later admitted that in this period, as well as EPO, which boosts the blood's oxygen-carrying abilities, and steroids, he had been regularly using amphetamines and sleeping pills – a combination which saw him not sleep for up to five days at a time. Increasingly out of touch with reality, from 2000 onwards he drifted from one team to another, briefly raced under a false licence in Italy and invented more and more surreal excuses for his drug use.

His most famous explanation to police was that his drugs were medications for his dog. In reality, as he told the Belgian newspaper Le Soir last April, "the drugs were there to help me forget. Outside racing, I'd use amphetamines from morning to night. I'd disconnect my phone, leave the house without telling anybody, go fishing for 20 days."

He would also fantasise systematically about police raids, attempting to flush away the needles and drugs before they broke down his front door. "I couldn't understand how Sarah [his wife] didn't see the policemen," he later wrote. "It didn't make sense."

He had once pretended to commit suicide by firing off his shotgun in his garden, and when his marriage collapsed in 2007, he made a more serious attempt.

"I went to my wine cellar, took out the most expensive bottle I could find, a Chateau Petrus 1961 and toasted my life," he wrote. "Then I put on my world champion's jersey, injected myself [with insulin] and then I went to lie on my bed and waited to die. I was so happy, no more worries at last."

The attempt failed, but Vandenbroucke was committed to a psychiatric hospital for several months. Following his release, he made his umpteenth attempt to return to professional cycling, riding unpaid for the tiny Italian Cinelli squad this year. He was last seen by most journalists at the World Championships in Mendrisio last month, working as a consultant for a Belgian newspaper, his tall, gaunt, unsmiling figure a virtual fixture in the press room.

After his relationship with Cinelli fizzled out, Vandenbroucke started working with the Italian doctor Aldo Sassi and, so it was said, was taking his racing and training more seriously than ever before. However, truth and fiction had blurred in VDB's life to the point that it was impossible to verify, just as the reasons for his death remain as yet equally unclear.

In Belgium, Vandenbroucke's death has had a huge impact, and it was the front page story of every newspaper yesterday. "We all laughed at him," said the editorial in Vers L'Avenir, "but we all admired him, too."

Alasdair Fotheringham

Frank Vandenbroucke, cyclist: born Mouscron, Belgium 6 November 1974; partner of Clotilde Menu (one daughter); married 2000 Sarah Pinacci (divorced, one daughter; died, Saly, Senegal 12 October 2009.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

March On Cancer™ - Local Marketing and Promotions Volunteer

This is an unpaid voluntary role.: Cancer Research UK: We need motivational vo...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Maths Teacher - Evening session

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: I am looking for a qualified experi...

Teaching Assistants

£50 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing ...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week