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."
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.
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