Three weeks after Frank Vandenbroucke spoke to Daniel Friebe about his newly rebuilt life, the ex-pro was dead. Procycling recounts that last interview and remembers the Belgian cycling superstar.
With an eerie sense of déjà vu, I asked, "Frank, is there any chance we could have a chat later?" That’s because once, in 2001, I’d put exactly the same question to Frank Vandenbroucke and got a response that made my nerves quake and soul shiver.
Earlier on that day all those years ago, I’d foolhardily accepted an invitation to join Frank Vandenbroucke (VDB) and Lampre on a training ride, only for VDB to mysteriously elope halfway through the session. Hours later, I found him sulking in the restaurant of the Lampre team hotel. Just weeks into what was already his fourth pro deal, the team’s bosses looked as alarmed as their enfant terrible looked miserable.
In Mendrisio, it was different. "Chat?" he said, "Why not? Find me in the press room later." The World Championship road race was due to begin in a few minutes and although VDB wasn’t competing, he seemed to be in his element, waving to the crowds that lined the road as he wore a satin blazer which was clearly his Sunday best. His eyes were bright, his skin tanned and glossy. He seemed to exude good health and happiness. For a self-confessed recovering cocaine addict, not to mention someone who tried to kill himself in June 2007, it appeared that he’d already overcome a great challenge – the one to get his life back.
Like many people, I’d fallen under VDB’s spell in the mid- and late 90s, aka "the EPO years". To me as a teenager, he was a headstrong prodigy who happened to ride for my favourite team, Mapei. Watching the videos now, I can appreciate that he was so much more than the sum of the 26 victories he amassed before his 25th birthday, including a stage in the Tour of the Med when he was barely 19. Doped or not, on the bike, Vandenbroucke represented a rare marriage of grace and power. Katarina Witt, Johan Cruyff and Roger Federer all achieved not just sporting brilliance but also beauty.
For a few years at the end of the last century, VDB seemed destined for the same superior cru.
We ended up having our most recent conversation on the Sunday afternoon, midway through the men’s road race. At lunchtime, in the marquee tent next to the press room, I’d noticed him eating and talking cheerfully with journalists from Italy, France and Luxembourg. Earlier in the week, he’d stridden into the press room, seen two reporters from the Walloonian newspaperLa Dernière Heure and exclaimed, "Now we’re colleagues!" Soon, it was "If you need to know anything, just ask," and, "If you’re thirsty, just let me know." Three weeks later, the same writers would pen his obituary.
We sat outside, Vandenbroucke straddling a plastic chair, me crouched on the curb. The interview lasted no more than 15 minutes, because he had a race to watch and a column to write for the Flemish daily Het Nieuwsblad. The last I’d heard of him was that he’d recently walked out on Cinelli-Down Under, his 12th team in 15 seasons. He claimed they’d never even gone to the trouble of offering him a contract, let alone paying him a wage. "After Tom Boonen, I’m still the second biggest name in Belgian cycling," he’d apparently harrumphed.
He hadn’t found a gig in September, but there was still a sprinkling of braggadocio. "For the last 18 months, I’ve been a new man, another Vandenbroucke," he gushed, implying that his struggles with drugs and depression were now a thing of the past.
With hindsight, his lapse into the third-person may have suggested that all was not as well as he claimed. In a brilliant 2007 documentary about his performance in the 1999 Vuelta, Vandenbroucke reflected, "I was like an extraterrestrial. Maybe that was the drama. It was all too easy. That caused me a lot of problems later..." Despite his protestations to the contrary, there were signs in Mendrisio that the extraterrestrial hadn’t yet completed his landing on planet Earth.
For those 15 minutes, though, VDB held me in a trance, just as he had years earlier. When I’d finished my questions, I thanked him and said, in all sincerity, that it was good to see him looking so well. He smiled and replied that he’d enjoyed the interview. What he really liked, I think, was any recognition of the efforts that were so much greater than anything he’d ever had to muster on a bike – his fight to live a completely normal life.
Hopeful, although still slightly sceptical, I swapped e-mails with one of the Het Nieuwsblad journalists who had worked with VDB in Switzerland, Hugo Coorevits. “Life is normal for him again," Hugo wrote. "At 10 o’clock at night he was in his bed and at 7:30, before me, he was at breakfast."
Little did I know it at the time, but, on leaving Mendrisio, a French journalist had sought similar reassurances from Frank Vandenbroucke’s uncle, Jean-Luc, who later recalled the exchange. "The journalist said to me ‘He looks fit and happy.’ I told him, ‘Don’t you believe it. We never know what surprises Frank has in store...’"
Alas, there will be no more surprises. VDB is no more…
Frank Vandenbroucke’s final Procycling interview
Procycling: First of all, Frank, we’ve seen you in the press room all week, so tell us what you’re doing here at the 2009 World Championships.
Vandenbroucke: I’m here as a journalist for Het Nieuwsblad to give my vision of the race and of cycling in general. I did the same job at the Tour de France. I tell them what I see and I really enjoy it. I love it. I put a lot of energy into it, and I think we’re doing a great job.
Procycling: Your problems over the past few years haven’t been a secret. Give us an update on how you’re doing, or at least sum up the last year or so.
VDB: Going slightly further back than that, I divorced two years ago, having had lots of problems in the relationship. I’d suffered a lot on the inside, in my heart. But since last winter, I’ve been a new man. I’ve recovered 100 per cent...
Procycling: How have you recovered, Frank?
VDB: Quite simply, there’s no therapy. Things are going better.
Procycling: No therapy?
VDB: No. Over the past few years, I’ve just come to realise that I’m a lot more serene when I’m on my own. I’ve never gone looking for a cure, but the way I’ve found it is very well perceived in Belgium. For years, no one looked upon me as they look upon me now.
Procycling: So you think that a lot of your problems were linked to your relationships?
VDB: I suffered enormously in that respect and the outlets for my tension were unacceptable.
[Pause] I simply realise that the last year and a half have been fantastic for me.
Procycling: So if you meet the third woman of your dreams tomorrow, you’ll tell her you’re not interested?
VDB: [laughing]. Noooo, because I was already happy with the first one... No, I just see that, over the past 18 months, I’m alive again. I can breath again. I’m another Vandenbroucke.
Procycling: Frank, what you’re telling us is a magnificent story, because there are thousands, maybe millions of people in the world who suffer from problems like the ones you’ve overcome and think there is no hope. Yet here you are telling us that it’s possible, that you can recover from addiction and depression...
VDB: Absolutely. I think my life experience has taught me that you can recover. I’m a bit like a cat really – I’ve had more than a few lives, yet here I am, happier and more serene in my heart than at any other time of my life. I’m rediscovering myself and, as I do, I’m discovering a fantastic person.
Procycling: What’s your relationship with cycling now? Is it hard for you to be here and not be racing?
VDB: Yes, it’s hard. This year I was in decent condition without any great preparation. It’s tended to be other riders who have come up to me and say that I still have the same pedal stroke as in my best years. So I haven’t written off my life as a cyclist yet. I’m still passionate. That’s what keeps me going. Cycling is still my life.
Procycling: I’m sure that you’ll acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes. What’s your biggest regret in life?
VDB: People often ask me that question. I have lots of regrets but I don’t let them become obsessions. All the team changes, the decisions I’ve made that in the long-term didn’t prove to be wise... I could talk about them all day, but the path that’s got me here is what it is.
Procycling: Do you believe in destiny? And, if so, do you think that it was your destiny to find happiness now at 34 years of age?
VDB: [Smiling] Nooooo, I don’t believe in destiny.
Procycling: Talk a little bit about your current life in Belgium. Do you live near your parents and friends?
VDB: Nothing’s ever very far away in Belgium. My parents live 45 minutes away and I have my group of friends nearby. My oldest friend, my old racing buddy, Nico Mattan lives 35 minutes away. We see each other whenever we feel like it. My house is in Zottegem, by the finish-line of the first stage of La Panne. I also have a house just South of Milan, close to Lodi, where I spend less time, but I go there to train in winter or to see my daughter, who lives in Florence now with her mum. It’s a good set-up. I like being able to live in two different countries.
Procycling: And is your life still like a typical pro bike rider?
VDB: No, not this year. I’m also the marketing director of the Walloon branch of a metal manufacturer, which takes up a lot of time. I decided to do that because the days are long, and you have to fill them somehow. I also did my column for Het Nieuwsblad during the Tour, and of course I still train, so I do three jobs. It’s a bit too busy if anything, but it also opens up lots of different horizons.
Procycling: You’ve had serious problems with hard drugs in the past, and been quite open about that struggle in public. What’s your relationship with drugs now?
VDB: I was a drug addict. It’s not a secret, I wrote it in my autobiography. And as a former addict, you can never be completely cured. You always have to stay well away from whatever it was that you were addicted to. I’m completely clean now, but you can never think you’re totally in the clear, even when you’re 65. I’ve had a lot of help from a lot of people. I have a psychologist, Jef Brouwers, who has been close to me every step of the way. I still sometimes speak to him three times a week. I owe him a huge amount, because it would have been easy for him to say quite early on that it wasn’t working, that I was hopeless, but he persevered. I owe him a huge amount.
Procycling: How long have you been clean?
VDB: A year and a half. And I’m very careful when it comes to going out and parties. I don’t like the kind of life I used to lead. It almost disgusts me. I’m always on my guard. I don’t go over the top. Then again, I’m also a young man who’s 34 years old and likes to be sociable.
I have a lot of energy, a big appetite for life.