Francesco Del Ponte speaks

Vandenbroucke looking for another chance

By Tim Maloney, European Editor

Speaking to La Gazetta dello Sport's Claudio Gregori after a tough training ride in the hilly Oltrepo Pavesi region south of Milano, enigmatic 31 year-old Belgian Frank Vandenbroucke has been participating in Gran Fondo events for "cicloamatore" riders in Italy this summer, since he stopped racing for the Unibet team in May. Vandenbroucke, who has lived in a small village west of Milano since last fall with his wife and daughter, addressed why he stopped racing for the Belgian Continental Pro squad: "I started the season well and at the Ruta del Sol in February, I was flying," Vandenbroucke explained. "But in March I got some kind of virus, like mononucleosis. I started to think the team didn't trust me. Why was I still racing. Other riders might think of giving up in that situation, but not me. Since that day in February 2002, when I was handcuffed, I've changed. I've gone through some really hard moments, above all my mental outlook. Others would have been crushed, but now I've managed to come out of my depression. I feel strong again. For the last month I've been feeling good."

With all his ups and downs, Vandenbroucke might seem like a candidate for the same tragic end as Pantani or Jose Maria Jimenez, but the former powerhouse from Ploegsteert was adamant that he wasn't going to end up like them. "I'm not going to be like that. There's no danger because my family gives me my strength. My wife Sara, my little girl Margot." As to why a former winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege is racing in Gran Fondo events, Vandenbroucke explained that "I'm just riding these races because I need to get some racing miles in my legs. But I know that I have talent and want to show it. I don't want my talent to go to waste. I know I can still win another classic... I'm just waiting for (a team) to call me. And now I know I'm a good person and that my life is in order."

Although he will be 32 years old in November, Vandenbroucke still sees that he has a career ahead of him, saying "I really haven't raced much... look at Ekimov, Tchmil... I can still be competitive until I'm 38 or 40 years old." When asked why a pro team would even want him, Vandenbroucke explained that "I know my name scares people away. But I hope people can forget about my past. I won't make another mistake. I'm out of the tunnel (or depression)."

When asked about his previous involvement with doping, Vandenbroucke said "for the last four years, my approach to cycling doesn't need (doping). Philosophically my approach to cycling has changed. It's true that I haven't won anything in a long time with the exception of a few kermesse races, but I was second in Flanders (2003), 6th at Fleche Wallone and 8th at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and helped Petacchi to win Milano-Sanremo. But I was missing something. My head... but now I have my head back."

As for his participation in Italian Gran Fondo events for Team Olympus under a false name (Francesco Del Ponte, an Italian translation of Frank Vandenbroucke), the Belgian denied that he had put Tom Boonen's photo on his racing license. "I didn't do that! If I was going to do something like this, I would have put someone else's photo. I don't know who did it and I don't want to know." Vandenbroucke was training but was looking for more of a challenge. "The training gets boring and I missed being in a group... (Team Olympus) asked me if I wanted to race (Gran Fondos) so I decided to give them a try. But I've never passed the finish line, I don't want to interfere in the races of the amateur riders."

In fact, it was team president Evgeni Berzin, winner of the '94 Giro d'Italia who admitted he put Boonen's photo in Vandenbroucke's UDACE license, the Italian organisation that sanction Gran Fondos. Berzin told La Gazetta dello Sport "it was a little mistake, but we changed it. There's no harm done. Frank comes to our (Team Olympus) training sessions twice a week and I'm even riding again too."

But Vandenbroucke and Berzin's antics have angered UDACE boss Francesco Barberis, who angrily declared that "We're happy that this situation has been discovered. And whoever has done this will pay for it. I've already spoken with our lawyers... we feel like we've been duped. We will fight ever harder to keep professional riders out of our races and we won't let (Raimondas) Rumsas ride our races anymore. And soon we'll start anti-doping controls again." With UDACE now on the warpath, Vandenbroucke will likely have to revert to group training rides and keep his hope alive that some team will give him another chance, his 10th after stints on Lotto, Mapei, Lampre, Cofidis, Domo-Farm Frites, QuickStep, Fassa Bortolo, Mr. Bookmaker and Unibet.

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