Brilliant but troubled: Vandenbroucke’s stormy career
Once seen as the great hope of Belgian cycling, Frank Vandenbroucke enjoyed a brief but exhilarating moment on the podium before his demons caught up with him.
Born in Mouscron in 1974 and raised in the village of Ploegsteert, Hainaut province, Vandenbroucke came from one of those rare families who live in Wallonia but speak Dutch. His first cycling drama came when he was four and was knocked from his bicycle in the village square by a rally car driver. His mother said her son didn’t cry until doctors cut his cycling shorts.
Although he showed early promise as an athlete, Vandenbroucke was happiest on a bicycle. He earned his first major medal at 18, when he came third in the world junior road championship in Athens.
Vandenbroucke turned professional in 1993 with the Lotto team, whose sport director was his uncle, Jean-Luc. Labelled “VDB” by the cycling press, he soon developed his prodigious talent, winning 51 races in the next six years as a professional. He won the Paris-Brussels semi-classic in 1995 and stormed to victory in the Gent-Wevelgem classic in 1998 – the same year he won Paris-Nice, the week-long “race to the sun” from wintry northern Europe to the Mediterranean.
The following year, he claimed one of the five “monuments” of European cycling – Liège-Bastogne- Liège – which is notorious for its short, sharp climbs; there was further success in the Omloop Het Volk; and two stage wins in the Tour of Spain.
But Vandenbroucke’s transfer to the French team Cofidis in 1999 on a contract worth 30 million Belgian francs (€740,000) marked the start of a downward spiral, as he sunk into the first of many doping controversies. From 2000, people in cycling were talking more about VDB’s drug taking, depression and relationship problems than his cycling.
He served a six-month suspension from the sport in 2002 after a police raid on his home found several performance-enhancing substances. After the end of his volatile marriage to Italian model Sarah Pinacci, she accused him of being a cocaine addict. His depression led to a suicide attempt in 2007.
However, he was still attempting to return to the fray this year and in April won a stage in the French race La Boucle de l’Artois, his first win in a UCI-race since 1999.