Death of a hard rider
Flemish cyclist Frank Vandenbroucke was on holiday in the west African country of Senegal with his friend and teammate Fabio Polazzi. The two were staying in the four-star Royam Hotel in the resort town of Saly and went out on their first night in town, 11 October.
Was former champion cyclist Frank Vandenbroucke robbed by a prostitute and left to die in a seedy hotel in Senegal? The police investigation continues
At around midnight, having had a few drinks, the friends split up; Vandenbroucke wanted to go back and meet up with a woman he had talked to earlier in the evening.
The next day, Polazzi saw no sign of Vandenbroucke at the hotel. He tried calling the mobile numbers Vandenbroucke had with him, but received no reply. At about 18.30 that evening, police brought him news that his friend had been found dead.
Vandenbroucke had apparently gone with a woman to the Maison Bleue hotel about three kilometres away, an establishment reputed to be used by prostitutes and their clients. They arrived at about 2.00, and, according to an employee, the man later identified as Vandenbroucke was very drunk. Two hours later, the woman came downstairs and asked for a cloth because her companion had been sick. She left the hotel about 6.00, and the body of Vandenbroucke, age 34, was found by the hotel’s manager about 12 hours later.
The cause of death was initially reported to be a pulmonary embolism: a clot of blood that travels to the lungs and blocks the artery. An embolism is a common cause of unexplained deaths, but it is an unusual condition to find in someone young and fit. The body was taken to the coastal nation’s capital, Dakar, for autopsy. A preliminary report later said there were no external signs of violence, but needle-marks were found on Vandenbroucke’s left arm.
According to the French press agency AFP, investigators found Xanax (a tranquilliser), Stilnox (a sleeping pill) and insulin beside the hotel bed, but it’s not yet clear whether this was in the Royam or the Maison Bleue.
Vandenbroucke, a father of two, has tried to commit suicide on two occasions in the past – once using insulin. But the circumstances of the suicide attempt were very different from the situation in which he died. During the attempt, he left a note explaining what he was doing and asking “not to be cut open,” as he explained in his autobiography Ik ben God niet (I Am Not God). He also dressed himself in his champion’s jersey before injecting the drug.
The woman with whom he took the room in the Maison Bleue was interviewed by police and held on suspicion. It’s not uncommon in some African cities for the customers of prostitutes – often tourists – to be slipped a drug in their drink so that they can be robbed more easily. The next day, police picked up two men in possession of Vandenbroucke’s telephones and a sum of money believed to have been stolen from him.
The authorities are now awaiting the results of toxicology tests to show the level of alcohol and drugs in Vandenbroucke’s body at the time of death. The Dakar coroner declared last week that he did not have the necessary resources to carry out the tests, suggesting that the body might be released quickly to return to Belgium for more lab work. But he did say there was no trace of alcohol found, which is directly contradicted by at least two witness statements, including that of Polazzi, who was drinking with him all evening. The coroner also confirmed the existence of the pulmonary embolism, which, together with a “pre-existing heart condition”, was the proximate cause of death.
The inconsistencies in the story – the prosecutor now says, for instance, that the woman raised the alarm, although she left the room about 12 hours before the body was discovered and while Vandenbroucke was still alive – need to be cleared up. As Flanders Today went to press, Vandenbroucke’s body was expected to be released for repatriation. The family has already said the funeral will take place in private, and the press will not be invited.
“He died the way he lived” Reactions to the death of “VDB”
“I often asked him how he was, and the answer was always ‘everything is fine’. I think things were better than they had been, say, two years ago, but was he happy? No, Frank wasn’t happy.” Clotilde Menu, mother of Frank’s 10-year-old daughter Cameron
“There were signs that things weren’t quite right. The business of not being able to find a team kept eating away at him. And then he went to Senegal, so far away. I couldn’t stop him, but I had a strange feeling about it.” Best friend Nico Mattan
“Sadly this is only a half-surprise. We were prepared for his chaotic lifestyle to come to a bad end.” Uncle Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke, a former top cyclist
“He lived in extremes. Frank was restless, easily bored. He had to go faster, be harder, bigger, tougher.” Manager Paul De Geyter
“He was an enfant terrible, but you forgave him. He was so popular. His death is a sad day for cycling, but my thoughts go out to the family. I still have to process the shock. I’m losing a contemporary but also a real friend.” Former team-mate Johan Museeuw
“God is dead.” Het Laatste Nieuws, referring to Vandenbroucke’s nickname from better days
“I think cycling fans will be overcome with grief. I knew Frank since he was riding with the beginners. Even then he stood out head and shoulders above the rest.” Laurent De Backer, president of the Cycling Federation
“I think that in a country like Belgium, where cycling stars are looked at like gods, people certainly took advantage of him….He was one of those guys who found it hard to make a decision about the best way to go, and he made a few wrong decisions in his career.” Former cyclist, now team director Matthew White
“Nothing suggested that Frank would come to his end so suddenly. It had been hard to get in touch with him lately…He wasn’t struggling, but he was really annoyed by the fact that, despite all the promises, he wasn’t going to find a team.” Psychologist Jef Brouwers, Frank’s therapist since 2001
“Frank died as he lived – not in a normal way. I can’t say I expected it to end this way for Frank, but my wife and I were afraid something might happen to him.” Frank’s father Jean-Jacques Vandenbroucke
“It’s a tragedy. I’m really shocked. 34 is no age to die.” Pro Flemish cyclist Tom Boonen