Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Another terrible loss...

Frank Vandenbroucke
November 6, 1974-October 12, 2009.

This is not going to be one of those "cautionary tale" rants. Nor is it going to be a eulogy for a fallen hero. There will be writers much more eloquent than I who will put this mans' career and life into it's proper perspective in the coming weeks and months.

This is a fan writing about a very talented pro cyclist who inspired many, drove a few crazy with his arrogance and brashness, and unfortunately was taken out by some very determined demons hell-bent on seeing him leave us way too soon.

I feel terrible. The last few years of his life, with all of his ongoing issues including marriage difficulties and the inexplicable inability to harness his tremendous talent, many of his fans wanted to relive the days of glories past. Who can forget VDB tearing up La Redoute against the number 1 classics rider at the time, Michele Bartoli, a mano-a-mano duel by two top riders that is never seen nowadays in any professional race?

I'll never forget David Millar, then a teammate at Cofidis who said he became completely demoralized when he saw Frank climbing La Redoute on a training ride a few days before the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race IN THE BIG RING. Such was the power of the man-a combination of speed, endurance and strength that lead him to become one of the youngest riders to ever turn pro at the age of 19.

His training sessions as an amateur on the roads of his native Belgium were the stuff of legend. Riding at a steady 35kph clip regardless of terrain, he routinely mocked pro riders as he would catch them, introduce himself and calmly leave them in his dust. That takes balls of steel and supreme confidence, and out on the road VDB had it in spades.

The petulance that often accompanies precocious talent was there from the beginning,. Shortly after turning pro for his uncle Jean-Luc's team (Lotto), he decided he was too big for them after finding success as a pro almost immediately. He broke his contract and left Lotto to ride for the biggest team in the world, the Italian Mapei squad. Problems arose yet again and he decided to move to the french Cofidis team, who were built specifically around him as opposed to Mapei who had a stable of very talented and experienced racers. Not wanting to squander his opportunities by being told what races he could or could not do, he became the captain of his own ship at the ripe old age of 23.

Goerge Dyer, the now-retired American representative of the famous french custom bicycle frame manufacturers CYFAC, told me during our correspondences that VDB demanded a custom race frame with varying changes in geometry depending on which race he was riding. He was incredibly meticulous, demanding specific and often minute changes to every frame he rode. CYFAC custom-built frames for Cofidis even though they were sponsored by bike manufacturer MBK, and while most riders were happy with one or two frames for the whole year Vandenbroucke was always in and out of their framebuilding headquarters.

One of his best years turned out to be 1999, his first year at Cofidis. At home on the cobbles of Belgium as well as on the hills of the Ardennes, he acclimated himself well to the Spring Classics. His next move was the grand tours, as seen in this youtube clip aptly titled "the Butcher Shop of Frank Vandenbroucke" from the 1999 Vuelta a EspaƱa-

It is difficult not to appreciate and be in awe of what this man did on this particular climb, tearing the legs off some of the best riders in the world at a 40kph clip. And doing so with a style, grace and panache reminiscent of the Italian cycling god Fausto Coppi. They were indeed very similar in riding style, which is what made VDB so unique.

He ended 1999 in scandalous style, crashing at the World Chamionships, fracturing both wrists but did not bother to tell any of his Belgian compatriots, who were fuming that they spent the race working for a team leader who had no hope of winning. He was accused of monumental selfishness, and the other top riders on his national team felt cheated out of a chance of riding for themselves.

Alas, that year was as good as it would ever get for Vandenbroucke. He was laid low by accusations of steroid use, a fragile psyche and the pursuing scandals that enveloped his professional and personal life. He floundered from team to team, always beginning the year on a positive note and then quickly disappearing from the standings. He went through more teams than Shawn Kemp went through baby mommas, but we need not mention those problems in detail here. This is not the time to hurl stones at his shortcomings. We have lost another cycling great, and all we can do is mourn the loss of a young man cut down in life way before his time and celebrate his achievements.

The tormented soul of VDB will always haunt the feared climbs of the Spring Classics. Let's hope he has found the peace that escaped him here on Earth, up there on that big "La Redoute" climb in the sky.


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