By Graham Healy
The Belgian rider Frank Vandenbroucke was just a teenager when he won his first professional race – a stage of the Tour of the Mediterranean where he beat the likes of Davide Cassani and Evgeni Berzin. Vandenbroucke who was racing for the Lotto team would later claim that Cassani and Berzin had “been prepared by doctor Michele Ferrari and Luigi Cecchini while I raced on bread and water.”
Great things had been expected from him following an amateur career where he had won a Belgian title and a bronze in the World Championships. However, nobody expected such a great start in the pro ranks for a nineteen year-old.
The following year, he broke his contract with Lotto and joined Mapei, which caused Vandenbroucke and his uncle, Jean-Luc who managed the team, to have a falling out. The two did not speak for two years. However, with Mapei, he added more fine wins to his palmares including Paris-Brussels and Cholet-Pays-de-Loire. Vandenbroucke was to join a long list of Belgians who had been tipped to become “the next Merckx.”
The wins continued over the following years, as he took victories in Paris-Nice, Tour of the Mediterranean, Ghent-Wevelgem and GP Plouay. In 1999, he transferred to Cofidis, where he made the acquaintance of Philippe Gaumont. By this stage in his career, Vandenbroucke had developed a reputation for being a party animal and that year, he was arrested for the first time on suspicion of the use of performance enhancing drugs.
That same year, Gaumont admitted to drug-taking and this confession started the Cofidis scandal, which led to the police raid on David Millar’s house. 1999 also happened to be the best season in Vandenbroucke’s career. He won Het Volk, stages of Paris-Nice and the Tour of Spain and in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he destroyed the opposition. However, he admitted that he had taken PEDs for his Liege win but he said that although he was doped, “it was a fair win as all the top five were also.”
Regarding the use of drugs, Vandenbroucke would say in his autobiography Je ne suis pas Dieu (I’m Not God): “Everybody did it [used dope], and so did I. It is the truth and it does not diminish the value of my victories.”
He stayed with Cofidis for one more season, but would move from team to team thereafter, Lampre to Domo to Quick Step and so on. Vandenbroucke couldn’t seem to get on with any team. He didn’t win anything in 2000 or 2001, and was a shadow of the rider he had been in 1999.
Vandenbroucke also had more drugs problems. He was caught speeding in a car with the notorious Bernard Sainz (Dr. Mabuse). This prompted a raid of his house, where the police found various drugs which the cyclist said were for his dog.
Following a police investigation, in 2004, Vandenbroucke finally admitted having taken growth hormones, EPO, amphetamine, morphine and steroids. There were other problems in his life also. He was caught drink driving twice and he had a troubled personal life. The Belgian had a very turbulent relationship with a former model, Sarah Pinacci, and they would keep splitting up before getting back together. He even attempted suicide in 2007.
Vandenbroucke was sacked by various teams he raced for and in 2008, he was suspended by his Mitsubishi team, after he was accused by Belgian police of buying cocaine. He made numerous attempts at comebacks and in 2009, he finally won his first UCI race since 1999, a stage of La Boucle de l’Artois. It seemed that he might have finally turned the corner.
However, later that year, Vandenbroucke went on holidays to Saly, a coastal resort in Senegal. He went out drinking on the night of October 11, and an employee at the hotel that he was staying in was quoted by Agence France Presse: “When he came in [at 2 AM], he was drunk. He was with a Senegalese woman and he planned to stay one night. At 4 AM his companion came to ask for a mop because he had been sick. By 1 PM he had not left his room. Around 8 PM my boss called me and told me he was dead.”
The autopsy in Senegal showed he had died of a pulmonary embolism, with some reports saying that a combination of drugs had been found by his bedside. It was a tragic end for the cyclist who died at the age of just 34.