The Wednesday Comment


The death of Frank Vandenbroucke was made all the more tragic by the sense of inevitability. When the news broke on Monday evening, very few people were surprised. Even his uncle, Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke, said: “Sadly this has come only partly as a surprise. We knew he was not doing well.”

Most of Vandenbroucke’s adult life had been chaotic, right from the day when he walked out on his contract with the Lotto team midway through the 1995 season to join Mapei. What made the situation even more complicated was that his uncle Jean-Luc was the Lotto team manager. The pair did not speak for two years.

Vandenbroucke won the first race I covered for Cycling Weekly, the 1999 Het Volk semi-Classic. After attacking near the finish, only Wilfried Peeters could stay with him. If Peeters did more than a couple of turns on the front in the final ten kilometres I’d be surprised. It was a supreme show of strength from such a slight, vulnerable-looking character. He turned the big gears so smoothly.

It’s a day I remember well, partly because of the filthy weather, and partly because of the hysterical scrum that surrounded him at the finish, as his Cofidis soigneur attempted to get him changed into warm, dry clothes journalists and fans jostled for a glimpse, pushing and shoving. It was the day Vandenbroucke truly became public property.

Five weeks later I was back in Belgium for the Tour of Flanders and the focus on Vandenbroucke at the start was even more intense. He finished second, outsprinted by Peter Van Petegem. Not speaking Flemish, I asked a Belgian journalist what he was being asked. He told me every question was critical. “Why didn’t you win?” “Why didn’t you attack sooner?” “Weren’t you strong enough?” Understanding the questions being put to him made me realise why Vandenbroucke had such an expression of hurt on his face. He looked like a cornered animal that was too tired to even lash out and defend himself.

Perhaps his most memorable victory was in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the spring of 1999, when he rode over the steepest climbs the Ardennes had to offer in the big chainring. It was an astonishing performance and one which is difficult to admire without suspending a certain amount of disbelief. Before the race, he’d told some journalists exactly where he planned to attack, and that is exactly what he did.

Things began to unravel quickly. At the peak of his fame he left his partner and young child to marry an Italian model. By all accounts their relationship was explosive. Vandenbroucke switched teams on an almost annual basis, every time promising to recapture his glory days, every time slipping still further from that incredible summit. He rode for less money each time he moved, even turning the pedals for free at Fassa Bortolo on a pay-as-you-win basis.

Drugs, both recreational and performance-enhancing, played a role in his downfall. He was placed under police investigation for possession of drugs, he was suspended for six months after failing a dope test, he raced in small Italian races under a fake licence. His wife said he had a problem with cocaine and there were drink-driving offences. The life of Frank Vandenbroucke was mocked in a cartoon strip in a Belgian magazine.

There was a string of bizarre incidents, including the time he fired his shotgun in the garden. Things took a serious and altogether more sinister turn in 2007, when he tried to commit suicide, by injecting himself with insulin and drinking a bottle of wine. After that he spent time in a psychiatric hospital.

Still, though, he returned to cycling, riding, unpaid, for Cinelli this year, but continuing to talk of a comeback to a bigger stage.

Inevitably there have been comparisons with Marco Pantani, who died in 2004. Destructive, depressive people are certainly not exclusive to cycling, but for some  it is a sport that takes and rarely gives back. Vandenbroucke is one of those people.

Vandenbroucke’s greatest days on a bike are remembered and cherished by many, but he is a tragic figure. A young man who reached the top but found his successes immediately tarnished by drugs, which must have been bemusing. He trusted his advisers. It’s impossible to say with certainty how much drugs contributed to his success, but it is clear they played a significant part in his downfall.

Last year, on another trip to Belgium, a journalist told me about a public talk Vandenbroucke had recently given. He had arrived drunk and although the talk was at times embarrassing, Vandenbroucke was given a rapturous reception. His fans still loved him and were prepared to overlook his obvious problems. But who was stepping forward to help?

While not for a moment suggesting that Tom Boonen is on the same path as Vandenbroucke, it is impossible to avoid the early-warning signs. Like Pantani, Vandenbroucke’s descent seemed steady and unstoppable. Once on the downward spiral the brief rallies were only temporary.

One wonders who is around to advise and help these young men when they find the fame and the pressure too much. Who offers encouragement and perspective when there is self-doubt? Who gives guidance when the journey becomes difficult?

Cycling is a sport for the strong. But some of those physically strong people are not as mentally strong. Cycling often appears quite poor at helping the weak avoid the pitfalls. Instead of help and support in times of strife, riders are pushed back into action, either by their inability to think of anything else to do, or by others who still have something to gain. You have to hope that the lessons of Marco Pantani and Frank Vandenbroucke’s lives do not continue to go unheeded.

Earlier this week, the Kazakhs pledged to come up with the money to keep the Astana cycling team going for another three years. That, they said, meant Alberto Contador would not be leaving. The Tour champion has a contract for another year, although he is determined to get out.

Meanwhile, the Kazakhs say that team manager Johan Bruyneel must also stay. Bruyneel said in Paris today there was absolutely no chance of that happening.

He is committed to Team Shack, as Lance Armstrong is now calling it. Earlier this year it was reported that several Astana riders would be switching to Team Shack too.

Now the Kazakhs have come up with some cash, they want to keep Contador, re-integrate their disgraced favourite son Alexandre Vinokourov into the line-up and win the Tour.

Oh, and they’ve pointed out that four of the riders that had announced they were heading to Team Shack would not be going anywhere either. Astana expects Andreas Klöden, Yaroslav Popovych (who had originally been given the all-clear to go), Haimar Zubeldia and Gregory Rast to be riding for them, not Team Shack, in 2010.

Neither Astana nor Team Shack have had their ProTour status confirmed, although the presence of Contador and Armstrong at the Tour de France launch suggests ASO would take both riders regardless of their team’s status.

What is fascinating is that Armstrong and Bruyneel need the UCI to apply a double standard. It is firmly in their interests for the UCI to force Contador to honour his contract at a weakened Astana, yet they need the UCI to allow Klöden, Popovych and Zubeldia to break theirs.

The resolution to this mess is not going to be simple. Wading through the contractual small print and the UCI’s rules while negotiating the egos and grudges is going to be an unenviable task.

But if Team Shack frees their Astana riders the precedent will be set and Contador will be able to leave too. If everyone is forced to stay where they are, Contador’s team-mates will be the men Armstrong and Bruyneel had cherrypicked for their own team and the gaps in Team Shack at such a late stage in the year will be huge. It doesn’t get much more juicier than that.

And as a secondary plot, there’s still the Contador-Garmin-Wiggins issue to be solved. The unveiling of such a mountainous Tour route has increased Contador’s worth and decreased Wiggins’s in equal measure. Would Garmin be able to extract enough compensation for Wiggins’s departure to enable them to sign Contador?

This time last year, a lot of people got very excited about the prospect of an all-out battle on Mont Ventoux when the Tour de France organisers scheduled the mountain for the penultimate day of the 2009 race.

Here at CW we sounded a note of caution. It was a big gamble by Christian Prudhomme to hinge an entire three-week race on the final Saturday. By watering down the mountain challenges in the Pyrenees and Alps he had, in effect, placed all his chips on red.

The gamble didn’t pay off. The real action was contained to five minute bursts on a couple of mountains and Mont Ventoux was a day of caution.

The drama came at the most unexpected time, when the crosswinds blew on the stage to La Grande Motte. It was as fascinating an hour’s racing as we saw all year. The only problem was that no one had banked on it – certainly very few people would have taken the Monday off work to watch a flat stage.

When looking at the route for the 2010 Tour, it is obvious that there are several key days. However, rather than trying to orchestrate the drama, it is a relief to see the Tour’s organisers offer a route that presents many and varied opportunities to make the race.

Have we seen Rebecca Romero racing on the track for the last time? It wouldn’t be a huge surprise.

The last time she raced on the boards was when she won the gold medal in the individual pursuit at the Olympic Games last summer.

She had been pencilled in to ride the individual pursuit at the British National Track Championships next week but the proposal to scrap the event from the Olympic Games programme has turned the tables on British Cycling’s plans.

A decision over whether she will ride the individual pursuit at the Manchester World Cup is imminent. Of course, Romero could also be a key member of the team pursuit squad. She was part of the British team pursuit team that won the first World Championship in the discipline in Manchester last year. Great Britain holds the world record (3-22) but that is sure to tumble as the rest of the world begins to take the event more seriously in the run-up to London 2012.

Romero would be a very valuable member of the team, but Great Britain also have Wendy Houvenaghel, Lizzie Armitstead and Jo Rowsell to call on. There’s no shortage of talent.

The question is whether she wants to dedicate the next two-and-a-half years to riding the team pursuit. If Romero does not ride at one of the next two World Cups it will begin to look like her track career is at an end.

Perhaps the next challenge will be the time trial on the road?