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My mate Nick Mitchell had the good fortune of racing and befriending former professsional Frank Vandenbroucke, before the Belgian superstar’s life was cut short. Many new cyclists never got to enjoy watching Vandenbroucke race as a downward spiral saw his life end tragically early. Like many in the cycling world I was shocked to hear of Vandenbroucke’s death, on Oct 12, 2009, while he was on holiday in Senegal. Nick only connected with Vandenbrouke in his later years but he got to know a different person to the one many of us understood only through media reports. I’ve asked Nick many times about the Vandenbrouke he knew and thankfully he’s finally put his insights into words for us.
My Mate Frank
If you were a fan of cycling in the late 1990’s you would know the name Frank Vandenbroucke well. He was a darling of the sport, so much so that in the cycling mad country of his birth, Belgium, he went by the name “God“.
He was a cycling legend and I had the honour of riding with and for him in 2009 on the Australian registered, Belgian based Team Cinelli.
Frank’s reputation preceded him. Cinelli was his 9th team in 10 years and it was hard not to have known about his drug use, both recreational and performance enhancing. It was hard to know what to expect from a man who forged a racing licence in 2006 that used a photo of the then world champion, Tom Boonen.
I don’t want to write about Frank’s colourful life. I just want to share the stories of my time with him and what he was like as a friend.
“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key” – Winston Churchill
Frank’s best season was 1999. That year he won two stages and the points classification at La Vuelta, Omloop Het Volk, GP Marseillaise and dominated Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
L-B-L was the biggest win of Frank’s career. He was so strong that day that on his way to victory he had the form to drag race Michele Bartoli up La Redoute. 2.3km long with an average gradient of 7.4% and maximum gradient approaching 18% there is no doubt that La Redoute can take the sting out of your legs. It is often considered the beginning of the finale for L-B-L but still too far from home to launch a serious attack.
That didn’t stop Frank from riding beside and then dancing away from Michele. Why? Because he wanted to reach the top first. He was prouder of cresting the climb ahead of Michele then he was of winning L-B-L. He told me he used a 42×16 that day to set what would have been an impressive Strava segment.
He was still a good bike rider when I rode and raced with him but he didn’t have the same legs in 2009 as he had in 1999. When we trained he was either on the back of the bunch or attacking us. Restlessness and frustration oozed from him.
Frank was trying to right a heavily listing ship in 2009, yet he still cared for those he was friends with. His advice could be difficult to take onboard at times, but it was genuine and he was frustrated when he thought you weren’t listening to him.
The team had met up in the days before Dwars Door Vlaanderen do some course recon. As soon as he saw me that morning he told me I was too fat and that I had put on weight since I had last seen him. He was angry with me and wouldn’t listen to my assertions that I had lost nearly 2kg since I had last seen him. “It’s not possible you have lost weight… You have put it on. I know you have… You are too fat.”
After nearly six hours we returned to the restaurant where we had begun our training. The owners had cooked up some pasta for us and we all dug in. Except one. Frank wasn’t eating. “No, I won’t eat until dinner.” So much for refueling in the 30min post ride. “Nick I don’t think your mind is strong enough to not eat like me.”
Frank would often go on the fruit diet while he was trying to lose weight. Three times a week he would chose one fruit. Let’s say he chose oranges for Wednesday. So on Wednesday he would eat at 9am, 1pm and 7pm and at those times and only those times he could eat as many oranges as he wanted to but only oranges and only at those times.
So there is no doubt he was strong mentally, if not a little misguided to say the least. Especially compared to me who according to Frank has a “mind like a baby.” But what really shone through was his honesty.
He desperately wanted the best for me and wished that I could have had a stronger mind to lose the weight that was holding me back as a cyclist.
I once asked him what his fondest victory was. A humble stage win at the Tour of the Mediterranean in 1996 was not what I expected from someone who once celebrated a stage win of La Vuelta for the final 800m. On the run into the final climb of the stage he was at the back of the peloton. His teammate and best friend Nico Mattan was with him and was trying to encourage him to move to the front before the climb began. Frank just wanted to get off his bike. His knee was sore. Nico was able to convince Frank to keep going to see how he would go on the climb but by this point the climb had already began and Frank was still at the back of the bunch. He picked his way past the dropped and being dropped riders. He went straight past the lead riders to take the stage and set up an overall victory.
I don’t know why it all went wrong for Frank but his failure to win the 1999 World Championship may have been the start. Frank was involved in a crash very early in the race. He broke both of his hands in that crash but still managed to not just finish in the front group of a race that saw Oscar Freire be crowned world champion for the first time but also attack during the final lap.
The 1999 world championships were only bought up once when I was in Frank’s presence and his reaction made it clear that his failure to win the world championships that year cut right through him and still hurt him 10 years later.
Frank appeared to have found some happiness in 2009 and he even won a stage of Boucles d’Artois in France so it is a real shame that he wasn’t able to make it back to Belgium after his post season holiday in Senegal where he died of a pulmonary embolism.
Honest, thoughtful and troubled. “One beer with dinner is good… Two is better… No no no three is too many.”