The comeback: Frank Vandenbroucke and the 2003 Ronde Van Vlaanderen
The 2003 Ronde Van Vlaanderen had everything a cycling fan could ask for. Two Belgians, riding for the two great Belgian teams, breaking away on the Muur and fighting to win the biggest race in Belgium. That just is cycling.
Frank Vandenbroucke and Peter Van Petegem had faced off before, at this exact race, in 1999. Van Petegem bested VDB in the sprint, having days earlier beaten him to the title at Driedaagse van De Panne by seconds. Mapei’s Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw, finished third.
Vandenbroucke spent the 1999 season with the French team Cofidis, in the midst of his annus mirabilis. Only 24, he had joined Cofidis that year and was immediately installed as leader on a team that included Bobby Julich, third at the 1998 Tour de France, and Christophe Rinero, winner of the polka-dot jersey at the same race.
The reason Vandenbroucke was so highly rated by his new team was self-evident to those who had followed the fledgling career of the young man from Mouscron.
Since turning professional at 19, in 1994, Vandenbroucke had amassed a palmarés that a rider nearing the end of his career would be proud of. During his first three seasons (one with Lotto-Caloi, two with Mapei) he won Paris-Brussels, Scheldeprijs, GP Ouest France and the Österreich Rundfahrt.
In 1998 Vandenbroucke dominated Paris-Nice with two stage wins and the overall, going on to win Gent-Wevelgem in a spring that saw Mapei win every classic of note.
Vandenbroucke paid back the trust Cofidis paid in him, winning races immediately: GP La Marseillaise, Omloop Het Volk, and the summit finish at Paris-Nice. Twelve days after the narrow loss at De Ronde came his greatest moment, his victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Before Liège, VDB had told journalists exactly where he would attack to win the race, down to the number of the house on the Côte de Saint-Nicholas. Attack he did, briefly following Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd before blasting past. Vandenbroucke spent the final 500 metres celebrating.
Then came the downfall. May 1999 saw him arrested when the Bernard “Dr. Mabuse” Sainz doping affair exploded. He would serve a six-week ban, enforced by Cofidis, but wouldn’t return until August. That summer, he would later admit, saw the beginning of his cocaine habit.
With the world championships his last major goal, the Vuelta a España was up next for Vandenbroucke. Having planned a week-long stay at the Spanish race, he ended up finishing it twelfth overall, as well as picking up points jersey and two stage wins after a pair of insane attacks. He would also meet his future wife, Sarah Pinacci, at the race.
The rollercoaster ride continued at the worlds in Verona. He crashed on the sixth lap, breaking his right wrist, but somehow continued and managed to finish seventh.
The next season saw Vandenbroucke fall out with the team and quit the Tour de France, suffering from depression. A move to Lampre for 2001 was a total disaster, and he was sacked in July.
Patrick Lefevere’s Domo-Farm Frites squad was Frank’s next port of call, but 2002 was another catastrophe. In February he and Sainz were caught speeding, and a subsequent police search of his home turned up EPO, morphine and clenbuterol, drugs which Vandenbroucke famously claimed were for his dog.
He was banned from racing for six months, breaking his collarbone and elbow on his return. At Christmas his driving license was suspended after he was stopped with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit.
Nevertheless Lefevere stuck with him for 2003. The merger between Domo and what was left of a disbanded Mapei saw the rise of a new superteazm — QuickStep-Davitamon.
The team started the season very well, with Paolo Bettini winning Milan-San Remo and Museeuw heading up a 1-3-4-5 at Omloop Het Volk. Vandenbroucke had finished fourth at the latter, also finishing in the top 10 at Dwars door Vlaanderen in late March.
This wasn’t 1999 vintage Vandenbroucke, but it was a vast improvement on what he had managed in the intervening years. After what he’d been through, it seemed a miracle that he was getting any results of note.
The results were enough to spark claims of a comeback, for real this time. On the eve of De Ronde, fans had daubed graffiti reading ‘VDB: God is Back’ on the climb of Berendries.
Then it was time. Time to find out whether this was another false dawn, or if the electric rider that set the 1999 season alight really was back.
Vandenbroucke vs. Van Petegem, part two
“I’ve been able to work on a perfect preparation. I know that I can fight with the best riders, and that I can be in the finale. And he who makes it there automatically ends up with a top placing. I am not a top favourite, but I certainly have a chance.” — Frank Vandenbroucke, prior to the 2003 Ronde Van Vlaanderen
QuickStep was beset by illness in the run-up to the 2003 Ronde. Stomach and respiratory problems affected Museeuw and Tom Boonen, with Museeuw also suffering with knee soreness after a crash at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Bettini and Servais Knaven were ill too, and Vandenbroucke had a cold.
The opposition was stiff, among them the previous year’s winner, Andrea Tafi of CSC. Also racing was Michele Bartoli of Fassa Bortolo, winner in 1996; Rabobank’s Boogerd, Brabantse Pijl winner; and Lotto-Domo’s Van Petegem, who had started the season in poor form after an illness.
Onto the race itself and the early break contained FDJ’s breakaway specialist Jacky Durand, himself a winner back in 1992. Joining him were German time trialists Thomas Liese of Team Coast (remember them?) and Michael Rich of Gerolsteiner, along with Vincent van der Kooij of BankGiroLoterij.
It was the usual race dynamic — let the break go and reel them in when the big favourites are ready to play. The serious stuff started on the Paterberg, 74km from the finish, when a group of eight Italians, including Bettini and Paolini, broke away.
They hung between the peloton and the break for some 20km, until a flurry attacks on the Boigneberg saw Liese joined out front by Saeco’s big Italian Dario Pieri and later, Telekom’s Rolf Aldag.
With 34km to go, the ill Museeuw launched on the Leberg. He was soon joined by Van Petegem and FDJ’s Frédéric Guesdon, among others, forming a select group.
Berendries was next on the menu. Of course this was the place Vandenbroucke would make his presence felt. He jumped from the peloton, along with Marlux-Wincor’s Dave Bruylandts and Fassa Bortolo’s Sergei Ivanov as his wheels rolled over the graffiti laid down in his honour.
As the race reached Brakel, Guesdon and Nico Mattan of Cofidis were alone out front. The big name chase group that followed some 10 seconds back was made up of Vandenbroucke, Van Petegem, Museeuw, Ivanov, Boogerd, Bartoli, Bruylandts, U.S. Postal’s Viatcheslav Ekimov and a selection of the Italians from the earlier move were up there.
Ekimov’s attack up the Tenbosse in Brakel splintered the group, with Museeuw grinding a huge gear in pursuit before Van Petegem flew past both of them. It was the last time Museeuw would be visible at the front of the race; he ended up 38th. Meanwhile, Van Petegem had pleased his home crowd, and soon caught the two leaders as Vandenbroucke and Bruylandts set off in pursuit.
The duo caught the Van Petegem group a few kilometres later, and as they rolled over the bridge into Geraardsbergen they were caught by the chasing group, which included many of the riders at the front in Brakel plus Australian champion Stuart O’Grady of Crédit Agricole
Guesdon didn’t hang around, attacking immediately. He made it halfway up the Muur before he was caught. You can guess who made the move.
Vandenbroucke vs. Van Petegem, part two, played out on the Muur. It was the first time they had battled on that famous hill, with Vandenbroucke having crashed at the base in 1999 before mounting a furious chase.
The two stars powered away over the rough cobbles that paved the steepest inclines of the hill, leaving the group behind in the shadow of the chapel. They wouldn’t be caught, and the gap swelled to 15 seconds by the time they reached the final hill of the race, the Bosberg.
This was Vandenbroucke’s time, 12km from the line. He attacked, flying between the Flemish flags hanging from the rapturous crowds. Van Petegem ceded a small gap, but the effort was not enough to distance him fully; it wasn’t a move to match the searing attacks seen in Spain four years earlier.
On the road to Meerbeke the duo’s gap grew and grew. It was over 40 seconds as they reached the flamme rouge and the games began — the looking behind, slowing down, and surveying one another.
Van Petegem was the fastest finisher on paper, but this was Vandenbroucke, the man who had won races at will in the past, and he was back. Surely this was his time.
The righthand turn onto the finishing straight, the two Flemish riders facing a hallway of black lion-adorned yellow flags up ahead. Vandenbroucke was in prime position on Van Petegem’s wheel, with the Lotto rider altering his pace, swinging across the road to the barriers on the righthand side, trying to trick Vandenbroucke into giving up the place.
The meters ticked down — 450, 400, 350 to go. With 300 left, Vandenbroucke inexplicably went to the front. He opened the sprint there, but again, this wasn’t the Vandenbroucke of Cofidis. He barely nudged his wheel ahead of Van Petegem before the response came.
With 150 metres to go it was finished. Stronger on paper and stronger on the road, Van Petegem won his second Ronde. Vandenbroucke hung his head as his rival once again beat him to the line, hands in the air.
The comeback was over.
“I have been longing for this race the whole winter. I tried to ride away on the Bosberg but it didn’t work. I told Peter we’d sprint for the win, but I knew my chances were very small. I should be able to win the four upcoming races, but I’ll be very happy to take just one.”
Of course, the wins never came. This was it, the best result of the season, the best of the remainder of his career. By year’s end he was seeking a new team and another comeback, having left QuickStep by mutual consent.
Van Petegem would go on to win Paris-Roubaix a week later, becoming the first man to do the double since Roger De Vlaeminck in 1977. These days he and his wife run a bed and breakfast in Brakel named, appropriately enough, Le Pavé.
For Vandebroucke, the rest is known — the drugs, the suicide attempts, the deep need to race which saw him flit between teams of ever-decreasing prestige, but those are sad stories for another day.
Rather than being a race to wipe the slate clean after the three miserable years that went before, the 2003 Ronde Van Vlaanderen ended up being a blip — one last hurrah — and those years would sadly set the tone for the remainder of his career.
It was a great race, one of the best editions of De Ronde, but it could have been Vandenbroucke’s return. The comeback. Except it wasn’t meant to be.
Video: 1999 Ronde Van Vlaanderen