Thursday, February 9, 2012

Remembering Frank Vandenbroucke

It is hard to speak of Philippe Gilbert's breakthrough 2011 season without hearing echoes of Frank Vandenbroucke in the back of my mind. This post is not about Gilbert - we'll have plenty of opportunity to discuss him, his astonishing 2011 season, and his coming 2012 season. And verily, to Gilbert's great credit I think his character is nothing like VDB's.

But enough about Gilbert. This post is about the rise and fall of VDB, about why so many pinned hopes on him, and about how the level of idolatry by the Franky Boys grew to fever pitch.

To those of us who follow the classics, "VDB" as he was affectionately known was considered the Second Coming of Jesus. There are several reasons for his fans' unyielding fanaticism.

VDB riding a Cyfac under  Cofidis MBK's paint scheme. 

First is his origin. Born in Hainaut, in a French-speaking village squeezed by France, he grew up in a village barely south of Flanders speaking mostly French. Looking at a map of the village of his birth, one can imagine that extending one's arms will place one arm in France, the other arm in Flanders, with only the feet remaining in Wallonie. Thus, he was seen by many as the new champion of a unified Belgium. Some forget that Eddy Merckx in his time also had this appeal, that he was more Belgian than Flemish, sometimes to dissatisfaction of Flemish nationalists. As Merckx' legendary rival Roger de Vlaeminck quipped, "Merckx made his marriage vows in French, and that angered people in Flanders. I became their champion because of it .... "

Is it a wonder VDB was considered the Second Coming of God, and by God I mean Eddy Merckx?

Second reason is that he was last rider to nearly "unite" Belgium by earning a Ronde van Vlaanderen - Liège-Bastogne-Liège double in 1999, nearly breaking the curse that lasted since Eddy Merckx earned the double in 1969 and 1975.

Is it a wonder VDB was considered the Second Coming of God, and by God I mean Eddy Merckx?

The third one is hard to explain in words. It is that word, "class", that is often used to describe certain top riders of a certain breed. It is the ease with which these riders - Michele Bartoli, Federico Bahamontes, Fausto Coppi - perch atop their machines, caress their pedals, and hold their handlebars. Paolo Bettini's palmarés run much longer than Bartoli's, yet even as a fan I cannot use "class" to describe Bettini. He always looks as if he's itching to attack off the front, or getting ready for an intermediate sprint to earn a can of Shaklee. See, I have a rich fantasy world. But VDB was definitely classy. Speaking of class, over the 1999 season, Cyfac had to build him seventeen (!!!!!!) frames, often with the smallest changes in geometry, to prepare for different races throughout the season.

Is it a wonder VDB was considered the Second Coming of God, and by God I mean Eddy Merckx?

Cue Merckx' notoriety for adjusting his bike position continuously, even during a race like Paris-Roubaix, even if it meant he had to borrow a tool from a rival team's car. Seriously, who are we to deny God, even if he's on a rival team?

VDB was the strongest man in both RvV and LBL in 1999 and he knew it, what with having opened his account with a strong win in de Omloop Het Volk (now Omloop Het Nieuwsblad). In de Ronde van Vlaanderen, he was barely beaten in the final sprint by Peter van Petegem. In Liége, his strength was such that the ONCE duo of Laurent Jalabert and Alex Zulle couldn't hold his wheel on the climb of St. Nicolas. VDB appeared to have toyed with his adversaries just before he lit up his turbo boosters to say adieu. 

See, now you know why it took so long to form a unified government in Belgium: Eddy Merckx was the last to score the RvV-LBL double in 1975. And now you also know why the adolation of VDB.

So strong was the level of idolatry that legions of fans bearing the Lion of Flanders flags painted their faces and chests "VDB", scrawling "VDB VDB VDB VDB VDB" on the roads for races he didn't even participate in. To be fair, he had several challenges to participation in top races:
  1. Doping suspension.
  2. Injury.
  3. Non-invite of whichever team he was riding for at the time (he rode for nearly a dozen team in just over a dozen years of professional career). 
The fans called themselves "Franky Boys," and they were often the loudest fans even in the absence of VDB in the races. It took the stardom of Tom Boonen to mitigate the level of VDB-mania and finally quench it.

Don't get me wrong, I do not condone his attitude of switching teams whenever greener pastures could be gleamed. And I certainly do not condone doping in sport. Rather, I mourn the loss of enormous talent and class, what he showed on the bike but not off the bike. Samuel Abt's article on the NYT captured this tragedy succinctly: it is the drug positive of 2002 that set about the beginning of the end for VDB, both professionally and personally. Abt found it apt that the cause of VDB's death was "partially due to a broken heart".

Further to be fair, I think that VDB had a shot at a comeback in 2003 with QuickStep-Davitamon. Youngster Boonen wasn't fully developed yet and aging Johan Museeuw showed distinct weakness in the cobbled classics season, opening the door to VDB becoming the team leader once again. A hard-fought RvV earned him second place behind Peter van Petegem, and at the finish line an elated VDB was there for all to see.

That elation was short-lived, for team manager Patrick Lefevere quickly castigated him for "not trying hard enough." We will never know all that went on within the team, but following that public spat VDB's elation turned to depression and to desperation.

The next season saw him move to Giancarlo Ferretti's Fassa Bortolo team, riding without a salary unless he could win races. In hindsight, it was a brave move. Ferretti's nickname The Iron Sergeant is not undeserved. This is the man who hired a young Tom Danielson and made him ride criteriums in Italy to improve his pack riding skills. This is also the man who in 1975 drove the team car onto a ravine in a furious chase after the duel of Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi. The crash killed the unfortunate team mechanic, but Ferretti luckily survived. Is it a surprise that VDB had a stinker of a season with Fassa Bortolo?

The remainder of his life can be summarized as thus. About once a year at the start of the season he swears a comeback, but often his small team won't be invited to any of the big races. In the smaller races that they were invited to, his performances are so abysmal he rarely finishes any of them. Summer and fall bring about bouts of depression, culminating in one or two very public spats with his wife and family, sometimes involving threats with firearms. These threats are often to his own life. Winter brings quiet, for him to find another team to take a chance on him.

And so VDB's life appears to have entered into a fixed-point, a limit cycle. An unhappy one perhaps, but a stable one. This periodicity was broken when he was caught trying to enter a local race with a fake ID featuring the face of Tom Boonen.

From here on, the tragedy and means by which his life ended was certain in magnitude.

Veloveritas captured it best, quoting, "He was living the life of a top pro bike rider from when he was a young teenager - it was too much, too soon!"

So long VDB, it is too bad that you didn't grow up when you should have.