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Triumph to tragedy: Frank Vandenbroucke's Liège-Bastogne-Liège win

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ByFelix Lowe
22/04/2020 at 09:13 | Updated 27/04/2020 at 08:33

Felix Lowe remembers Frank Vandenbroucke's swaggering La Doyenne victory in 1999 - a win which promised to be the first of many Monuments, but ultimately proved the pinnacle of a highly troubled life and career.

After revisiting Johan Museeuw's hat-trick triumph amidst the muddy mayhem of the last rain-soaked edition of Paris-Roubaix Re-Cycle shifts into the big ring for arguably the hallmark Liège-Bastogne-Liège performance of the modern era.

In the centrepiece of the Ardennes Classics in 1999, emerging star Frank Vandenbroucke delivered a performance of power and panache for what would turn out to be the pinnacle of the Belgian’s troubled career.

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It was a year in which everything the flamboyant tyro touched – even his hair – seemed to turn to gold. So dominant was Vandenbroucke’s showing that spring that the question had to be asked: was this the second coming of Eddy Merckx?

Charming and charismatic yet fragile and intense, the tall, dashing bleached-blonde Vandenbroucke was immensely self-confident. But he was also racked by self-doubt – a man his biographer describes as "either zero or one hundred – nothing in between".

Having joined French team Cofidis in 1999, the 24-year-old showman had 48 pro wins to his name going into that year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège – a race he not only predicted he'd win, but explained to the media exactly when and how he would deliver his decisive blows.

In what would become one of the saddest and most dramatic downfalls in the sport's history, however, only a handful of victories followed. Vandenbroucke's first major Classics win would be his last as a plethora of addictions – cocaine, amphetamines, sleeping pills, alcohol and fame – combined to turn a prodigious talent inside out on the front pages of the Belgian tabloids.

Ten years after his breakthrough win, the hottest prospect since the Cannibal was dead.

"Flanders and Wallonia embraced the new baby child and hugged him to death. He could never live up to the high expectations," read the rider's obituary in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant following Vandenbroucke's death in 2009.

Another decade had passed, but Vandenbroucke's emphatic, exquisite, era-defining attacks on La Redoute and the Côte de Saint-Nicolas remain unparalleled. No one has risen to the occasion in quite the same resounding way as the remarkable yet vulnerable Vandenbroucke did that sunny April day in 1999.

It's unlikely that anyone else will ever have the means to do so. Here's the tale of a fallen, flawed champion.

Setting the scene: Vandenbroucke versus Bartoli

Entering what seemed, at the time, the biggest one-day race of the year, fans were braced for a showdown between the two stand-out riders of the spring – the double champion Michele Bartoli of Italy and his in-form challenger Vandenbroucke, who was making all the right noises.

Seeking a third successive victory in Liège, 28-year-old Bartoli had won La Flèche Wallonne earlier in the week and seemed the odds-on favourite for La Doyenne. Vandenbroucke, however, had notched five wins so far that season – most notably in Omloop Het Volt and at Paris-Nice; he'd come runner-up to Peter van Petergem in the Tour of Flanders before entering Paris-Roubaix on a whim and impressing with a top-10 finish.

"He was absolutely flying from the word go," says Daniel Friebe, the last journalist to interview Vandenbroucke before his sudden death in 2009. Lured by a large contract and the promise of top-dog status by Cofidis, the Belgian had left Mapei – where Friebe had worked for a year while studying in Italy – for the French team, where he'd hit the ground running.

Vandenbroucke was having the time of his life and was pretty much untouchable on a bike for a few months. The sky was the limit for him. At Mapei he was a star among many and part of his bravura and bluster had been obscured. But at Cofidis he was very much the main man.

Such was his confidence that Vandenbroucke had long indicated how the 1999 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège would play out: he would shake the tree on the mystical Côte de la Redoute before finishing the job on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas.

"La Redoute is always a key point in deciding the race," says Friebe. "There had been a series of Lièges that had been decided there: Bartoli had won two having launched crucial attacks on the climb, so it seemed like that was always going to be the crucial point in those years."

But Vandenbroucke was even more specific. After his softening attack on La Redoute, the cocky Belgian even gave a house number corresponding to the point where he would attack again on the urban climb of Saint-Nicolas – not only revealing his intentions to his rivals but potentially opening himself up to ridicule from fans and the media alike.

It hadn't been the first time Vandenbroucke had made such breezy predictions – but he had never done so on such a huge platform, with the entire world watching.

"This borderline insolence and huge confidence from a very young age reminded me of what Muhammad Ali used to do, saying that this or that guy would go down in the fourth or fifth round," says Rouleur editor Andy McGrath, whose long-awaited biography of Vandenbroucke is set to be released next June.

"But in a boxing match there are only two people in the ring. When it's Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 250km and more than 160 riders at the start, with so many variables – even if you're the favourite, he was setting himself up for a fall.

To carry it out was a perfect, remarkable display he could never live up to ever again.

When asked by a television reporter on the morning of the race whether he was going to win, Vandenbroucke, a rare bilingual French and Dutch speaker, just smiled and said: "Well, I hope Bartoli finishes second."

If his script was going to be believed, Vandenbroucke would deny his Italian rival the opportunity to become the fourth rider to win three successive editions of Liège – and he'd do so with an attack at number 256, around 5km from the finish. It was certainly a mouth-watering prospect, according to McGrath, who describes Bartoli and Vandenbroucke as "two of the most beautiful bike riders of their generation as well as being two of the most talented".

Jalabert’s doomed attack

On the morning of April 18, 1999, Vandenbroucke breakfasted on a large bowl of porridge, three slices of toast with blueberry jam, and some banana bread. Some years later, he would admit that he had a little extra help that day – but insisted that it made no difference.

"Everybody did it [used dope] and so did I. It is the truth and it does not diminish the value of my victories," Vandenbroucke confessed in his autobiography, I'm Not God, in 2008.

More specifically, on the subject of his Liège win, he told Che magazine: "It was a fair race, a fair result. I didn't do anything that the second, third, fourth, fifth placed riders on that day didn't. We all fought with the same weapons."

The 85th edition of La Doyenne was largely unremarkable until Frenchman Laurent Jalabert broke clear of the peloton with 94km remaining. Runner-up behind Bartoli the two previous years, Jalabert was very much the third name on the billing. Although the 30-year-old clearly thought his only chance lay in anticipating the expected showdown between the two favourites and getting out early.

Wearing the French national champion's jersey, Jalabert rode clear with the Italian Stefano Garzelli before the Côte de Rosier. Jalabert soon dropped Garzelli, who had finished fourth earlier in the season at Milan-San Remo, before committing himself to what Sean Kelly described as "a silly move" that always looked doomed to failure.

As the temperature increased and the grey rain clouds parted, Jalabert shed his jacket, gloves and arm warmers, but his gap never crept far above the minute-mark. With the peloton whittled down to 48 riders, Mapei sent their men to the front to work for Italian duo Bartoli and Paolo Bettini ahead of La Redoute, with Vandenbroucke's Cofidis eventually making their presence known.

It was all ready to kick off.

La Redoute: Vandenbroucke's first punch

Tension was in the air as the riders hit the start of the 1.6km climb with all the big names still in contention. Commentating on the race for the international feed alongside Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen set the scene:

The big names are moving to the front. Axel Merckx has recovered [from his earlier crash]. But now taking the reins is the red, white and blue of the champion of Holland, and also Frank Vandenbroucke, the man that he Belgians are hoping is going to become the new Eddy Merckx.

The real Merckx's son, Axel, is riding tempo for Mapei to prevent any other attacks while setting one up for his teammate Bartoli. Meanwhile, the likes of Polti's Davide Rebellin and the aforementioned Dutch champion Michael Boogerd of Rabobank look feisty alongside Lampre's world champion Oscar Camenzind of Switzerland.

In the wheel of teammate Merckx, Bartoli seems primed for battle. "This is his climb and he's hoping it's going to be his race," says Sherwen.

As the gradient ramps up and the crowds became thicker, a certain Cofidis rider edges closer to the front.

"Watch out now because Frank Vandenbroucke has found the rear wheel of Michele Bartoli," says Liggett. “It looks also that Vandenbroucke is going to be interested in what happens over the next few minutes.”

Looking over his shoulder, Bartoli can see his big rival on his back wheel. Just moments later, the Italian attacks, saying something to Merckx as he passes. Cottoning on, Merckx drifts to the left, boxing in Vandenbroucke by the barriers.

The first reaction comes from Boogerd, who leads the chase on the steepest part of the climb. The 19 per cent gradient is clearly taking its toll on Bartoli, who struggles to put much light between him and his rivals. "In fact," says Sherwen, "Bartoli is not the Bartoli of last year because he's not opened up as big gap as he did then.”

Then, just as Boogerd reels in Bartoli, Vandenbroucke kicks clear of the strung-out line of chasers and draws level with the Italian. For 10 exhilarating seconds, the two sprint shoulder to shoulder, both on the drops as if they are tearing along the Champs-Élysées.

"Look at this," cries Liggett. "Vandenbroucke and Bartoli, two great champions side by side. They are ripping away from the field."

But very soon it's Vandenbroucke doing all the ripping. "That was an incredible turn up for the books," says Sherwen. "It looked like Bartoli was the strongest there. But once Vandenbroucke accelerated, Bartoli was having difficulty staying on the wheel."

Approaching the summit, the camera zooms in on Vandenbroucke's face. The Belgian looks serene and hardly out of breath as he surges clear in the saddle, looking once over his shoulder to check his progress. Then the camera pans into his chainset and it shows that he's still in the big ring.

It later emerged that Vandenbroucke was pedalling no lower than 42x16 up the steepest section of La Redoute. It was "a moment of power and grace and beauty" that McGrath describes as both absurd and insane.

I went to La Redoute to walk up the climb while researching my book. It just gives you a slightly different impression and makes the climb seem even harder than it is. But the fact that Vandenbroucke went up La Redoute in the big ring is absolutely astounding.

The attack broke Bartoli's spirit completely. Pedalling squares, the Italian was caught by Boogerd and his Rabobank teammate Maarten den Bakker ahead of the summit. Vandenbroucke soon sat up and waited for the chase group, but the damage had been done – certainly when it came to Bartoli's morale.

"Vandenbroucke's attack seemed almost gratuitous – he was flexing his muscles – but it also dealt this killer psychological blow to Bartoli, not only in the context of that race, but in some respects in Bartoli's career," says Friebe.

"He's talked about how, up until that point, he'd always considered himself the main Classics man – certainly in Liège no one could really touch him. And then Vandenbroucke pulled his pants down on La Redoute, just toyed with him in the big ring, riding easily away from him.

It was the ultimate act of showmanship. It's easy to say now in hindsight that it was a foregone conclusion, given how he rode on La Redoute, that he was going to kill everyone on Saint-Nicolas.

Vandenbroucke, of course, had no real choice but to ease up following La Redoute. After all, he was still a good 25km away from house number 256.

Showtime on Saint-Nicolas

Before the next climb of Spirmont, Vandenbroucke was back with an 18-man group that included his Cofidis teammate Peter Farazijn and all the big names with the exception of Jalabert (who had thrown in the towel following his earlier move) and Andrei Tchmil, who was then the current World Cup leader.

The race entered a fluid phase with numerous splits and reformations following a flurry of attacks which, at one moment, saw Vandenbroucke, Bartoli and Boogerd all dropped before re-entering the fray with 20km remaining.

By now, the leading group was down to 10 men, but grew back to 18 strong on the Côte du Sart-Tilman. While Vandenbroucke and Farazijn discussed options, workhorse Bettini was sacrificing himself for Bartoli on the front, before himself zipping clear. Marco Velo then made a move near the summit but Farazijn managed to marshal the attacks.

"There's no favourite at all in this group," said Liggett. "It's hard to pick a winner," Sherwen agreed.

Hitting the Côte de Saint-Nicolas – a claustrophobic 1.2km climb that twists past terraced housing at an average gradient of 10 per cent – Farazijn set tempo for Vandenbroucke ahead of some half-hearted digs from Bettini, Rebellin and Camenzind.

But it was Boogerd who made the first big move, darting clear to sweep past Bartoli with Vandenbroucke on his wheel. Here, on the deciding climb, the Dutchman felt he was finally going to win his favourite Classic.

"But I was brutally put in my place," he would later recall. "I was riding great, but he just couldn't be kept down."

Vandenbroucke rode in Boogerd's back wheel for around 100m as if weighing up his options. Then, as they swung round a sweeping bend, the Belgian switched down from the hoods to the drops before putting in a big out-of-the-saddle acceleration amid the motorcycles, instantly distancing the Dutch champion.

"It was more like house number 252 where he launched his attack, which is 200m earlier than 256," says McGrath. "But I don't think we can really hold that against him, can we?"

Vandenbroucke stayed out of the saddle for the rest of the climb. By the time he settled down into a time trial position going over the summit, his gap was 10 seconds.

Vandenbroucke's victory: poetry in motion

Vandenbroucke celebrates his 1999 win

Image credit: Getty Images

There was never any doubt once Boogerd was distanced. Vandenbroucke had already won a time trial that year in De Panne. All he needed to do now was keep powering to the finish. He extended his lead on the final uphill dig in Ans before savouring his win on the long home straight.

"One last look round for Frankie Vandenbroucke ahead of what will be a great victory," Liggett said in the commentary box. "He really is becoming the star of Belgian cycling. And I think they're right – he might have the ability of Eddy Merckx."

Vandenbroucke won in just over 6hrs 25mins, at a record average pace of 41.1kph. Boogerd held on for second place at 30 seconds before his compatriot and teammate Den Bakker completed the podium at 41 seconds. Mapei's Italian duo Bartoli and Bettini completed the top five.

"For me it's a dream that's come true," Vandenbroucke said moments later, sitting back against a fence as if he were sitting on the beach. "It's something a bike rider always thinks about. Having done this after riding Paris-Roubaix is a pretty good performance."

He then smirked before a soigneur reached across to towel down his face. "It's the perfect day. I imagined it happening, but it's still a dream come true."

And with another shoulder shrug from the new World Cup leader, it was left to Phil Liggett to summarise and sign off:

"Well, a marvellous race this has been, it was the fastest on record. We hope you have enjoyed this one because this is one for the archives."

Liggett wasn't wrong. Vandenbroucke's victory remains to this day one of the most perfect all-round displays in Liège history. And at the time it would have been absolutely inconceivable – absurd even – to consider that this would be the fresh-faced ace's last ever Classics win.

Echoing Liggett – and pretty much the entire Belgian media at the time – McGrath says: "It was the closest to the second coming of Eddy Merckx. People justifiably thought that this guy was going to be a champion for years and years and years."

What stood out for McGrath wasn't so much Vandenbroucke delivering on his promise of winning, but the "grace and beauty" of the way he did it.

That's what really chimed with a lot of people. It wasn't just the dominant and astute tactical performance, it was the fact that he had those long legs, the perched position, even the beautiful colour scheme – it was just poetry in motion.

From Vandenbroucke's height to his choice in garish footwear, Friebe shares McGrath's sentiment about his artistry and allure:

One of the most striking things about Vandenbroucke was just how graceful he was on the bike. He had those incredible long legs and that incredible power without seeming to strain. The attack on La Redoute was certainly in that vein. On Saint-Nicolas he muscled the bike a little bit more, then the way he rode to the finish was just very beautiful. With those overshoes which accentuated the length of his calves – he didn't look like anyone else on a bike. He was like a high-jumper.

What happened next?

Victory in Liège would prove the pinnacle of Vandenbroucke's career. Following the win, he drove back to his hometown of Ploegsteert on the French-Belgian border for a massive knees-up with his friends, family, teammates and the local community. Being very much the village lad who grew up living above a bar, the celebrations were almost as impressive as his attack on La Redoute.

One of his Cofidis teammates told McGrath that Vandenbroucke stayed up for two or three days straight – hardly the best preparation for defending his World Cup lead at the following weekend's Amstel Gold Race. Here, Michael Boogerd finally got his win, edging Lance Armstrong on the line by a matter of millimetres as a bleary-eyed Vandenbroucke finished 25th.

This would be his last race for four months. A few weeks later, Vandenbroucke sat in a jail cell in the Quai des Orfèvres in Paris – France's answer to Scotland Yard – where he'd been taken with French teammate Philippe Gaumont, his terrible twin at Cofidis, for questioning because of their connection with Bernard Sainz, the infamous Doctor Mabuse.

Although he was cleared by the courts, it was the start of the end. But there was still one last hurrah. Having served out an internal suspension at Cofidis, Vandenbroucke returned for the Vuelta that August and rode out of his skin, winning two stages, coming 12th on GC and taking the Points Jersey.

"He always said that the Vuelta in ‘99 was the worst thing that ever happened to him because he was just so superior," says Friebe.

His victories in Spain came days after he was introduced to the Italian model Sarah Pinacci, for whom he promptly left his partner and their new-born daughter to pursue a tumultuous relationship that did him no favours.

In a 2007 documentary about his performance in the 1999 Vuelta, Vandenbroucke said: "I was like an extra-terrestrial. Maybe that was the drama. It was all too easy. That caused me a lot of problems later..."

The doping allegations and subsequent suspension that followed Liège-Bastogne-Liège certainly cast Vandenrbroucke's Vuelta performances in a different light.

By the time the World Championships at Verona came around, Vandenbroucke was back to his old tricks – predicting he could win the rainbow bands by a few minutes. That never happened: Spain's Oscar Freire won the first of his three gold medals, with Vandenbroucke coming seventh despite fracturing both hands in a crash.

Those two triumphs in the Vuelta would prove the last in Vandenbroucke's career, which dragged on for another decade and was peppered with more comebacks than Lance Armstrong at a Spice Girls concert. Contractually obliged to stay with Cofidis, Vandenbroucke went through the motions in 2000, with people talking more about his nights out than his once elegant riding. He didn't even bother defending his Liège crown, with Paolo Bettini taking the win in 2000.

It would be another decade before Belgium tasted success again in La Doyenne, with Philippe Gilbert in 2011. By the time this happened, Vandenbroucke was no longer with us.

Decline – and fall to hell

Vandenbroucke shows off his trophy

Image credit: Eurosport

"His downfall was pretty swift, harsh and unexpected," says McGrath. "No one would have thought he would have been dead pretty much within 10 years of his Liège win. It was a great sporting sadness, but there's an even more tragic, human story behind it."

In his autobiography, Vandenbroucke referred to his move to Cofidis and relationship with teammate Gaumont as the catalyst for his self-destruction and the start of what he referred to as his "fall to hell". It was at Cofidis, which was found to have a semi-institutionalised problem with the use of sleeping pills and amphetamines at the time, where VDB – as he was nicknamed – really went off the rails.

Vandenbroucke's family always felt he was led astray by Gaumont, who introduced him to Stilnoct – a sleeping pill – and alcohol cocktails as well as to the homeopathic shaman Sainz, who became VDB's guru and secondary father figure. Later on, it was Gaumont's confessions of drug-taking that led to the so-called Cofidis scandal. That, in turn, led to the two-year ban of British rider David Millar in 2004.

"In hindsight, Cofidis was not a good team for him to go to. Vandenbroucke kowtowed to no one and nobody appears to have managed him or had any authority over him," says McGrath.

Sleeping pills mixed with alcohol led to some very sorry sights in 99 and some very dodgy nocturnal activities for some riders on training camps and at team hotels. He was always going to burn out on that team – it was just a matter of when.

Like Jan Ullrich's Tour victory in 1997, before the wool was pulled away from everyone's eyes, Friebe looks back at the 1999 edition of Liège as both "mesmerising and grotesque". He views VDB's sudden subsequent links to the notorious Bernard Sainz as "a wow-moment for everyone in their naivety".

"As far as I'm concerned," he says, "1999 was the king of a halcyon age for Liège – it was certainly the last days of Rome as far as the race was concerned."

Two years later, Vandenbroucke was caught speeding on a Belgian motorway with Doctor Mabuse in the passenger seat, and Pandora's box was opened. A raid on his house resulted in the discovery of various drugs that the cyclist claimed were for his dog.

In 2004, Vandenbroucke finally admitted having taken growth hormones, EPO, amphetamines, morphine and steroids. By this point, he was already on his fourth new team since leaving Cofidis. While he did come second behind Peter van Petegem in the 2003 Tour of Flanders, VDB's races were becoming fewer and farther between.

A succession of managers was unable to get even a shadow of the best out of him. "He certainly always believed that he still had that quality in him – even in the very last years of his life," McGrath says. "But as you go on into the mid-noughties, he was really one of the last people who thought that, unfortunately. His constant comebacks and middling results kind of made him a bit of a laughingstock."

Off the bike, Vandenbroucke’s life was a mess, too. He had married Pinacci but in the wake of numerous splits she finally left him after one of their regular tiffs ended with him firing a gun into the air. He allegedly tried to commit suicide twice – in 2004 and 2007 – and once, during a ban, he allegedly tried to ride in an Italian gran fondo while using a fake licence with a photo of Tom Boonen.

An ongoing knee injury ended his last attempt at riding the Giro in 2007. Then, in October 2009, while on holiday in Senegal, he was found dead in his hotel room in a case remarkably similar to that of his late friend, Marco Pantani. An autopsy showed he had died of a pulmonary embolism, with conflicting reports indicating drugs were found by his bedside.

Four years later, Gaumont died after a major heart attack.

How far could Vandenbroucke have gone?

Friebe does not hold back on what could have been after Vandenbroucke's stunning breakthrough win:

He was someone who could presumably have won every major Classic, including Roubaix. I've said this to people before and they've poo-pooed it, but I felt he could have possibly won the Tour de France. [Liège] was the first time he'd been fully emancipated, and it was almost as if his career was just starting.

"He certainly felt that those few days – the Vuelta certainly, but I imagine also Liège – it was such an intense sensation of euphoria, both physical and psychological, that it became a massive issue for him thereafter because his whole life was a despairing, desperate attempt to reach the same heights, which was ultimately impossible. He wrestled with that for years while also wrestling with the addictions that had taken root. It set him up for a fall."

This sense that the only way was down is shared by Vandenbroucke's biographer, McGrath, who draws a comparison between the Belgian's emphatic Liège win and the way in which another 24-year-old rising star took cycling by storm in 2019:

"Once you have dominated a race like that, where do you go from there? It's a bit like Mathieu van der Poel, for I don't think we'll ever see anything like the monumental performance he put in at the Amstel Gold in 2019, for various reasons – but essentially because he'll be so marked and people will think he's so strong that they'll never let him race quite like that ever again."

Vandenbroucke's plight is something the current Belgian rider widely touted as the new Merckx should heed, according to McGrath.

"Remco Evenepoel should read Vandenbroucke's book, because the intensity of Belgian cycling, where any failure is blown up in a fishbowl, is absurd,” he says. “There is too much pressure. 20 years ago, they were taking about the next Eddy Merckx just as they are today.

“But, come on guys! There's never going to be another Merckx. I just hope Remco has a long and happy career – happy being as important as successful."

It's now 11 years since Vandenbroucke died and 21 years since the most exquisite and wholly typical attack not just of what was once such a promising career, but of an entire generation. For McGrath, Vandenbroucke's greatest achievement will always be the way he threw down the hammer so unequivocally on La Redoute.

It was just the ease of it, the effortlessness of it. You just don't see that now. And there's reasons for that. It was beautiful, but it was flawed as well. It was symptomatic of the era – something beautiful, but illegal at the same time.

-- Written by Felix Lowe. You also can subscribe to the podcast for audio episodes of the most compelling stories from cycling history.

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