Remembering VDB: A look back at the life and times of Frank Vandenbroucke

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Frank Vandenbroucke – a stark reminder to us all just how quickly time passes us by.

In the intervening years, much has been written about VDB, as he was and remains affectionately known.

Most of those articles have concentrated on the problems and inner turmoil that he suffered with and which ultimately lead to his demise and his death in a Senegalese hotel room.

But let us not forget the reason why we still remember the man, the myth, the legend that was Frank Vandenbroucke, even after all these years.

There is no doubting his cycling talent, his flamboyant way in which he rode the bike and his charismatic manner.

Sports fans are attracted to flawed geniuses like moths to the flame and that is true with VDB. Now all we have of him are memories, let us remember those he created on the bike.

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Born in Mouscron on the Franco-Belge border on 6th November 1974, Vandenbroucke grew up in nearby Ploegsteert.

During his youth, it was athletics in which he initially excelled at. He represented the local Enfant Athletique Hainault club and became a regional schoolboy champion. However, it seemed cycling was always going to be where his future lay, his father and uncle had both been professional riders.

In 1989 young Frank took out his first cycling licence and the first race victories were not that far away.

He won national titles on the track and took that winning mentality to the road where he won races such as Cottbus Junior tour in Germany and Aubel-Thimister-La Gleize in Belgium.

In 1992 he also became the junior road race champion of Belgium. Having won that national junior title he went on to take the bronze medal at the junior world championships in Greece.

The victories rolled in during 1993 and it was no surprise to see him turn professional with the Belgian Lotto team where his uncle Jean-Luc was team manager.

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It was 13th February 1994 when VDB raised his hands in victory for the first time with Lotto. The occasion was stage 6 of the Tour of the Mediterranean, raced over a total of 77 kilometres between Toulon and Marseilles.

Young Frank’s stock was rising from the very start of his professional career.

His time with Lotto was to be a short one. He left the team in March 1995 via the law courts.

His next destination was the mighty Mapei team.

During his time with Mapei, the longest he would spend with any one team, he hit a rich vein of form.

Having officially started racing for the team on 1st April 1995 he took his first of many wins for the team at stage 1 of the Tour of Luxembourg on 8th June.

In September he lit the blue touch paper to really announce his arrival as a race winning rider in the peloton.

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That year’s Paris-Brussels race took place on a course of 252 kilometres between Noyan and Anderlecht. A three-man group had broken away containing VDB, Frank Corvers and Rolf Sorensen,

The trio rode off and on together towards the race finish. The three escapees worked well together and held off the marauding peloton right up to the final few metres.

With the catch coming from behind and the finishing line just metres ahead Frank launched one final throw of the dice and sprinted with Corvers for the finish line.

Frank won the sprint by a wheel’s length and with it victory at the historic Paris-Brussels race was added to his palmares. 

The following season would see Vandenbroucke take 15 wins, the most wins of his career in any one season. These victories ranged from multiple stage wins and the General Classification at the Tour of Austria and the Tour of the Mediterranean to impressive one-day victories at Schelderprijs and Binche-Tornai-Binche, more on this race later.

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A further nine victories came the following season. The wins included an interesting one in the De Panne Mountain bike beach endurance race. Austria was again a happy hunting ground with more stage wins and a second place on general classification.

That year was also the first of his two appearances at the Tour de France. He rode all the way to Paris, along the way his best results were two 2nd place finishes which came on stage 3 and Stage 16. 

There are two standout performances in what would be his final year with the Mapei team. In the 1998 Paris-Nice he hit the ground running and wouldn’t look back. He took victory in stage one and on stage five.

This saw him ride into Nice as the winner of the race to the sun having worn the leaders white jersey for the entirety of the race.

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This incredible victory in a week-long race was followed up almost immediately with a win in the historic one day race of Ghent-Wevelgem. He glided over the cobbles winning in his own indomitable manner in Wevelgem.

There were pastures new for Vandenbroucke in 1999 with the French team Cofidis. He was to race for Cofidis for a total of two seasons. It was in his first season with the team that we would witness Vandenbroucke win a race that we still talk about to this day. 

In the build-up to the 1999 Liege-Bastogne-Liege race Vandenbroucke had confidently, some said arrogantly, told the press not only that he would win La Doyenne but how he would do it.

And so to race day and as the riders came to the penultimate climb on Cote de Saint Nicolas he launched a blistering attack on the climb’s steep gradient. Vandenbroucke accelerated past Michael Boogard leaving all in his wake. By the time he reached the top of the climb he had a seven-second lead. 

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With his head down and his hands gripping the drops he stomped on the pedals gradually extending his lead with each pedal stroke. The final few hundred metres or so he continually looked over his shoulder keeping a check on how far ahead he was.

He took the final left-hand turn onto the finishing straight safe in the knowledge that he was seconds away from taking the biggest victory of his career, a monument at that. 

The pictures of him as he crossed the finish line with his arms raised high to the sky and his red arm warmers rolled down around his wrists are the stuff of cycling folklore. He had done exactly as he had confidently predicted he would, he had won Liege-Bastogne-Liege!

The good form continued into that years Vuelta a Espana where Frank came away with two memorable stage wins taken with his usual flair and panache. Such was his form at the national tour of Spain he also came away with the victory in the points classification and second place in the mountains classification. 

Hopes were high for the World Championships in Verona. Wearing the Belgian national team kit Vandenbroucke crashed in the race. Remounting his bike he carried on his way but was in great pain.

In the end, he finished a creditable 7th place. This result was made even more remarkable when it became clear that he had broken both his wrists in that earlier crash. 

Up to this point in VDB’s career his stock had been on the rise. All that changed after this point. Having taken 54 victories since turning pro in 1994 the next ten years would see Vandenbroucke take just seven wins in total. He would change team with alarming regularity as his lack of form and personal life took their toll. 

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Having left Cofidis in 2000 there were spells with Lampre-Daikin, Domo Farm Frites, Fasso Bortolo, Mr Bookmaker, Acqua & Sapone, Mitsubishi-Jarzati and finally in 2009 with Cinelli Down under.     

At the World Championships in 2009 Vandenbroucke, with no team, was still confident in his racing ability and that he would find a team to race for in the next season. Sadly he passed away just weeks later.

His memory lives on thanks to a race he won in 1996.

Binche-Tournai-Binche was resurrected in 2103 as Binche-Chimay-Binche Memorial Frank Vandenbroucke.

His uncle Jean-Luc is now part of the race organisation ensuring that the racing community always remember one of its great.

Gone but never forgotten – Frank Vandenbroucke.

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