Patrick Lefevere believes Frank Vandenbroucke was capable of winning World Championships, all the Spring classics and even the Vuelta.
The Belgian, current boss of the Deceuninck Quick-Step team, was Vandenbroucke’s manager during perhaps his most settled and successful period in the mid to late 1990s.
Under the guidance of Lefevere at Mapei, the mercurial Vandenbroucke rode to victory at Paris-Nice, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Brussels and a host of other so-called smaller races.
But the 64-year-old believes that could have been the tip of the iceberg for VDB, who passed away 10 years ago last weekend.Embed from Getty Images
Speaking to Allez! Allez! CC, Lefevere said: “He would probably not have gone on to win the Tour de France, but he was able to do a lot.
“All the Classics, the World Championships and all the stage races up to 10 days. Maybe even the Vuelta.”
Lefevere had known Vandenbroucke – or VDB as he was affectionately known – since he was 15.
He said: “I knew the Vandenbroucke family because I raced with his uncle Jean-Luc. I first met Frank when he was 15.
“He was always a nice rider. A classy and sensible boy.”
It would be a while before Lefevere got the chance to manage Vandenbroucke, whose first team was Lotto, where Jean-Luc was working as a sports director.
He spent one season with the Belgian outfit – winning a stage at the Tour of the Mediterranean – before jumping ship mid-season, via the courts, to Lefevere’s Mapei team, where he’d ride with Johan Museeuw.
Towards the end of that first season with Mapei, he won Paris-Brussels and followed that up over the next couple of years with wins at the Binche-Chimay-Binche race that now bears his name, Scheldeprijs and GC success at the Tours of Wallonia, Austria, Luxembourg and the Med.Embed from Getty Images
His stock was undoubtedly on the rise but his final year at Mapei was to be his best yet.
He finished second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne to Andrei Tchmil but then went on to win the eight-stage Paris-Nice and completing his Spring campaign with a win Gent-Wevelgem, a second at Fleche Wallonne and sixth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Lefevere remembers the victory at Paris-Nice well: “It was a surprise that he won the prologue at Paris-Nice, but we had a super team.
“He made the difference in St. Etienne. He managed to ride everyone off the wheel.”
In 1999 he upped sticks and moved to Cofidis.
It was a move that Lefevere feels was for the wrong reasons.Embed from Getty Images
He said: “His move was motivated by money but also to be the leader alone. It wasn’t a good move for him.
“He was still ambitious, but clearly had already had difficult times, both sporting and private.
“Of course, he wasn’t an easy boy. But I could master him. He respected me.”
His first year with the French Cofidis squad saw Vandenbroucke continue his rich vein
That period wasn’t without its controversies – he was questioned by police for drunk driving and arrested for possession of doping products after he was stopped on the E17 motorway in Belgium in a speeding car alongside Bernard Sainz, the so-called Dr Mabuse of cycling (Sainz was jailed in 2008 for falsely practising medicine).
A subsequent police search of his home turned up EPO, morphine and clenbuterol, all drugs which Vandenbroucke claimed were for his dog.
He was banned by the Belgian cycling authorities for six months and then went on to break his elbow and collarbone on his return.
His bad year got worst still at Christmas as Vandenbroucke had his driving license revoked after he was stopped with a blood-alcohol level three times higher than the legal limit.
A move to Lampre-Daikin followed but he was sacked midway through the season after going AWOL.
With his career going downhill quick, he was thrown a lifeline by Lefevere with a spot at his new – but short-lived – Domo–Farm Frites team.Embed from Getty Images
In 2003, as the team essentially became Quick-Step–Davitamon, Vandenbroucke finished a surprising second at that year’s Tour of Flanders, losing out to his great rival Peter Van Petegem.
Not that VDB’s podium place had been part of the plan…
Vandenbroucke and Van Petegem escaped off the front with 17km to go and then worked hand-in-hand until the sprint.
Lefevere takes up the story: “He was not allowed to lead with Van Petegem, but he did anyway. We viewed the images afterwards and there was no more in them.
“We were angry at the time. and when a team leader from another team said he had sold it, the teammates’ confidence was gone.
“He has always denied it.”Embed from Getty Images
He left Quick-Step at the end of that year and had unhappy spells – most of which ended with VDB getting the boot – at a host of teams with only a stage win at the French La Boucle de l’Artois race in 2009 to add to his palmares (it was his first UCI win since 1999 remarkably).
At the time of his death, Vandenbroucke was out of contract after leaving Cinelli-Down Under but was looking for a team according to an interview at that year’s World Championships in Mendrisio, where he was working for the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad.
In his final interview with Procyling‘s Daniel Friebe, now of The Cycling Podcast and ITV Cycling fame, he talked of being well again and ‘100% recovered’.
Three weeks after that chat with Friebe he was found dead in a hotel room in Senegal, at the age of 34, after a pulmonary embolism.
Lefevere remembers the last time he was with Vandenbroucke: “I saw him one week before his death on a book show by Paul Vanhimst and he was good.
“He did not like travelling alone and asked if I did wanted to go, but that was not possible.”
And how does he look back on his relationship with Vandenbroucke?
“He was like a son to me. I remember the nice moments.”
Main image by Tim De Waele/Getty Images.