This spring marks 20 years since the 2003 Tour of Flanders, a turning point in the life and career of the late Belgian cycling superstar Frank Vandenbroucke. In an extract from God Is Dead: The Rise and Fall of Frank Vandenbroucke, author Andy McGrath recounts that fateful edition of De Ronde, contested by VDB and compatriot Peter Van Petegem.
On race day, the writing was literally on the wall. His followers painted it on the steep climb of the Berendries, 30km from the finish in Meerbeke: VDB: God Is Terug – God Is Back. The people believed again, cheering his name and waving their Flanders flags in the air. Their evangelism added to Frank Vandenbroucke’s confidence that it would be his day. As his team-mates marshalled the bunch, he saved his energy until the last 35km, following Peter Van Petegem’s hit-out on the Tenbosse which signalled the beginning of the endgame.
The front of the race came back together just before the Muur van Geraardsbergen. With a resurfacing imminent, it was the last edition raced on its old, sunken, higgledy-piggledy cobblestones which robbed tiring racers of all momentum after 240km of riding. While their chasers grimaced, Van Petegem and Vandenbroucke prised themselves away, desire and intensity in their gazes as they rode out of the saddle past the hilltop chapel and the fans thronged there.
The finale was the stuff of their fantasies. The nation’s top two teams, Lotto-Domo and Quick Step, were going toe-to-toe in its number one race. Van Petegem had a shot at winning a second Ronde, Vandenbroucke an opportunity for 1999 payback [after finishing as runner-up] and so much more redemption.
The pair had little in common, the pre-race favourite a stolid, taciturn Flandrian with a Desperate Dan jawline and dark complexion. He sat smooth and motionless on the bike, while the bilingual and more bubbly Vandenbroucke had thighs like pipe cleaners and chopped his bigger gear round. Vandenbroucke’s upper body and head rocked more than usual with effort, his left arm-warmer slipping down to reveal a patch of skin beneath his jersey sleeve – an uncharacteristic aesthetic lapse for someone usually immaculate. You didn’t need to be a body language expert to discern which man was more at ease.
Thighs like pipe cleaners; Vandenbroucke at 1999 Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Credit: Graham Watson)
There was one last opportunity for ambush: the Bosberg. Vandenbroucke accelerated out of Van Petegem’s slipstream at its steepest part and pulled out a couple of lengths, but his rival was on to him quickly. From there, they continued to take turns doing the work. The Quick Step car blasted up, klaxon blaring, 5km from the finish and lingered for several seconds. It transpired later that Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere had again told Vandenbroucke not to collaborate with Van Petegem, the faster finisher and apparent stronger man. Yet Vandenbroucke disregarded the instructions until refusing to budge from his rival’s back wheel during the last 1,500 metres.
He had done too much work, but it arguably made little difference to the outcome. He launched his sprint with more than 300 metres to go on the slightly uphill finish, the suicidal, desperate act of a man who knew his fate. He hardly got his front wheel ahead before Van Petegem countered and pulled away. As his rival celebrated, a full ten bike lengths in front, Vandenbroucke looked down, shook his head and threw up an open-palmed hand as if to ask what more he could have done.
Though happy to see his troubled charge in the ascendancy, Lefevere rued the result post-race, suggesting they had offered victory to Van Petegem on a plate. Nowadays, he is more sanguine: ‘Afterwards I realised he could not beat him. But of course, it’s a game, winning, losing. It was like Yves Lampaert [a racer with a poor sprint finish] taking a ride with [sprinter Elia] Viviani.’
Vandenbroucke was described by national broadcasters VRT as the day’s moral victor, the result carrying rich promise of a return to his 1999 vintage – especially as, unbeknownst to them, it was achieved more on innate class than a bedrock of winter work. Second place was a sporting resurrection not quite worthy of Lazarus, but given his turbulent history, still remarkable.
Yet, on the podium, Vandenbroucke’s body language spoke volumes: he only cracked a smile when it came to spraying a bottle of champagne, then nodded to someone out of shot, anxious to check that the ceremony was over so that he could get off the stage as quickly as possible.
VDB in his prime at the 1999 Vuelta a España (Credit: Graham Watson)
It was not the fairytale comeback that it appeared to be. After watching the race finish, Jef Brouwers got in his car and drove to the team’s accommodation, the Kennedy Hotel in Ghent. ‘I knew second place was a disaster. He was not strong enough at that moment to accept it. Not possible,’ he says. That evening, Brouwers spent three hours with Frank and his wife Sarah, the beaten cyclist perched on the side of the bath, staring into space and silent for long stretches of time. ‘I can still see him now. He was completely broken,’ Brouwers says.
‘He was sure he was the best in the race. But he was not,’ Brouwers adds, with a little laugh. ‘If he was better than Van Petegem, he would have won. So the fact that he did not win, in his mind he was not as good as he thought he was.’
The plot thickened further in the following days when a Lotto-Domo rider claimed that Frank had been paid 7 million Belgian francs (€175,000) by Van Petegem and had not shared the money with the Quick Step team-mates who had worked for him, as is customary. ‘Somebody launched this rumour and the riders believed it. It was a bad thing. Frank always denied it,’ Patrick Lefevere says. ‘And the trust from the team was gone.’
Does Lefevere believe it? ‘I hate rumours,’ he bats back. Does he think it’s the truth, then? ‘We will never know. He took it to his grave and Van Petegem never speaks. He didn’t speak about it before.’
Hypothetically, why would Van Petegem have paid him? It was insurance to ensure his continued collaboration and remove the slim possibility of Vandenbroucke beating him at the finish, in the knowledge he could recoup far greater sums of money from endorsements, bonuses or a new contract. Vandenbroucke could have assented, acknowledging his own fatigue and the reality that such an agreement would mean an assured second place rather than tactical disharmony and risking the return of the nine chasers.
Another relevant question is when they would have discussed the terms. In 15km from the top of the Muur to the finish, the duo appeared to exchange words at least three times, but the longest amount of time in discussion was three seconds. (Of course, such collusion is not meant to be noticeable, given such behaviour is forbidden by the UCI.)
Although cycling’s biggest races are not immune to trading, this was no one-horse town kermesse but Vandenbroucke’s favourite event, one he’d watched on the roadside as a child. Vandenbroucke even had dreams of winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen; in those sequences, the crowd in Flanders was double the usual size and everyone was shouting his name. No wonder he angrily denied the claims.
‘His job was winning. His job was showing the world, to be loved. Not being the best. No, to be loved,’ Brouwers says. ‘So he had a need for that applause. And he got applause for his second place but he hated that. He didn’t want that, it’s a pity applause – an appreciation for the rider but not for the champion . . . the only place that mattered for him was first. So, being second was worse than a DNF! It’s failure and, next to that, the need to be loved with a victory.’
Brouwers smiles and shakes his head. ‘He would never have sold the Ronde van Vlaanderen in that mindset.’ Vandenbroucke’s crestfallen reaction in the privacy of his hotel room supports that theory. ‘He could not cope with it. He wanted to win but he couldn’t. And at that moment, that was a bit [like] the end... my idea was that if he had won that race, it would have been another life.’
Cover image: Graham Watson