Title: God is Dead – The Rise and Fall of Frank Vandenbroucke, Cycling’s Great Wasted Talent
Author: Andy McGrath
Publisher: Bantam Press
What it is: A biography of Frank Vandenbroucke, winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1999
Strengths: If you were a fan of Vandenbroucke during the brief time he lit up the sport this is a book that will bring back memories
Weaknesses: McGrath gets to have his cake and eat it, complaining about the tabloid culture that kept Vandenbroucke in the headlines even when he was off the bike while exhuming his rotting corpse and dissecting his private life
And we’ll bask in the shadow of yesterday’s triumph
We’ll sail upon the steel breeze
Come on you boy child, you winner and loser
Come on you miner for truth and delusion
~ Dave Gilmour / Roger Waters / Richard Wright, Shine on You Crazy Diamond
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the most boring of the five Monuments. Milan-Sanremo may well be more than six forgettable hours of pootling along followed by a quarter of an hour of heart-racing excitement but at least those six hours have some stunning scenery to keep you awake. La doyenne? Meh.
Every few years, though, the old lady of the Monuments casts off her Zimmer frame and really lets rip. 1999 was one of those years. The year Frank Vandenbroucke told the world he’d attack on the final climb, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, turned word into deed, and wrote himself into the history books.
Though only 24 Vandenbroucke already had five years in the professional ranks under his wheels and was racing with his third team, Cofidis, following four seasons at Mapei and after having spent his debut season at Lotto.
From the off Vandenbroucke had been a man in demand. Novemail (“the predecessor of the top Dutch team Panasonic”) and Lotto (today’s Lotto-Soudal) both offered him two million Belgian francs a year (£50,000, we’re told), triple the normal neo-pro salary. Vandenbroucke went with the Belgian option, where his uncle was DS and his father a mechanic.
At his debut race for Lotto in February 1994, the Tour Méditerranéen, Vandenbroucke made good on early season form honed by a winter of Sixes and snatched some low-hanging fruit, victory in the final stage (“‘What he did that day, for every person in cycling, was history,’ says Erwann Menthéour. ‘He achieved the impossible. God was whistling in his face. He wasn’t on Earth that day, he was flying. Everybody knew something was happening. This guy is probably going to be a legend.’”) It was his only victory of note all year and by the middle of the season Vandenbroucke was already looking to escape his two-year deal with Lotto.
Which is when Pat Lefevere came along with an offer of five million Belgian francs a year (£125,000, we’re told) for a two-year contract with Mapei. The Belgian federation and the UCI were called in to rule on the issue. Lawyers were called in to thrash out a deal. At the start of April 1995 Vandenbroucke was allowed to take off his Lotto jersey and put on a Mapei one. Lotto, even then, was one of the runts of the peloton but now Vandenbroucke was playing with the big boys, his new team-mates including Tony Rominger, Abraham Olano, and Johan Museeuw.
In June he took the win in the opening stage of the Tour of Luxembourg and three months later “Frank’s first big win in Mapei colours came directly at the expense of Lotto and his uncle” when he won the September classic Paris-Brussels, beating a Lotto rider to the line.
Vandenbroucke had sat out the 1995 spring classics with a knee injury and within a week of his Paris-Brussels victory his knee again had him off the bike. Like Stephen Roche before him he turned to the Munich-based specialist Hans Müller-Wohlfahrt and like Stephen Roche before him his fragile knee would contribute to an inconsistent career. As would his even more fragile ego.
When racing resumed in February 1996 Vandenbroucke opened his third season as a pro by ripping the low-hanging fruit off its branches, trading up his 1994 stage win at the Tour Méd for the overall and then adding the Italian opener the Trofeo Laigueglia to his palmarès. An otherwise fruitless classics’ season was saved at the eleventh hour with a win in the Scheldeprijs (“Afterwards Vandenbroucke said it was the most he’d ever suffered in a race. The data bore that out: Mapei’s team doctor Yvan Vanmol said his heartbeat was an astonishing 198 beats per minute for twenty minutes. It was a finale that became the stuff of legend, even hyperbole”). Vandenbroucke ended the year with a new deal with Mapei taking him through to the end of the 1998 season.
The knee problems resurfaced in February 1997, wiping out another classics’ season. When Vandenbroucke returned to racing he took the overall win in the Tour of Luxembourg in June and earned a spot in Mapei’s Tour team. Like a latter day seer he told the media he’d win a stage, even promised a stage win to his then girlfriend as a birthday present. He managed second on the third and sixteenth stages and seventh on the twelfth: close, but no cuddly lion.
Vandenbroucke’s fifth season as a pro opened with victory in the Race to the Sun (“his Paris-Nice performance looked like a sporting amuse-bouche, a taste of what was to come”). In Milan-Sanremo he crashed and landed on his bad knee. Five days after his Sanremo misery he negotiated a three-year contract with Cofidis worth 30 million (Belgian?) francs over three years, which we’re told is more than €1 million a year, which it isn’t. (You’ll have to excuse the currency confusion but like a civil servant trying to bury unemployment statistics the basis of calculation has been changed, rendering comparison with previous years meaningless. If it was Belgian francs it’d be in the region of £200,000 a year, which would have been the equivalent of about €250,000 had we been using Euros then.)
Vandenbroucke’s Ronde van Vlaanderen debut saw him playing domestique to Museeuw and climbing off once his duties were done. Three days later he won Gent-Wevelgem (“Vandenbroucke shot like a bullet from [Mapei team-mate Nico] Mattan’s slipstream approaching the final kilometre for a famous victory”). In June he informed Lefevere of his imminent departure and, fortuitously as it turned out, wasn’t part of Mapei’s 1998 squad for the Tour that started in Dublin and ended in turmoil. Instead he was sent to the Vuelta a España. Where he abandoned on the second stage.
Vandenbroucke opened his account with Cofidis the following year with victory in the French opener the GP d’Ouverture, added a stage in the Ruta del Sol and rounded out the early season with victory in the Omloop Het Volk. (“‘Cycling seems so simple when it’s expressed by Frank Vandenbroucke,’ L’Equipe’s Jean-Luc Gatellier wrote afterwards. ‘His brute strength on cobbled roads made slippery by the rain and the deposits of mud is an art form.’”)
Unable to make it back-to-back victories in Paris-Nice Vandenbroucke did bag a stage win as compensation. At Milan-Sanremo he couldn’t keep up over the Poggio. Crashes put paid to his hopes in the Ronde (“Approaching the turn onto the Muur de Geraardsbergen, the race’s totemic cobbled hill, he crashed again, his back wheel slipping on the rain-slickened roads.”) At Paris-Roubaix he was seventh (“It confirmed his status as a rare racer who could turn his hand to almost any challenge in the sport – mountainous stage races, hilly one-day events, time-trials and even its most fearsome cobbled race.”)
And then came Liège-Bastogne-Liège. After which it was all downhill.
God is Dead is Andy McGrath’s second book and his second stab at telling the story of a rider who died early and whose career will forever be linked with drugs. We reach the high point of that career, his victory in la doyenne, just one third of the way through the book. Throughout that first third, Vandenbroucke has spent very little time on his bike with space having to be given over to his childhood, contract negotiations, the sport’s doping problem (which McGrath basically tells us was not really a problem before EPO and hasn’t been since) and Vandenbroucke’s discovery of the sleeping pill Stilnoct once he hooked up with Philippe Gaumont at Cofidis. The next two thirds have even less racing as Vandenbroucke descends through professional and personal break-ups, attempts at suicide, legal difficulties through his association with Bernard Sainz and, eventually, into a Pantani-like death in Senegal ten years after his Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory, a death which McGrath goes to great lengths to suggest was not by natural causes.
The book’s title, God is Dead, disregards Vandenbroucke’s own views on his status, he having titled his 2007 chamoir Ik ben God niet (I’m Not God). It echoes a line in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” McGrath, of course, doesn’t believe that we killed Vandenbroucke – it’d be a hell of a cheek to ask you to hand over €15 for a book and then spend 300 pages berating you for having killed your own hero. No, McGrath believes the modern, celebrity-obsessed media culture killed Vandenbroucke, denying him a private life and hounding him to the grave. In a book that spends most of its time delving into Vandenbroucke’s private life – his childhood, his marital difficulties, his suicide attempts – some might think that that’s a bit rich.
What is particularly rich when condemning the way others mistreated him is calling Vandenbroucke a wasted talent, which McGrath does in the book’s full title, God is Dead – The Rise and Fall of Frank Vandenbroucke, Cycling’s Great Wasted Talent. Saying someone has wasted their talent is a well worn trope within cycling, a narrative device we frequently force onto the sport. While reading God is Dead I put a call out on social media for examples of wasted talents. Some names were to be expected: Jan Ullrich; Marco Pantani; Thomas Dekker. Some were less expected: Carlos Betancur; Evgeni Berzin; Nairo Quintana. If we go back beyond recent memory we could have Fons de Wolf, Dietrich Thurau, Romeo Venturelli.
They’re all riders who showed promise and achieved something, riders of whom we expected more and who we are now disappointed in because they failed to make our dreams come true. Did they really waste their talents? Or are we just crushing them under the unbearable weight of our expectations? Maybe we, as cycling fans, need to stop always dreaming of tomorrow and start enjoying today, stop seeing a win in Paris-Nice as a sporting amuse-bouche and start seeing it for what it is, learn how to enjoy seeing someone win a stage in the Tour Méd without thinking the Second Coming is at hand. Maybe we, as cycling fans, need to realise that it is not our heroes who fail us, but we who fail them.
As with Pantani in Italy, Vandenbroucke in Belgium has birthed a mini-industry of books about his life and death. As well as biography and autobiography there’s been fiction, Dimitri Verhulst’s 2011 novel Monoloog van iemand die het gewoon werd tegen zichzelf te praten (Monologue of Someone Who Used to Talk to Herself) having been ‘inspired by’ Vandenbroucke’s death (it was filmed in 2018 as Un Ange). In the context of that Pantani industry, God is Dead is closer to Manuela Ronchi’s Man on the Run than it is to Matt Rendell’s The Death of Marco Pantani or Marco Pastonesi’s Pantani Was a God.
Cycling needs books about people like Frank Vandenbroucke, more than it needs, say, another chamoir from Bradley Wiggins or another book repeating the lies and half-truths that pass for history when it comes to the Tour de France. With Thomas Dekker’s The Descent, his ghost Thijs Zonneveld showed what, at their best, such books can achieve, why they can matter. We need to face up to the dark side of our sport and not just wallow in fantasies and fairy tales. We need more books like The Descent. We do not need more books like God is Dead.