Saturday, 9 June 2007

Belgian Mix...

Who says nothing ever happens in Belgium? The mythical sleepy backwater of Europe has this week taken most of the heat away from German cycling with new round of sleazy events that do the sport’s image about as much good as a photo opportunity with Floyd Landis.

A series of Police raids on ten homes led initially to thirteen arrests, and in the words of a police spokesman, the confiscation of ‘a large quantity of doping products’. Quick Step assistant Alessandro Tegner was among those questioned, but he was later released, prompting the Belgian Pro-Tour outfit to issue a series of angry statements of denial.

On this occasion it seems they were within their rights to feel more than a little hacked off. It turned out that the raids were in fact part of a concerted effort to crack down on foul play in the amateur ranks. The raids seemed to have been instigated by Jean-Marie Dedecker, a Belgian politician who has one eye on this Sunday’s municipal elections. That the investigations centre not on the pro-peleton but the ultra competitive Belgian road racing scene is shocking enough in itself, symptomatic of just how far reaching the problems actually are.

Sensational headlines aiming to implicate Tom Boonen were premature, and with the team still tainted by the busting of 1996 World Road Champion Johan Museeuw earlier this year, and boss Patrick Lefevre involved in parallel litigation of his own, they can at least afford a self-righteous smile on this occasion.

Of even greater concern, at least on the human level, is the continuing self-destruction of the former wunderkind of Belgian cycling Frank Vandenbroucke. VDB, as he’s universally known, has had a career every bit as undisciplined and unfulfilled as that of Jan Ullrich, and he has repeatedly hit the headlines for many of the same reasons. Whether it’s drugs, wild partying or troubles in his personal relationships, VDB has done it all with at least fifty times the colour.

Of late his fortunes seem to be spiraling into alarming new depths. Succumbing to depression, socially isolated, struggling with knee injuries, waning motivation, and prone increasingly public bouts of what most onlookers could only describe as madness, VDB cuts a sorry figure.

Hitting the big time with Lotto in 1994, he went on to win a string of the big one-day classics and generated the same sort of hysteria in Belgium that Tom Boonen is doing today. In recent years all of the headlines have been written for the wrong reasons – domestic disputes involving the firing of weapons, torrid relationship breakdowns, a series of bans (in more lenient times) for doping offences – in short he’s become more of a cycling legend for his tawdry exploits off the bike than anything he’s added to a pretty threadbare palmarés.

The latest chapter came on Wednesday of last week, with an alleged suicide attempt. Reports first spoke of his opening of a vein in his arm, but were later changed to an attempted overdose with anti-depressants and insulin. On Friday the rider, in the middle of a not so successful comeback with Aqua e Sapone, denied any form of attempt on his own life.

“What they said about me is completely untrue. I am very depressed, yes...but I did not try to commit suicide”, the rider said on Friday. He went on to say that he admitted himself to hospital, but didn’t elaborate on the reasons.

With the larger than life VDB truth is often stranger than fiction, and it has been sad to watch his steady decline from the kind of rider who could light the blue touch-paper in almost any kind of race, to a tragically undisciplined and increasingly washed up figure on the fringes of the sport. Whatever wrongs he may have committed in the past, I hope he can be saved before he goes the way of Marco Pantani.

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