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Belgian newspaper tributes to Frank Vandenbroucke could hardly have been more complimentary or more poignant.
In the opinion of most sports writers the young man known as VDB could have been the best since Eddy Merckx — the national hero generally judged to be greatest ever cyclist.
It was not to be. Vandenbroucke was found dead Monday in a hotel in Senegal. He was 34.
The death left fans stunned in a country where cycling rivals soccer as a national obsession. Three days after his body was found Vandenbroucke’s death remains a mystery.
First reports said he’d died of a pulmonary embolism after a drinking bout. Then it was revealed that his wallet and mobile phone were missing from the room he’d entered with a local woman. Three people were arrested in Senegal on Wednesday on theft charges. Autopsy results are due later this week.
Vandenbroucke’s career had died years earlier. The golden boy tipped to match Merckx’s legendary exploits after his victory in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic had a precipitous fall from grace. For years VDB 54 professional wins were overshadowed by headlines on doping bans, messy relationships, drink-driving charges, narcotics scandals and suicide attempts.
His uncle said the news of his death on the West African coast was only “half a surprise.”
Handsome and charismatic, Vandenbroucke was once nicknamed the “enfant terrible” of Belgian cycling, but unfortunately he became one of many whose careers and lives have been blighted in a sport undermined by widespread doping.
In the end he never became a new Eddy Merckx. Instead the newspaper Le Soir likened him to a very different legend: “Frank, flamboyant and seductive, was the James Dean of his generation.”