1998 Gent-Wevelgem: “We can pretend, for now, that we don’t know how it ended”

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In 1998, I was racing mountain bikes. I had a steel hardtail with the precipitous angles and narrow bars customary of the time. It boasted brakes that didn’t stop and tires that too often didn’t have much of a grip on things at all. Like me, most of the time, if I’m honest. Slide it, until you make it. So what if your brakes don’t work, it’ll just make you go faster. It was all fun, if slightly unnerving.

All of which is to say, I did not know much of anything about road racing in 1998. Sure, I probably could have told you who won the Tour that year (Marco Pantani, if you’re wondering). I had heard of Paris-Roubaix, with the mud and the cobbles and the drama. But I can’t say I knew that Gent-Wevelgem existed, much less who might have won it. I’ll be watching this one for the first time, an old race that’s new to me.

The 1998 classics season opened with a thriller as Peter Van Petegem won a solo victory at Omloop Het Volk. True to form, Milano-Sanremo finished in a bunch sprint and Erik Zabel, wearing Deutsche Telekom pink, took that one. The previous year, his teammate Jan Ullrich had won the Tour de France by more than nine minutes.

In this era, the mighty Mapei team dominated the classics, winning race after race in their dizzying tile-patterned kit. In 1996, the team counted Milano-Torino, Het Volk, the E3, Paris-Roubaix, Giro di Lombardia, among their victories. The following year proved a bit less successful, as they were shut out of the monuments, and had to be content with Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, a few stages of Paris-Nice, and Brabantse Pijl during the spring season.

But in 1998, there was hardly a major one-day race that Mapei did not win. Among the team’s heavy hitters: Johan Museeuw, Franco Ballerini, Stefano Zanini, Tom Steels, Pavel Tonkov, Oscar Camenzind, and Frank Vandenbroucke.

It’s easy to remember Vandenbroucke’s tragic end, much harder to imagine him as an up-and-coming star. But that’s exactly what he was in 1998. He signed his first pro contract in 1994 at age 20 with Lotto, after winning a junior national title in Belgium, and a bronze medal at junior worlds. He had five victories in his first season and his first semi-classic win came in 1995 at Cholet-Pays de Loire. All of this, by age 21.

In this, the pre-helmet era, Vandenbroucke stood out. He was glam, and even mid-race looked like he’d walked out of a nightclub. He had bleached-out blonde hair, slicked back with industrial-strength gel, holding it all perfectly in place. In 1999 while riding for Cofidis, he added a pointed goatee to his ensemble. I’m not convinced this was an entirely good idea.

Vandenbroucke rode best in the one-day classics and the shorter stage races, and he began the 1998 season with two stage wins and the overall at Paris-Nice. In fact, the 1998 and 1999 seasons marked the high point of his career. After 1999, the big victories dropped off quickly. So, in watching this 1998 Gent-Wevelgem we are seeing him before the fall.

After 1999, Vandenbroucke’s career and life unravelled. Suspected involvement in doping earned him a suspension in 1999. And it was mostly downhill after that — jumping teams each year, legal problems, rumored domestic violence, and alleged drug use.

In truth, it’s impossible to talk about cycling in the 1990’s without doping ending up square in the middle of it. Vandenbroucke, Pantani, both were among the biggest names in the sport in 1998. Both fell hard and fast from their heights during these years. Within ten years, both Vandenbroucke and Pantani were dead.

But that was all for the future. In 1998, it was all youthful hopes and at least the pretense of innocence, if not the reality of it.

The 60th edition of Gent Wevelgem ran on 8 April. Among the riders at the start were Andrei Tchmil, Erik Zabel, Lars Michaelson, Peter Van Petegem, Henk Vogels, and Nico Mattan. The weather was dry, and by Belgian standards, a rather perfect day for a bike race.

We can pretend, for now, that we don’t know how it all ended.

Join the virtual watching party on Sunday, 29 March at 8am, west coast time. Here’s how!

Words by Jen See