Sport?s voluminous annals are littered with tales of supremely talented individuals playing a large part in their own, usually rapid fall from grace. There are multiple reasons: alcohol, ?recreational? drugs, an unsettled personality, marital or relationship problems. These plus a host of others have caused far too many sportsmen and women to either abandon their careers completely, or slip from the heights they once took for granted only to find themselves unable to negotiate a return to the top.
And then there?s drugs and professional cycling. So widespread was the problem, that there?s even a Wikipedia page devoted to the topic ? the first recorded case was in 1886 when an unnamed Welshman died after drinking a mix of coffee, cocaine and strychnine.
More recently, names such as Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong spring to mind, but Andy McGrath?s excellent biography of Belgian superstar Frank Vandenbrouke, God is Dead, reminds us of how drugs ruined the cyclist?s life.
Vandenbrouke?s stardom shone brightly from an early age. By the time he was 15, against older competitors, he won half the races he entered. His first professional race took place four years? later: naturally, he won that too. In 1998, he joined one of cycling?s leading teams, Cofidis, making it into the world?s top ten in the same year. By his early twenties, Vandenbrouke had the world at his feet.
Yet this was a time when drug-taking was at its most rampant across the sport. Everyone was at it: one favoured concoction was Pot Belge, a mix of amphetamine, caffeine and cocaine or heroin. In addition, there was EPO (erythropoietin), which stimulated red blood cell production, human growth hormone, cortisone and testosterone; a teammate introduced Vandenbrouke to Stilnoct, a sleeping pill, on which the pair would regularly get stoned.
Soon, the drug-taking took its toll, although not before Vandenbrouke had acquired a yellow Lamborghini and constructed a mansion, when he found himself in police custody explaining the extent of illegal drug-taking within the peloton.
Yet so good was Vandenbrouke that following this episode he actually climbed further up the world rankings (reaching number 3), but the game was up when, in 2002, a police raid at his home discovered enough drugs for him to have opened his own chemist?s shop.
The downward spiral makes for harrowing reading before the inevitably squalid end. Vandenbrouke was found dead aged just 34 in 2009 in a grubby Senegalese hotel, drugs by his side, his arm resembling a pin cushion such were the number of needle marks made from injecting his final, poisonous concoction.