Look, I don’t know why certain bicycle racers just take hold of my imagination, but they do, and for me it’s as powerful as it is pointless.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

That’s Freddy Nietzsche writing there, not me. It’s proven easy to interpret the most inflammatory parts of this passage (from his book The Gay Science) as a call to lawless hedonistic damnation, especially if you’re trying to excite your flock into ecclesiastical rapture. But reading beyond the first three sentences, and really trying to figure out what’s going on, I’m pretty sure that Fred wasn’t saying that we could all go ahead and do whatever we felt like because one of us shot Jesus’s dad through the heart or fed Buddha a poison fig, or maybe because whatever celestial eminence is out there withered away from neglect like a forgotten grandparent in a heatless apartment. What he meant is that the modern world had become so complex, so bewildering, so unknowable and full of irreconcilable opposing necessities that all the moral and religious guides we’d been given in the past were no longer sufficient to guide us; at this point in human history, he seemed to be saying, it was up to us to figure out this strange new existence we’d wrought — and to create our own moral system to get us through it.

Frank Vandenbroucke died last Monday, which just about everybody in cycling seems to know by now. He was found in a hotel room in Senegal. Drugs were also found, beside the bed he lay in. He’d been robbed by a whore. He was 34.

They called him God. In Belgium. The fans. They called him God because . . . I don’t know. Maybe because they love cycling that much and because Frank Vandenbroucke, I guess if you were Belgian he rode like God might ride if such an event were ever to come to pass here on our planet. Everyone in cycling with a blog, it seems, feels compelled to tell us all about it now, how great Vandenbroucke looked in the saddle, how he was born to the bike, the absolute epitome of grace and style. Everyone wants to quote Eddy Merckx saying that Vandenbroucke found life so hard because he had “perhaps, too much talent.” Even the most voracious anti-doping bloggers, who crucified Vandenbroucke on their one-dimensional cross when he was alive, are mourning his passing, as if some of us are only allowed to be the mess that humans are once we die.

And Vandenbroucke was a mess. He was a doper in the grandest era of dopers, recounting his drug use in his 2007 autobiography, and in statements later retracted by his publisher, saying that “Everybody did it, and so I did I. It is the truth and it does not diminish the value of my victories . . . we fought with equal weapons.” He used drugs outside of sport, too, cocaine and Valium and morphine and, most famously, frequently mixing a potent brew of alcohol and a sleeping aid called Stilnoct. He had a daughter with one girlfriend, left her and married a model with whom he had another daughter, shot off a gun in their house during an argument, got divorced, worked for less and less as his career dimmed (once even agreeing to ride for no pay unless he won), tried to commit suicide, created a false identity (Francesco Del Ponte, a rough Italian approximation of the Belgian meaning of his name) to race as an amateur (always dropping out before the finish, he said, so as not to deprive the winner of honor). He knew who he was: He titled his autobiography I’m Not God.

We disagreed. There are lots of stories, lots of video, lots of memories of his short career, but the best to me is when he big-ringed every climb of Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1999, and won by attacking at the exact spot where he’d predicted to the world he would. He was as natural and elegant on a bike as everyone is saying, more so, in fact, because none of us are saying it as purely as he was it. He rode a bicycle not like a cannibal or an eagle or a falcon or a badger or a pirate or a devil or an angel or a gypsy or a heron or anything else we could think of except the one term that in some way doomed him as surely as it described him. Frank Vandenbroucke is dead. Frank Vandenbroucke remains dead. And we have killed him.

How shall we comfort ourselves?


Originally published in the October 16, 2009 Sitting In