In memory of Andrei Kivilev

Andrei Kivilev (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Andrei Kivilev (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The death of Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev (Cofidis) from head injuries sustained in a fall on stage two of Paris-Nice in 2003 was the trigger for the UCI to implement the compulsory wearing of helmets. They had previously tried to introduce this requirement in 1991 but riders had protested at – ironically – Paris-Nice, effectively quashing the initiative.

However, the nature of Kivilev’s injury coupled with the fact he was a lead rider, in one of the top French cycling teams, racing in a top stage race, together with advances in helmet technology, brought the debate conclusively to the fore. The UCI introduced the rule ahead of the 2003 Giro d’Italia, and it was affirmed that October. The requirement was initially enforced with the exception of mountain-top finishes but today the wearing of helmets is compulsory at all times when racing.

Kivilev started to attract interest outside of his home country when he rode as part of the Kazakh national team in the 1993 Regio Tour in Germany, where he won the points competition. His close friend and teammate, Alexandre Vinokourov, won the combined and the Kazakhs secured the team competition.

He rode firstly for an amateur team in Spain before moving to France to join Alex at EC Saint-Etienne Loire (ECSEL) in 1997. He subsequently secured a professional contract with Festina-Lotus and rode for them in 1998 and 1999. During those two years he placed second at the Vuelta ao Chile, fifth at the Championship of Zurich and seventh at the Criterium International. Despite the modest palmares, he attracted interest from US Postal Service for his strong climbing ability. He signed for AG2R in 2000 before moving to Cofidis the following year, where he was to enjoy his greatest success on the road.

In his first season with Cofidis, he won the Route du Sud overall ahead of Jens Voigt and stage five of the Dauphine Libere from a small bunch sprint. But he’s best remembered for his performance in the 2001 Tour de France where he finished fourth overall.

Having lost over 18 minutes on a windswept and attritional stage four between Huy and Verdun, Kivilev was allowed to join a 14-man breakaway on stage eight between Colmar and Pontarlier, which gained a massive 35 minutes on race favourites Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and Joseba Beloki. On the morning of stage ten, Lance commented:

We might have made a very big mistake the other day.

Indeed, as an excellent climber, Kivilev might have surpassed Claudio Chiapucci’s performance in the 1990 Tour or that of Roger Walkowiak in 1956. Instead he was let down by his time-trialling, losing his podium place to Beloki.

He followed this with solid results in 2002, finishing in the top five in races such as the Dauphine Libere, Route du Sud, Clasica de San Sebastian and Paris-Nice. He showed good form early in 2003 by placing third in the Tour du Haut Var.

On 11th March 2003, Kivilev was racing in the second stage of Paris-Nice between La Clayette and St Etienne. Some 40km from the finish, as the peloton passed through Saint-Chamond, Kivilev collided with one of his teammates and a rider from Gerolsteiner, who both remounted to finish the stage.

Not so the helmet-less Kivilev, who remained motionless on the ground. He was initially taken to hospital in Saint-Chamond before being air-lifted to the intensive care unit at Saint-Etienne, where he was diagnosed with a serious skull fracture and two broken ribs. His condition deteriorated overnight, and Kivilev died of his injuries the following day, nine years ago today. He was survived by his wife Natalia and six-month old son Leonardo.

That day’s third stage was neutralised in his memory. After a minute of silence by the peloton, the stage was ridden as a quiet procession, the loudspeakers silent, with Kivilev’s Cofidis team members riding in front of the rest of the peloton.

Devastated by the loss of his long-time friend and countryman Andrei Kivilev, Telekom’s Alexandre Vinokourov commented on his sadness, and his new-found determination to defend his Paris-Nice title in honour of his friend:

We were always there for each other. We raced for the first time together in 1986, and took the same road through the national team to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. We turned pro at the same time, Andrei with Festina, me with Casino.

Many, like his friend Vinokourov, will remember Kivilev as a talented rider, a dedicated professional and a true friend. His first club in France (ECSEL) honours his memory with a timed hill-climb every October, called the Montee Kivilev. While my own cycling club, of whom many of the Kazakh professional riders are honouree members, holds a sportive at the end of May called ‘La laurentine Andrei Kivilev’ in his memory, which is ridden over the very roads where he used to live and train.

We should never forget that, helmets or not, cycling is a dangerous sport and we should take the time to honour and remember those who have tragically lost their lives taking part in a sport we all love. Here’s a photo homage to Andrei from YouTube.

Andrei Kivilev (20/9/1973 – 12/3/2003)

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