By Andrew Hood
The mood at Paris-Nice turned sullen Wednesday morning as riders, support staff and fans learned that Cofidis’s Andrei Kivilev had died from injuries caused in his freakish fall during a stage a day earlier.
Kivilev fell face first with about 40km left in 182km stage into Saint Etienne and later lapsed into a coma, which doctors sustained with drugs to control his blood pressure. Cofidis team doctors said Kivilev died at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday morning at a hospital in Le Puy-En-Velay, France, after attending physicians doctors lost an all-night battle to control swelling of the 29-year-old’s brain.
The news reached the start village in Pont du Gard on Wednesday as teams were assembling for the start of the third stage of this spring season opener. Riders were shocked when they heard the news and several didn’t know until journalists told them. Many of the riders were in tears at the start and the peloton agreed to neutralize the stage and did not race the 192.5km third stage at full speed to honor their fallen comrade.
“I’ve known Andrei for several years because we both lived down on the Cote d’Azur and we’d train together,” said Frank Vandenbroucke (Quick Step) before the stage. “I was off to the side when it happened and I saw two Cofidis riders go down. It’s the kind of crash you see a 100 times. I heard Andrei quit the race and I thought he would get a few stitches. I never could have dreamed this.”
There was some confusion on whether or not the riders would ride the stage. The Cofidis team was locked away inside its team camper and only came out at the final moment before the riders acknowledged a moment of silence for Kivilev. Race organizers suggested the stage be shortened to 80km, but Cofidis riders led by Nico Mattan and Philippe Gaumont insisted the entire stage be completed.
The crash occurred on a rather anonymous flat section in Saint Chamond just before Tuesday’s second points sprint. Riders were also jostling for position at the base of the day’s major obstacle, the Category 1 Croix du Chaubouret, with stronger riders moving up and others moving back. Kivilev crashed along with Polish teammate Marek Rutkiewicz and German Volker Ordowski (Gerolsteiner) and took the full brunt of the fall on his face.
“When I went by him, he didn’t look good,” said Australian sprinter Baden Cooke (Fdjeux.com). “He wasn’t moving at all and that’s never a good sign. I don’t know why he wasn’t wearing a helmet.”
Paris-Nice is in its second year under the ownership of ASO, the same company that organizes the Tour de France. Riders donated all the stage’s prize money totally 11,141 euros to Kivilev’s family and ASO matched the amount.
ASO president Daniel Baal said the tragedy would certainly re-spark the debate about use of helmets among the pro ranks.
“It is a tragedy because he was a spectacular racer and a spectacular human being,” Baal said after the stage. “For sure this will re-start the debate about the obligatory use of helmets.”
Cofidis team doctor Jean-Jacques Menuet said Kivilev almost certainly would have survived if he was wearing a helmet.
“The injury Andrei sustained on his skull is located at a point that would have been protected by a helmet,” Meunet told the French wire service AFP. “Riders are free to wear a helmet or not, even though as doctors we would all like to see that it becomes obligatory.”
Racers competing Belgium and Australia are required to wear helmets, but there was an angry backlash in 1991 when the UCI tried to make helmet-use obligatory and riders protested by staging a sit-down strike during that year’s Paris-Nice. A compromise was worked out that allowed riders to decide on helmet-use depending on weather and race conditions.
The Kazakh rider burst onto the international scene when he finished fourth behind Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and Joseba Biloki at the 2001 Tour de France. Kivilev was universally admired for his tough climbing ability and his soft-spoken manner off the bike, something Armstrong acknowledged on his web page Wednesday.
“He was our kind of man,” Armstrong wrote. “Consistent, tough, hard-working and a very cool dude. Andrei, I’m gonna miss you, my friend. I will think of you at the base of every hard climb I do now and I wish with all my heart that you were there to ‘light it up’ or ‘open it up’ like you have done so many times in the past.”
Kivilev’s death brought back memories of the 1995 Tour de France, when Fabio Casartelli died after crashing into a concrete barrier on a descent in the Pyrénées. At the time of his death, Casartelli, the 1992 Olympic Gold medalist, was a Motorola teammate of Armstrong’s.
Just like Wednesday’s stage at Paris-Nice, the following day’s stage was neutralized and the peloton was led by teammate Armstrong as they rolled slowly through the stage.
Kivilev is the first European racer to be killed in a race since Spain’s Manuel Sanroma died at the Tour of Catalonia in 1999.
The 61st Paris-Nice continues Thursday with a 16.5km individual time trial in Vergeze, but it won’t be a race that many here will be looking forward to.
Date of birth: September 21 1973
Birthplace: Talducorgan, Kazakhstan
2001 – Won the Route du Sud, fourth in Tour de France, fifth in Criterium du Dauphine (won a stage)
2002 – Fifth in Criterium du Dauphine, fourth in Paris-Nice,third in Tour of Haut-Var
Turned professional: end of 1998
Teams: Festina (1998-1999), AG2R (2000), Cofidis (since 2001)
Most recent UCI ranking: 50
VeloNews Archive: Helmets an issue at Paris-Nice in ’91
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