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originally published on OLNTV.com
By John Wilcockson
One of the saddest tasks for a journalist is writing obituaries, particularly in the case of young athletes at the height of their careers. A few weeks ago in this column, I wrote about Italian racer Denis Zanette, who died of heart failure at age 32. Who knows how much the harsh life of a professional cyclist contributed to his untimely death?
This past week another member of the cycling family left this world prematurely. His name was Andreï Kivilev, a 29-year-old from Kazakhstan who raced for the French team Cofidis. In both cases, the tragedy was heightened by their being recent fathers: twin girls for Zanette, a son for Kivilev.
What was different were the circumstances of their deaths. The Zanette family had a history of fathers dying young from heart disease; Kivilev was the latest in a handful of professional cyclists who have died while racing. He is the first this century, while just two were killed in race accidents in the 1990s: Italian Fabio Casartelli at the 1995 Tour de France (the result of a high-speed crash on a mountain descent) and Spaniard Manuel Sanroma at the 1999 Tour of Catalonia (also a crash at high speed, but in a stage-finish sprint).
Kivilev’s death resulted from a relatively low-speed (probably 35-kph) collision with two other racers on a slight uphill, some 40 kilometers from the St. Etienne finish of the second stage of last week’s Paris-Nice. It was the sort of accident that happens thousands of times every year: a mechanical forces one rider to stop abruptly, others can’t brake in time, some of them fall.
Kivilev fell face first on to the pavement and fractured his skull, which caused cerebral edema. They were similar injuries to those sustained by Polish racer Piotr Wadecki exactly a year ago, at Sorrento, on the first stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico race. Wadecki went into a coma, from which he eventually recovered. Kivilev underwent surgery during the night of March 11, in an attempt to remove the dangerous swelling from his brain, but it was unsuccessful and he died the next morning.
What made Kivilev’s death even more tragic was the fact that the accident happened a few kilometers from his new home at the village of Sorbiers, on a road where he went training. Furthermore, his wife Natalia and their six-month-old son Léonard were waiting for him at the finish line in St. Etienne, hoping that Andreï would be one of the day’s winners. Instead, they would be attending his funeral on March 17.
Kivilev was born at Taldy-Kurgan, a town in the far east of Kazakhstan, near the border with China. He lived in a high valley surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks. His country was part of the Soviet Union when he was growing up and he was educated in a state-run school for talented athletes. He competed at judo until breaking an elbow and turned to cycling at age 16.
After the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the halt to state-funded athletes, Kivilev moved to France in 1997 at age 23 with a Kazakh friend he made on the Soviet junior team, Alex Vinokourov. They raced for the E.C. St. Etienne amateur squad. Vinokourov was so successful that before the end of the season he signed a contract with the French pro team, Casino. At the same time, Kivilev traveled to Australia with the Kazakhstan national team, where he won the two-week Commonwealth Bank Classic. That win, along with his performances in French amateur racing, earned him a place on the Festina pro team in 1998.
Kivilev, who spoke fluent English and French, went on to race for the AG2R team, and then Cofidis, even though Lance Armstrong tried to get Kivilev to sign for the U.S. Postal Service squad in 2000. Instead, Kivilev became one of the American’s chief opponents at the 2001 Tour de France, after heading into the race with his only two pro wins: a mountain stage of the Dauphiné Libéré and the overall classification at the Route du Sud. At the Tour de France, Kivilev and his Cofidis team missed a key move on the fourth stage, then got into the big break that gained a half-hour on the peloton on stage eight to Pontarlier. He eventually ended the Tour in fourth place.
Both Kivilev and Vinokourov began this season ranked among the top 100 racers in the world. Vinokourov, who moved from Casino to the powerful Telekom team in 2000, remained close friends with Kivilev. After winning the key stage of Paris-Nice last Friday, and then clinching the overall victory Sunday, Vinokourov said that his memories of “Kivi” gave him the strength of two riders. “Kivi was planning on finishing on the podium at the Tour de France this year,” Vinokourov said. “Now, I will have to do it for him.”