Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
It’s 20 years since Andrei Kivilev died after crashing during Paris-Nice, his passing resulting in helmet-wearing becoming obligatory within racing
Sunday’s final stage of Paris-Nice will mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Andrei Kivilev at “the race to the sun”, the Kazakh rider suffering fatal head injuries in a crash on the 2003 race’s second stage into Saint-Étienne. Just as Tom Simpson’s death on Mont Ventoux in 1967 led to the gradual acceptance of doping controls and to consequent saving of riders’ lives, Kivilev’s tragic fate triggered a similar effect. It led to a hugely significant change in attitudes within the sport and, as a consequence, to the obligatory use of helmets within a year.
I remember that 2003 edition of Paris-Nice particularly well. That Saint-Étienne stage was my first-ever on the race. I was travelling with my Procycling colleague Ellis Bacon, and when we arrived in the rundown sports hall being used for a press room there was no news about Kivilev’s injuries. The press, and indeed almost everyone on the race, didn’t find out about his passing until the next morning – in our case when we were in our hotel lift with a soigneur from another team who told us the awful news.
The incident happened at a place where there appeared to be no danger at all. Having crossed one climb, the peloton was lining out as it approached the Col de la Croix du Chaubouret. Kivilev was up towards the front of the line. He took his hands off the bars to adjust to his earpiece just as the moment when the rider ahead of him, Gerolsteiner’s Volker Ordowski, had a mechanical problem. Kivilev wasn’t ready to react and hit the road heavily, sustaining severe head injuries.
Among the riders in the bunch that day was Tristan Hoffman, then one of the Team CSC teammates of Tyler Hamilton and Carlos Sastre. “I remember that I was dropped back at that point in the stage and I saw him lying on the ground,” Hoffman, now a directeur sportif with Jayco-Alula, recalled this morning.
Like his Kazakh compatriot Alexandre Vinokourov, Kivilev’s had set up home close to Saint-Étienne and his wife Natalia was waiting for him at the finish that day with their six-month-old son Leonard. She was taken to the city’s Bellevue hospital, where her husband had been transferred for emergency treatment. “A spider came under my door this morning, which means that some kind of drama was definitely going to happen today,” she told Cofidis team doctor Jean-Jacques Menuet, who recalled the moment in L’Équipe. “A sort of premonition, of religious belief. She had prepared for his passing.”
Despite an emergency operation that night, Kivilev couldn’t be saved. His Cofidis teammates were told of his fate the next morning. They discussed whether to continue or not. “We weren’t going to cry in a car. We were going to ride. For Andrei. Like him,” Nico Mattan told L’Équipe.
I can recall the muted atmosphere at the stage start the next morning, the riders and team staff discussing the news, the debate about whether the stage would go ahead or not. I spoke to a number of riders, but I can remember the response of just one of those I canvassed. US Postal sprinter Max van Heeswijk was irate. Not many riders opted to wear a helmet at that point, but the Dutchman was one of them and, his emotions heightened by the tragedy, he raged against the sport’s rule-makers for their inaction and against his peers for their intransigence in the face of efforts to make their use obligatory. His anger was raw, and left me with my jaw hanging.
When the stage finally got under way, it was neutralised. The riders rode in procession to the finish at the majestic Roman aqueduct of the Pont du Gard, Kivilev’s Cofidis teammates riding across the finish line together in the same way that Motorola’s had following Fabio Casartelli’s death during the 1995 Tour de France.
Even after Kivilev’s death, some riders didn’t see the absence of an obligatory regulation for the use of helmets as an issue. Richard Virenque described it as a “false problem” in the immediate aftermath of the death of his former teammate. Others continued to complain about the weight of helmets, that they weren’t aero, even that they caused your hair to fall out. Look back at pictures from that era, and the helmets that can be seen appear rather bulbous and ill-fitting, their polystyrene shell covered by elasticated netting rather a wind-channelling plastic coating.
Hoffman laughs when he thinks back to his own attitude at that time. “I have a photo that of me racing Paris-Roubaix without a helmet. I can’t imagine what I was thinking then,” he tells me. “One of the things that I also heard is that when you put a helmet on and then glasses, the fans cannot see you anymore, but these were stupid reasons. Some guys were saying that you lost your hair. I’m losing my hair anyway now, but it’s not because of wearing a helmet,” the Jayco DS says.
But Kivilev’s death changed perceptions and the overall mood. At the end of that season, helmets were made compulsory, although they could be taken off on summit finishes, when riders could toss them into a roadside net at the foot of the ascent. That exception to obligatory usage ended in 2005.
“It was 100% the right decision. No doubt. Okay, when you want to change something in cycling, everybody is going protest, but in the end it was a good decision. Like I said, I have photos of me at Paris-Roubaix without a helmet, and that’s stupid,” Hoffman continues.
“When I went training, the first few times I went with a local cycling club and you needed to wear a helmet, but I forgot. But now it’s like you put your kit on, you put the helmet on. It’s a natural thing to do. I’m sure that’s better for everybody. I also remember the time when you were going up climbs and you were allowed to throw away things like this. It takes time to change the mentality in a peloton. But I think it’s the right way. It’s still a dangerous sport. But the helmet, of course, helps to protect your head.”
“Andrei’s death was a drama,” his Cofidis teammate Cédric Vasseur, now the team’s manager, told L’Équipe, “but a drama that had the upside that it saved lives.”