There is a sign in Lang Park, near the beach in Wollongong, with a warning for passers-by. “Birds swooping!” it reads. “Dismount and walk your bike through this area. Magpies are nesting in this area.” The organisers of the 2022 UCI Road World Championships, which began on Sunday and run all week, must have missed the memo. The finish-line for the race is right near the sign, and magpies have been causing chaos for the world’s best cyclists.
“I’ve been swooped twice already since being here,” Australian rider Grace Brown, who won silver in the women’s time trial on Sunday, told Guardian Australia. “So it’s not just the international athletes that are worried about it. I get pretty scared by magpies.”
Cyclists are accustomed to danger while out riding. The nature of the sport, taking place in an uncontrolled environment, means that on-road hazards can send riders flying – roundabouts, signage and raised drainage holes have all caused crashes in the past. A collision between the peloton and a motorbike caused chaos at the 2016 edition of Tour de France, while riders were forced to dodge cows on the road a year before.
But the 1,000-strong international peloton, from 70 countries, have been taken aback by the aerial dangers in Wollongong. Although the World Tour does include an Australian leg, in January each year, this is the first time in over a decade the world championships have been staged on these shores during swooping season (between August and October). A small percentage of male magpies swoop during breeding season, to protest chicks in the nest.
“A fairly large bird came very close [during a training ride] and it just kept following me,” Belgium’s Remco Evenepoel, a favourite for the elite men’s road race this weekend, told CyclingNews. “It was terrifying. But that’s Australia, apparently. I hope it’s the only time it happens, but I am afraid of it.”
Magpie attacks are relatively common in Australia during spring, with the birds often targeting cyclists’ heads. Some local riders have been known to add plastic spikes to their helmets to scare off the magpies. But given the money and expertise cycling teams throw at the slightest aerodynamic improvements, such modifications are unlikely to be deployed in the week ahead.
“Some guys said you have to mount some antennae on your helmet to scare them away, but that’s not so good for aerodynamics,” joked Swiss rider Stefan Küng last week, after a teammate was swooped.
While the peloton’s reaction so far has been relatively light-hearted, magpie attacks on cyclists riding at speed during competition could raise significant safety concerns. In 2019, a cyclist suffered serious injuries and ultimately died after being swooped while riding in northern Wollongong. Magpie Alert, a website that monitors magpie attacks in Australia, currently lists over 1,500 incidents so far this year, causing almost 200 injuries.
Dr Paul Parland from the Illawarra Animal Hospital, has told a local radio station that he was worried the combination of the road world championships and magpie mating season could be a “calamity”. While Parland acknowledged that “I don’t think we’re going to slow down the cyclists in their race to take a little side breather as the birds swoop by”, the vet encouraged spectators to take care.
This article by Kieran Pender was first published by The Guardian on 18 September 2022. Lead Image: A magpie preparing to dive. Elite riders at the road world championships in Wollongong have been scared by the birds. Photograph: Genevieve Vallee/Alamy.
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