The world’s best cyclists were terrorized by swooping magpies at the World Cycling Championships in Wollongong, on the NSW south coast.
More than 1000 participants are Down Under as the prestigious event takes place in Australia for the first time in more than a decade – but apparently no one has told them about the danger the birds pose from August to October when their chicks and defend nests.
The magpie attacks left some of the sport’s biggest names badly shaken, looking over their shoulders every time they climb on their bikes.
“A rather large bird came very close [during a training ride] and it just kept following me,” Belgian rider Remco Evenepoel told CyclingNews.
“It was terrifying. But that’s Australia, apparently. I hope it’s the only time it happens, but I’m afraid of it.’
Amazingly, organizers moved the finish line for one of the races right near a magpie nesting site in Lang Park’s beachfront area – where there’s even a community sign that reads “Birds Plunge!” Get off and walk through this area on your bike. Magpies nest in this area.”
“I’ve had two falls since I’ve been here,” Australia’s Grace Brown, who won silver in the women’s time trial on Sunday, told Guardian Australia.
“It’s not just the international athletes who are concerned. I get pretty scared of magpies.”
Magpie attacks are relatively common in Australia during the spring, leading locals to put plastic spikes on their helmets and take other measures to reduce the risk of falling.
However, given the time and expertise cycling teams invest in aerodynamic improvements, it is unlikely that riders will change their headgear at the event.
“Some people said you have to put antennas on the helmet to deter them, but that’s not so good for aerodynamics,” joked Switzerland’s Stefan Küng last week after a teammate fell.
While most drivers have reacted relatively lightly to the birds, magpie attacks on cyclists traveling at high speeds can be very dangerous.
In 2019, a cyclist died in Wollongong after being attacked by a magpie.
The 76-year-old crashed into a fence post while trying to escape from one of the falling birds and died after being flown to hospital in critical condition.
Leading local vet Dr. Paul Parland has told a radio station that he believes the magpie’s mating season combined with road cyclists is a recipe for “bad luck”.
“I know there have been some troublesome magpies in the northern suburbs in recent years that have created some really difficult situations,” Parland said.
“Magpies can be quite territorial and there will be a lot going on in their respective areas.”
Parland has encouraged people to be careful and travel in groups.
“Froaming birds tend to target people who are alone and also people who are moving very quickly.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be putting the brakes on the cyclists in their race to take a little breather while the birds fly by.”
Magpie Alert, a website that monitors and records magpie attacks in Australia, currently lists over 1,590 incidents so far this year that have caused numerous injuries.
Magpies tend to swoop for about six weeks while their mate is incubating eggs and the chicks are still very young.