There is a sign in Lang Park, near Wollongong Beach, with a warning to passers-by. ” The birds fly ! it reads. “Get down and ride your bike around this area. Magpies nest in this area. Organizers of the 2022 UCI Road World Championships, which kicked off on Sunday and run all week, must have missed the memo. The race finish line is right next to the sign and magpies have wreaked havoc on the world’s best cyclists.
“I’ve already been shot twice since I’ve been here,” Australian rider Grace Brown, who won silver in the women’s time trial on Sunday, told Guardian Australia. “So it’s not just international athletes who are worried about it. I’m pretty scared of magpies.
Cyclists are used to danger when riding. The nature of the sport, which takes place in an uncontrolled environment, means that hazards on the road can send runners flying – roundabouts, signage and raised drain holes have all caused accidents in the past. A collision between the peloton and a motorbike caused chaos at the 2016 Tour de France, as riders were forced to dodge cows in the road a year before.
But the international peloton of 1,000, from 70 countries, were surprised by the aerial dangers in Wollongong. Although the World Tour includes an Australian leg, in January each year, it is the first time in more than a decade that the World Championships have been held on these coasts during the peak season (between August and October). A small percentage of male magpies dive during the breeding season, to protest the chicks in the nest.
“A fairly large bird came very close [during a training ride] and it kept following me,” Belgian Remco Evenepoel, favorite for the elite men’s road race this weekend, told CyclingNews. “It was terrifying. But this is Australia, apparently. I hope this is the only time it will happen, but I’m afraid.
Magpie attacks are relatively common in Australia in the spring, with the birds often targeting the heads of cyclists. Some local racers have been known to add plastic spikes to their helmets to scare away magpies. But given the money and expertise that cycling teams spend on even the smallest aerodynamic improvements, it’s unlikely that such modifications will be rolled out in the coming week.
“Some people said you have to put antennas on your helmet to scare them off, but it’s not so good for aerodynamics,” Swiss rider Stefan Küng joked last week, after a teammate was fire.
While the peloton’s reaction so far has been relatively mild, magpie attacks on speeding cyclists during the competition could raise significant safety concerns. In 2019, a cyclist was seriously injured and eventually died after being shot while riding in North Wollongong. Magpie Alert, a website that monitors magpie attacks in Australia, currently lists more than 1,500 incidents so far this year, resulting in nearly 200 injuries.
Dr Paul Parland, from Illawarra Veterinary Hospital, told a local radio station he feared the combination of the road world championships and the magpie mating season was a ‘calamity’ . While Parland acknowledged that “I don’t think we’re going to slow the cyclists down in their tracks to take a little break while the birds go by”, the vet encouraged onlookers to be careful.