Each and every rider at the 2022 UCI Road World Championships will, of course, be wearing a helmet – an obligatory measure to defend against head injuries in the event of crashes.
But the lids will serve a secondary function in Wollongong, as riders brace themselves for swooping attacks from above.
The city on Australia’s east coast is home to a large magpie population, and the coming of spring marks the start of what’s known as ‘swooping season’.
The medium-sized birds, anxious to protect their young during mating season, are notorious for flying down and clattering into cyclists and pedestrians alike.
Indeed, the riders who are currently in Wollongong training ahead of Worlds have already had run-ins.
“A fairly large bird came very close and it just kept following me,” Remco Evenepoel, a top favorite for Sunday’s men’s time trial, revealed on Friday of his latest training outing.
“It was terrifying. But that’s Australia, apparently. I hope it’s the only time it happens, but I am afraid of it.”
Likewise, fellow time trial contender Stefan Küng revealed that one of his Swiss teammates had been attacked as well.
“Really? They’re talking about birds attacking?” Küng said jokingly in a UCI video. “But yeah, one of our guys has already been attacked by a magpie.”
Magpie attacks in this part of Australia are common, especially among cyclists, with the birds said to be more wary of people moving at speed. It is common for magpies to swoop and use their feet to collide with people at high speed, usually targeting the head. They can be persistent, returning to deliver repeated blows.
There is a dedicated website to record magpie attacks, with several incidents and a couple of injuries reported in the Wollongong area in the past week or so. In extreme cases, the consequences can be severe and even fatal; in 2019 a man died after crashing his bike as a result of being swooped by a magpie in Wollongong.
For the riders at Worlds, there could be genuine concern, as Evenepoel has acknowledged. While injuries are uncommon, any attack could easily throw athletic performances off the rails.
There is also the risk to the general public, as a local vet, Paul Partland, has warned on Wave FM (opens in new tab).
“Magpies can be quite territorial and there’s going to be a lot going on in their particular areas,” he said.
“Swooping birds tend to target people that are by themselves and also people that are moving in very fast ways. Unfortunately, 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.
“As we’re watching it as pedestrians and spectators, we should be walking rather than running.”
There are a number of suggestions of how to ward away the magpies, mainly focusing on helmet adaptations such as reflective panels and even spikes, although the efficacy of these is disputed.
“Some guys said you have to mount some antennae on your helmet to scare them away, but that’s not so good for aerodynamics,” Küng joked.
Perhaps a good sense of humor is the only protection for the time being.