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Swooping magpies causing mayhem at UCI Road World Championships

Remco Evenepoel and Grace Brown among riders reporting to have been attacked by birds as they protect young from perceived threats.

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It’s not COVID, it’s not heat, it’s not end-of-season fatigue – swooping magpies are the biggest threat to pro cyclists taking part in the UCI Road World Championships in Wollongong.

“Angry Birds” is no longer just a video game to play on the team bus for those racing in southwestern Australia.

Remco Evenepoel, Grace Brown and Bauke Mollema are among the riders to have been targeted by the fearsome black and white birds as they dive from the sky to batter perceived threats to their young. Newly crowned junior TT champion Zoe Bäckstedt also revealed during her post-win press conference that she’d been swooped by one, too.

“I’ve been swooped twice already since being here,” Aussie rider Brown told The Guardian. “It’s not just the international athletes that are worried about it. I get pretty scared by magpies.”

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At around 80cm (31 inches) wingspan and 300g (11 ounces) weight, the Australian Magpie isn’t to be messed with.

The risk of attack by the hefty bird is causing consternation among the world championship peloton as they train and race at the height of the so-called “swooping season” which stretches from August to October.

The possibility of a Magpie attack during the late summer is so common in the country, and particularly around Wollongong, that there are even warning signs about it scattered in and around the racing routes.

“A fairly large bird came very close [during a training ride] and it just kept following me. It was terrifying,” Evenepoel told the media ahead of his ITT this weekend. “But that’s Australia, apparently. I hope it’s the only time it happens, but I am afraid of it.”

Only Tuesday, Bauke Mollema posted a video of a live “Magpie Attack.” The Dutchman shared real-time footage of a bird diving down and clattering into his helmet at high speed while he was out on a training ride.

The increasing incidence of bird attacks during this “worlds week” has become a joking point in the pro peloton, but does carry some real risk.

The website Magpie Alert lists 1,500 incidents and 200 injuries caused by the occurrence this year. Comments by victims report up to nine “swoops” in one attack as bird make repeat diving strikes with their feet, typically aimed at the head.

In 2019, a 76-year-old died with head injuries after he took evasive maneuvers while being targeted by a bird.

There are no reports yet of a rider being attacked while in the heat of a race, and little can be done to mitigate it.

“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,” said Dr Paul Parland of Illawarra Animal Hospital.

Any rainbow jersey contender may have to hope they’re just too speedy to be swooped in the coming days.