Cyclists know several enemies: the wind, the slope, cramps… in Wollongong, at the World Road Championships, another threat hangs over their heads: the flute-bearing cassican, more commonly known as the Australian magpie.
Just arrived from Spain, where he won the Vuelta, Remco Evenepoel is not ready to forget his first training outing in Australia. “Suddenly a bird of very respectable size approached me and kept following me. It was terrifying”, said the Belgian champion on his return. Even though he dodged an attack, he “hope it doesn’t happen again”. “It scares me. But it happens like that in Australia apparently”he added.
The phenomenon is indeed well known to Australians who know that in September-October you have to be wary of the sky. We then enter the “swooping season”, literally the season of swooping downhills, where birds, and more particularly the black currant, a medium-sized passerine bird with black and white plumage, can be very aggressive towards those who approach. too close to their nest: pedestrians, joggers and especially cyclists, their preferred target, because the faster you move, the more the birds feel threatened and the more they attack.
The magpies can then dive on their victim and aim their powerful beak at the head, face, neck or eyes. Sometimes they also sting “in a bomb” and hit the intruders head-on. This scenario worthy of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is far from being anecdotal and constitutes a real concern, as evidenced by the testimonies left day after day on the site show. “www.magpiealert.com”, which offers a map of reported attacks.
“I almost died”
“Here, it’s really very frequent. There is a place over there near the beach where I almost died”, confirms to AFP Thomas Walker, an amateur cyclist in his sixties who came to observe Saturday, bike in hand, the training of the runners engaged in Wollongong. Injuries are frequent and the consequences can even be dramatic. In 2019, a 76-year-old cyclist died in Wollongong when he hit a pole after trying to avoid a magpie attack.
At the World Championships, which open Sunday for a week on the southeast coast of Australia, we take the subject seriously. And a racing incident is not impossible, as Swiss runner Stefan Kung reported that one of his teammates had been attacked by a magpie in training.
“When attacking, birds tend to target people who are alone and moving fast. Unfortunately, I don’t think cyclists will be told to slow down.”said Paul Parland, a veterinarian at Illawarra Animal Hospital, calling for caution on local Wave FM radio to onlookers urged to walk slowly.
“At one point of the race route, there are regular incidents. It can really surprise when you’re not used to it. I imagine that the organization is aware. But we can’t do much anyway.”, emphasizes Thomas Walker. Over the years, local cyclists have more or less successfully devised strategies to guard against these attacks, such as wearing a helmet with spikes or reflective mirrors.
“Some people advise us to stick antennae on our helmets to scare the birds away. But it’s not very aerodynamic so we’re not going to do it”commented Stefan Küng in an interview on the UCI website.