Left: Remco Evenepoel. Right: His nemesis.

At this World Championships, the birds want blood

Swooping magpies have sent the world's top cyclists into a flap.

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The World Championships have come to Wollongong during spring, putting the international cycling community in the crosshairs of an unlikely adversary: the magpie. 

On training rides and course recons, the black and white bird has deployed its territorial defenses in a method familiar to most cyclists in Australia. Sometimes you see them coming; sometimes you don’t. Then, there’s a whoosh, a click, and a shriek.

If you’re lucky, there might be a couple of close passes. If you’re not, they might follow you for a couple of hundred metres, their claws or beak gouging chunks out of your helmet. The magpies are trying to protect their nests; cyclists do not care for their nests, but have you tried reasoning with a magpie? It doesn’t tend to pan out.

A friendly greeting. (Photo by Darren Pateman/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

While local riders may have learned to tolerate all of this as a whimsical quirk of the season, the acclimatisation process has been rather more abrupt for international visitors. 

Case in point: Remco Evenepoel, fresh off his debut Grand Tour win at the Vuelta a España and into the pressure cooker of a World Championship where the birds want blood. “A fairly large bird came very close [during a training ride] and it just kept following me,” Evenepoel said. “It was terrifying. But that’s Australia, apparently. I hope it’s the only time it happens, but I am afraid of it.”

That fear, perhaps, spurred Evenepoel to a bronze medal in the Elite Time Trial, but Sunday’s road race covers more ground and a feathered fury could lie in wait around any corner. 

The rider one position ahead of him on the Elite ITT podium, Stefan Küng, had also had a brush with monochromatic mayhem. “One of our guys has been attacked already by a magpie,” he revealed in a UCI video. 

The birds don’t discriminate. “I’ve been swooped twice already since being here,” Australia’s Grace Brown – the Women’s Elite ITT silver medallist – told Guardian Australia. “It’s not just the international athletes that are worried about it. I get pretty scared by magpies.”

There’s little that can be done to mitigate against the threat of swooping– which tends to run from late August to late November – although some Australian cyclists attach fake eyes or cable ties to their helmets to ward magpies off. “But that’s not so good for aerodynamics,” Küng correctly noted.

The World Championships continue tomorrow with the men’s and women’s junior individual time trials around the Wollongong city circuit. The event concludes with the elite road races on the weekend, which will take any surviving riders deep into drop bear territory.

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