Cycling in the rain in northern Greece was when I learnt to keep my mouth shut and not lick my lips. This is to avoid ingesting splashes contaminated with the decomposing insides of a dead dog. Unfortunately not much can protect against being splashed on the face in general. (It’s worse if you ride at the back, which I mostly do) Once we got to southern Italy on this trip we started to encounter dead dogs or cats every few hundred metres on the side of busy roads. You notice these things when you travel at less than 20km/hr. It’s ironic that the beasts haunt us cyclists even after death.
My relationship with dogs has been deteriorating for years. I actually used to like them before I got into cycling. Now I dread them. It’s not personal, I know they are just doing what dogs do. But even the sight of ‘man’s best friend’ on the horizon strikes fear into my heart. I even learnt to be scared of the little ones when I got chased and bitten in Bramley fall woods by a Springer the size of a large rat. But out here people keep dogs mainly for security purposes – therefore the bigger and scarier the better. It seems as if they are actively encouraged to terrorise any passer by, but why dogs have a special affinity for cyclists I’ve never managed to work out. We asked advice from a fellow intercontinental tourer who put us up for a night in Tirana. From Taiwan, he was touring in the opposite direction but told us the worst dogs he had encountered on his entire trip were in Greece. His best tactic was to stop the bike (totally counter intuitive as all you want to do is ride away as fast as possible!) and shout sternly at the hound. He also said he keeps ammunition handy in the form of small stones in case the first approach fails. So after this I decided I was going to be brave and try it out.. but when an enormous german shepherd is hurtling towards me at speed, canines bared, all I seem to be able to muster is a pathetic, high pitched ‘shoo!’
We stayed in Thessaloniki for 6 weeks and commuted to work by bike to try and maintain some fitness. By the end of the first week I knew exactly where every dog hung out on the route and which posed the greatest threat. Thankfully the nastiest looking ones were behind fences but their barking still got my heart pumping every time. The worst was a farm dog that had a habit of sprinting up behind me undetected and then snapping it’s jaws convincingly at my jibbering legs. Once I knew where it lived I tried stealth riding – sometimes this worked if it was distracted, but if I made the tiniest sound – even a change of gear – it was game-over. I resorted to keeping a collection of ready-to-throw stones in the side pocket of my bar-bag.
On a serious note, there is a real problem with strays. Nobody bothers to neuter their pooch. And it is pretty heartbreaking to see litters of puppies everywhere that have clearly been abandoned. One night in Turkey we were looking for somewhere to wildcamp when we realised we were next to a huge landfill. There were skeletal looking stray dogs roaming around with hungry eyes. One of them spotted us and followed us hopefully for several hundred metres. Then just over the next hill we saw a stray dog eating the carcass of another dog! A few minutes before I’d been ready to drop but I suddenly found the energy to push onwards.
So my conclusion…I don’t have one really. I certainly think that the well meaning charities who put out feeding stations for strays are inadvertently perpetuating a cycle of misery for both dogs and cyclists. I have wondered if my most useful public health contribution would be to start a canine contraception service.… I’m going to have to conquer my fear as we enter central Asia and tackle the ‘stans. Maybe for now I’ll just try to be a bit less of a wuss…