A certain kind of madness: A bicycle odyssey with dogs

Two people, two dogs, 17,000km

We turn down a narrow lane and pedal into the shaded canopy of the apartment buildings. Another concrete jungle, another new mish-mash of faces and impressions, space and energy.

But with the break in traffic we are exposed. Heads turn, eyebrows raise, conversations are interrupted, fingers are pointed, and often a series of chuckles can be heard. Some people look bemused, some people look ecstatic, some people look appalled, but regardless, people look.

“You are crazy!”… “This is the best, this is the best, this is the best!”… “It must take a certain kind of madness”... “Can I take a photo?” Yes, it seems that cycling with dogs is a foolproof way of engaging the curiosity of strangers.

Combining paws and pedals

Our unlikely story begins in the dark of an Icelandic winter, where an Australian boy meets a Canadian girl. Two odd socks, far from home, our eyes meet across the steamy kitchen of a Reykjavik hostel.

Six months later we are living together in Belgium, our lives a fluster of excited activity. Jobs are quit, drawers emptied, possessions sold. It's a time of wanderlust and dreaming, and anything is possible. Never mind that we've never changed a flat tyre before, and that I've barely touched a bicycle since I was a child, we're off to experience the world, one pedal at a time.

One small problem. Well, actually one medium sized problem and another big, hairy problem – our two dogs. Dogs? Yes, and not some paperweight Chihuahuas either. Zoa [the Canadian] had rescued two abandoned dogs: Jack, a 40kg husky/retriever/grizzly bear cross, was found emaciated and with his front teeth gnawed down from chewing at his chain. Paco, a mad, wiry 15kg Portuguese podengo, was found running in traffic, scared of the world.

Nobody wanted to look after them for such a long journey, and we didn't want to abandon them. Blissfully ignorant of what we were getting ourselves into, our two furry sidekicks added 60kg of luggage in one hefty swoop. To accommodate Jack , sometimes known as The Refrigerator for his size and eagerness to store vast amounts of food, we added a Super Deluxe Doggy trailer from US company Cycletote, and for Paco we sought out Surly’s long-tail frame, the Big Dummy.

Our new lives began along the canals of Flemish Belgium. While we came to terms with our unfamiliar bikes, fluorescent packs of racing cyclists flew by, a blur of neon jerseys and pizza slicing wheels. On day one we were all pedals, cycling well into the night, but on day two we awoke to fierce headwinds and exhausted legs. Forget about the racing bikers, we were even being overtaken by grandmas now!

The indignation came to a crescendo when I lost the balance of my overloaded bike beside a steep gully. A moment of horror and then… Oh sh... cartwheels of flesh and steel, sky and earth. A triple somersault in the tuck position and then thud… a crash landing into a bed of stinging nettles. Luckily we escaped with only minor injuries, the worst being my severely bruised ego as I hauled everything back up to the road to the amusement of onlooking racing cyclists.

As the pancake flats of Flemish Belgium rose into the waffled Wallonian Ardennes we faced an entirely new challenge: hills, and steep ones at that! Completely untested, we attacked the first hill with the eagerness of virgins. We thrashed away at the pedals and fumbled with the gears like amateurs. Panting and exhausted, we ground to an early stop.

Downhills were little better. Paco was still adjusting to high speeds, and it seemed that anything over 50km/h literally scared the crap out of him. Gravity was laughing in our face. We were being defeated by the anthills of Belgium; how were we going to handle steep, snowy mountain passes?

The cycling gypsies

Cue the music… okay, why not… Eye of the Tiger, and begin the montage… The camera sweeps across the mountains of Switzerland and zooms in on us as we are mountain biking along the Swiss-French border. The trailer is flipping over rocks and we're struggling wearily up an endless series of gravel switchbacks.

The scene jumps to a quiet village in the French countryside and a group of donkeys are loose on the road. The dogs are hysterical, yelping and pulling the bikes up, up and over the tops of gorges and on through frosted volcanoes. Hunting season begins and we're woken by the sound of gunfire, wild boars and hunting dogs scuttling past our tent at three in the morning. The guitar is given away, more weight is lost and the kilometres tick by.

Onwards and upwards we climb, into the hiking trails of the Pyrenees, the mountainous frontier between France and Spain. While we take it in turns to carry our bikes over the boulders and into the mist, the dogs chase sheep through steep birch forest. We camp in the clouds and wake up in a puddle, sleeping bags completely drenched.

On we go, weaving nimbly between the pilgrims of northern Spain and into the vineyards of Portugal, the valleys ablaze in autumn splendour. We clink port glasses, but then suffer a broken rim on a busy truck route and hitch-hike into a shanty town for repairs. As we arrive in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, snow is beginning to fall and we take refuge in a cave over winter.

February brings sunshine, almond blossoms and the white walled villages of the Alpujarras, while Tuscany brings glorious avenues of cypress trees, lush, bulbous hills and sweat drenched T-shirts.

The camera zooms into the cobblestone streets of Orvieto in Italy, and the big dog Jack being surrounded like a movie star. Cameras are flashing and children are queueing up to pet him and buy him treats. “Ciao bello! Ciao bello!”

Still we push on with gritted teeth, through tunnels dark and dangerous, and over the majestic Dolomitemountains. We tackle our highest pass yet at 2,236m, via a series of 29 hairpin turns, and collapse at the summit.

We're camping in front of libraries, in abandoned buildings, underneath parked semi-trailers; nothing is off-limits anymore. The montage culminates in the 18 percent grades of the Wurzen pass from Austria into Slovenia, where we're grinding up the edge of the road until our heads feel like they're about to explode. We reach the summit, yelling and howling our lungs out to the clouds for dramatic effect.

Why do we do it?

Almost one year after our shaky beginnings in Belgium, the music fades out and the story resumes. The setting: the jagged peaks and coastal islets of Arctic Norway. We pedal on through ghostly fishing towns and stunted forest turning bronze with the beckoning of autumn.

As the withered birches make way for barren tundra, large packs of reindeer are exposed. The dogs begin salivating and whipping themselves into a frenzy. Their constant barking could test the patience of a Buddhist monk.

As we approach the North Cape at the top of continental Europe, we meet a young Dutch couple and quickly warm to conversation. They have almost finished cycling the length of Norway and admit: “It’s been a great experience, and we will always remember it, but the rain and the cold have been really tough. We kept pushing on knowing the end was near. I don’t know how you keep going without a final destination.”

We often wonder the same thing. Our lives are not glamorous or sexy in any way. We are often grimy, wet and smelly, our clothes covered in dog hair. There are long and monotonous roads, extreme weather and dangerous drivers.

Then there are the moments that make you want to scream. The time Paco peed all over the sleeping bags because Jack was given a treat and not him. Improvising with broken tent pegs, duct tape and zip-ties to fix the broken dog trailer during gale force winds. Having to sleep in a barn scattered with toilet paper and human faeces to avoid freezing in a snowstorm.

Yet for all of the struggles, there is something addictive and satisfying about it all. A simple life on the open road. An unhurried life, without timetables or deadlines beyond the weather and the changing seasons. It is a life that breaks down many more fears and stereotypes than it creates. A life of routine which also challenges, stimulates, and offers endless surprises. For us, the final destination is not the point, it is about finding joy within the daily grind.

So many times people have told us that “what you are doing is my dream, but…” But what? We have met paraplegics touring on hand-powered bikes, cyclists with very little money busking and ‘containering’ to get by, cycling families who are home-schooling their children along the way, and women in their 70s crossing continents in cotton shirts and non-technical underpants.

If you're dreaming of pedalling into the horizon, make no excuses. Your very own journey is available on a bicycle saddle near you. Sit down, shut up and pedal. If our journey has inspired you, you can follow us on our blog, http://cyclinggypsies.wordpress.com.

About the equipment

Cycletote's ‘Super Deluxe Doggy’ option provided us with a quality, ready-to-roll option that was large enough to accommodate Jack’s hefty rear while being fairly lightweight. It has drum brakes that engage automatically on downhills, a choice of 26in or 700c bicycle wheels (so you don't have to carry extra spare parts), a canopy that provides sun protection and some rain protection, and a lifetime warranty that even covers crash damage (as we found out).

Drawbacks include: the price (US$1,045); the aluminium frame, which while light is difficult to fix on the road; the Velcro attachments for the fabric cabin, which can easily come loose and become caught in the spokes; and the fluro yellow and blue colour scheme, which is very 80s, and not in a fun, retro way.

We decided against another trailer for carrying Paco, instead opting for Surly's Big Dummy cargo bike. The extra weight and long wheelbase felt odd at first, but it soon became second nature. It can carry up to 180kg (400lb) of combined cargo and rider weight without the rolling resistance of a trailer, performs very well off road and absorbs bumps well.

Again it's pricey, at around $1,050 for the frame alone. It's also awkward to lift and fit on public transport, accessing the back tyre to fix punctures is awkward and the extra weight takes its toll on bike components, leading to more flat tyres and damaged wheels.

Five reasons not to cycle with dogs

Weight: Dog food, extra water, leashes, basket/trailer, plus the dog; it all adds up to more weight, more strain on your equipment, and will lower your speed and daily distances considerably.

Border Crossings: Having dogs limits which countries you can visit comfortably. In some Muslim countries where dogs can be considered unclean you may be less welcome. Extra paperwork and bureaucracy is added.

Dogs Not Allowed: Sometimes when it's wet and cold you'd love to go into a warm B&B and have a hot shower, or visit a cafe or museum, but dogs aren’t allowed. Sometimes we take it in turns to see things, and sometimes we leave the dogs by the bikes to act as security guards/public relations.

Public Transport: Boarding trains and buses becomes a physical and logistical challenge, and sometimes just impossible.

Meeting Wildlife: Our dogs go crazy over all of the new wildlife sightings, which is kinda funny until it’s not. Excessive barking in your ear all day would test the patience of a Buddhist monk. One time when Paco got off the lead we had to wait three hours for him to return from a bunny chasing escapade.

Despite all this, dogs are great companions and keep you humble. Plus, they're good to talk to when you're cranky with your partner, and most importantly they love coming along for the ride. They're also a conversation starter and an easy way to meet loads of friendly people.

Highs and lows

Heaviest Load: 85kg, Belgium – a guitar, too much clothing, water and food, plus dog

Longest Day: 110km in Denmark

Shortest Day: 3km, wine festival in Belgium

Fastest Speed: 63km/h in Portugal

Coldest Camping: -10˚C, Estonia

Flat tyres so far: 25

Scariest moment for Fin: 4km tunnel in Italy: dimly lit, no hard shoulder and lots of trucks whizzing by

Scariest moment for Zoa: Crashing and destroying her bike while going downhill at 40km/h in Germany

Scariest moment for Jack: Being left behind at the top of a mountain and galloping down the hill until we noticed and turned back

Scariest moment for Paco: Being chased by a bull in France

Longest break from cycling: Two months in a cave, Gorafe, Spain

Most days without showering: 12

Most wine carried: 7.5l in France (5l was a gift)

Strangest gift: A moose leg for our dogs in Sweden

Most hospitable: France, five invitations into homes

Craziest Camping Spot: Underneath a parked semi-trailer in the Italian rain

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