10+ | She's Got a Kitten to Ride

Winter ride in Gendarmenmarkt.jpg

"It took some tinkering, but I got my bike rigged up to carry my feline companion in relative safety. I attached the box tightly to the rack, then put Aífe’s harness and leash on her, plopped her in the box, tied the leash to the handlebars, and set off. She was totally into it."

by Solana Joy

(10+ | Beyond issue ten—special release)

A few years ago I came to Berlin to live with my then-fiancé—now-husband—Julian. Like many other European cities, bicycles are one of the main ways folks here get around. Similar to Rotterdam and Copenhagen, Berlin is flat as a pancake, and there are cycling lanes across town.

Julian and his daughter both loved going out on their two wheels, and they expected that I would, too. Unfortunately, they were wrong. I am an enthusiastic pedestrian (walker, rambler, hiker, wayfarer, etc.), and will gladly trek across any terrain for hours on foot. But I have always been a reluctant cyclist, grumbling after even a short distance or the slightest incline.

This aversion wasn’t helped by the fact that, while Julian and his daughter had high-end mountain bikes, all I had to ride in Berlin was Julian’s old bike: a silver, seven-speed, grade-A P.O.S. I was at least its third owner, and any brand or other identifying markings had long since wore off completely. It was a pill just to pedal, and on one of my first rides out, I steered my front wheel into one of the many tram tracks that crisscross Berlin’s streets and had quite a painful crash. This fixed my feeling—walking was the way to go.

Photo by    Juliana Socher

But one day, I figured out how to make cycling actually fun: bring my best friend along for the ride. That best friend is a chubby, green-eyed tabby named Aífe whom I adopted from the San Francisco SPCA in 2011. Since the day I brought her home, she’s been my little fuzzy sidekick.

By the time we came to Berlin, I had been working on leash-training Aífe for a while. I got in the habit of carrying her everywhere with me: to farmers markets, art festivals, public gardens. She was growing accustomed to walking on her own paws through quiet cemeteries and courtyards in central Berlin, and had done some hiking with me when we’d stayed with my mom back in Portland, Oregon. She’d even become reasonably calm when riding in cars and planes. But none of those things are at all like the sensation of riding a bike, which I’ve seen aptly compared to flying. How would Aífe react to such an experience? There was no way of knowing…until we tried.

It took some scrounging and tinkering, but I got my bike rigged up to carry my feline companion in relative safety. I ordered a big black Steco rack and attached it to the front end. On top of that, I put a storage box from IKEA; three sides were solid, but the front one was mesh, which would allow her to look ahead while lying down, and hopefully keep bugs out of her face. I attached the box tightly to the rack with a bungee cord, then put Aífe’s harness and leash on her, plopped her in the box, tied the leash to the handlebars, and set off.

She was totally into it.

Photo by    Juliana Socher

After the long struggle to get Aífe to come around to walking on a leash, her instant acceptance of being pedaled around the city was a delightful surprise. Poking her little head over the top of the box, she watched and sniffed as much of the passing world as her big green eyes and teeny pink nose could take in. It didn’t matter if we were cycling through a quiet park or down a main thoroughfare—she wanted to check it all out. She experimented with different postures, adjusting her stance and balance as we rattled over bumps and cobblestones and up to stoplights. She would occasionally glance back, but mostly ignored me as I pedaled and giggled myself silly behind her.

And just like that, the city opened up to us. Parks that would have required an hour’s walk could be reached in minutes. We found meadows for picnicking where Aífe would use an emptied pannier as a portable cave and curl up inside while I sprawled in the grass beside her. We meandered through grand old squares and chased after the last evening light. Having a squirmy cat over my front wheel made the bike top-heavy, and a bit harder to steer, so cycling was harder work than before. But it didn’t feel like it. Berlin was lovelier than I’d realized, and cycling, for the first time since I was about four, was a joyful thing again.

Aífe in pannier b&w.jpg

Unfortunately, just as I came around to riding my bike, the old P.O.S. began to really fall apart. Brakes were replaced, only to have a pedal drop off while cycling home in the rain. One day, the gears simply stopped shifting. When we ended up leaving Berlin for a year (so Julian could take teaching posts in Ireland and Singapore), the bike was donated/abandoned to our local bike shop where I presume it was used for parts.

When we returned to Berlin this past February, though, I finally got a proper bike—a seven-speed, white Kalkhoff monotube with high black handlebars. It is a beautiful object, and a dream to pedal. The only problem; because the front fork has shock absorbers, you can’t put a front rack on it. So my great, DIY cat-cycling setup no longer works. In theory, I could put Aífe’s box on the back of my bike, but the idea of not being able to keep an eye on her while we’re hurtling down the street makes be very uneasy.

cycling past Hansa Studios b&w.jpg

For now, she rides in a pet carrier backpack which I wear on my back with the mesh lid zipped shut when we’re in traffic. Aífe likes being able to see and smell where we’re going, and if I unzip the lid, she puts her front paws on my shoulder and tries to ride half-perched on me to get a better view. Which is adorable, but very unsafe, and therefore only allowed if we’re going slowly through the park. I often wear the pack across my chest so she can get the best view forward, but my knees bump against the bottom of the bag a bit, which gets a little annoying after a while.

And now that I’m pregnant, an entirely different kind of bump makes this cat-pack setup even more awkward. We’ll just have to keep experimenting. We certainly can’t stop—there’s too much fun to be had, and too much world to be sniffed. I don’t imagine all cats would take to cycling the way my Aífe has, but if you have a cat, and you have a bike, you might think about giving it a whirl. We’d love to see you out there.

aife over the shoulder b&w.jpg
Evan P. Schneider