I’ve never been much of a cyclist. At seven, I was the last of my friends to move on from training wheels, and only then under persistent peer-pressure. This was when I was practicing on dirt and gravel roads, in a hometown too small for stoplights. A quarter century later, I am currently living in Berlin, and get very stressed out cycling around such a major metropolis (cabs, busses, tram tracks, oblivious pedestrians, car doors opening, delivery trucks, bike lanes that abruptly disappear, other mental cyclists, etc). And when it comes to cycling anywhere hilly, or while hauling camping gear, forget it. I’d rather get off and walk.
My natural inclination is to go everywhere by foot, to have time to take in my surroundings as I move through them at a human pace, with minimal chance of crashing into anything. I consider myself to be something of a champion pedestrian – I’ll walk ten miles up, down, and around town or country and not think twice about it, until my flat feet and dodgy knee start to ache.
However, moving at a walking pace certainly does have restrictions. Especially if you’re schlepping a twelve pound cat. The desire to get out and see more of the world, schlep further and faster, and minimize the damage to my shoulders, has finally motivated me to get over my aversion to cycling. I’ve started going for bicycle rides with Aífe, and it’s far and away one of the best, most gleeful things I’ve ever done.
The first time I took Aífe out on a bicycle ride was last summer. It was a muggy day late in August. I had only been cat-schlepping for a few months, and was only just starting to take it seriously. On a whim on hot afternoon, I put Aífe in my blue REI Flash pack, strapped her to my chest, and began slowly cycling around our neighborhood. I thought she would protest in some manner, but she didn’t. She just hung there, like a little feline hang glider. We went around the block for a while, up and down some quiet side streets, and then home. It was a lovely and adorable time.
And then that was it. I don’t know why I didn’t repeat the experiment that summer. The heat, my own laziness, my aforementioned aversion to cycling very far. Then in October, I went back to the States for five months. I didn’t have a bicycle in Portland, and didn’t have any money. And it was awfully wet and wintery a good amount of the time we were there. We went on walks, and hikes, hung out in parks and flowerbeds and even art festivals. But we didn’t cycle.
It wasn’t until we got back to Berlin in March that we had a bike again, and it wasn’t until May that I decided, again on a whim, to take Aífe for another bike ride. It was a gorgeous and sunny morning, and my partner Julian, my stepdaughter, and I, were planning to go to the Tiergarten for the day. I didn’t have any way to properly carry Aífe on the bike, but I knew she would be bored and sad if she was left home alone the whole day. So as we were getting ready to go, I just thought, “Fuck it.” I unhooked the little white wire basket off the back of my bike, got some bungee chords, and started trying to secure it to my front handlebars. Julian got some packing tape to reinforce the whole thing, and taped the hell out of it. I lined the basket with an IKEA fleece for padding, and loaded Aífe into it. And off we went!
I wasn’t sure how Aífe would handle it. By this point she was great about getting carried anywhere, but was still not-great on a leash a lot of the time. Hurtling through the air of central Berlin might be a lot for her.
But she was an absolute champ. She nestled into the fleece, and peeped her little head over the edge. She took in as much as her bright eyes and rapidly sniffing nose could. We pedaled through traffic, around the Reichstag, all around the trees and creeks of the Tiergarten, and all along the riverbank home. She never once showed any fear of the ride, and in fact started standing up in the basket so she could see better.
I, meanwhile, was giggling myself silly. I felt giddy and free. I had taken my crazy-cat-lady status to a whole new level; I was mobile. I was a cat-lady on wheels.
But they were dodgy wheels. The bike was an old one, I was at least its third owner, and it had been left out all winter while I was back in Oregon. It needed some serious TLC and a few new parts to run right. And I needed to find a more stable, safe means of carrying Aífe on it. It took a few weeks to get everything sorted, but now I have a functional bike, and a functional means of carting Aífe about on it. We’ve started exploring many more bits of Berlin together. And for the first time in my life, I am actually enjoying cycling.
Cat-schlepping on wheels – I can’t recommend it enough. And it has changed my sense of geography, of what kind of ground I can feasibly cover with Aífe. If you have a cat you would like to take cycling with you, there isn’t much you need:
1. A bicycle. It can be pretty basic. Mine is a rusty, seven-speed city bike, with no discernable brand label. It’s at least a decade old and I am at least it’s third owner. But it’s been patched up, and it works well enough.
2. A bike rack. There are loads of bikes on the streets of Berlin. I started keeping an eye out for any that had a good rack on the front of them (no giggling). I saw several excellent, sturdy-looking ones by a company called Steco. I ordered one online for around €20, and attached it myself with Julian’s tools.
3. Some kind of basket. I looked at a bunch of them online, but most were pretty small/shallow for a full-grown cat to ride in, and they cost anywhere from €25 to around €150. In the end, I went with a collapsible cube from IKEA, which were on sale 2/€6. It’s sturdy enough, light-weight, and perfect dimensions for Aífe. Three sides are solid, but the front end of it is mesh, so she can see even when she’s laying down, and bugs and things don’t get in her eyes so much. And Aífe loves it – I keep the second one in our flat, and she loves hopping into it, and will snooze there for hours.
4. A way to attach the basket to the rack. I ended up just nicking a four-legged spider bungee cord that Julian had in our entry way. I hook one end to each corner of the basket, with the arms running underneath the bike rack. So far this has been totally sufficient.
5. A way to attach the cat to the basket. Aífe is good about staying in the bike. But one time, when we were within sight of our front door, she got excited and jumped out of the basket, dangled by her harness for a few terrifying seconds, then wriggled out of her harness and ran for the door. Luckily, it was a quiet side street, I was going very slowly, and Aífe knew where home was. Any other set of circumstances and it could have been a disaster. So now I make her wear her serious Kitty Holster harness on rides – it restricts her movements slightly, but of the three harnesses I’ve bought her over the years, it’s far and away the hardest for her to wriggle out of. I clip a leash to the harness, and tie it to the bike rack, leaving enough slack for her to move around without being able to leap out.
6. A rain cover. This is kind of optional. I took a crappy vinyl carrier bag and split the seams, and intend to strap it around the basket if we ever get caught out in the rain. But so far we haven’t needed to try this out.
Oh, and WARNING:
1. Cycling with a cat attached to your handlebars will make steering a fair bit trickier. Your bike will want to swing to one side or the other with even justa little turn of the handles. Especially when the cat moves around, but even just when they are sitting still. I suppose you could attach the carrier to the back of your bike instead, but I definitely wanted to have Aífe in front of me, so that I could keep an eye on her at all times, and talk to her, and carry heavier stuff on the back of the bike. Just be careful, maybe practice in a mellow area at first, and use caution when heading out into busy streets or tricky terrain.
2. This set up will also make your bike very top-heavy. Meaning that if you aren’t holding it up, or leaning it very securely against something solid, it will fall right over. Do any fiddling with the bike you need before you put the cat into the basket.
That’s it! I already had an old bike, leash, and harness, so the other bits of kit I needed came to around €25. Is it the perfect set up? Not exactly. Will it hold up after the summer is over, and the rougher weather of autumn and winter sets in? Possibly not. But it was super cheap, and seems sturdy enough, and has done a fab job thus far. There simply isn’t that much state of the art gear out there for cycling with small pets, as far as I can find. And even if there was, I couldn’t afford it at the moment, and have no intention of waiting until the far off day when I might be able to. And anyhow, there is a real satisfaction in making do with what we’ve got. We intend to go on a cycling and camping trip in the next few weeks with this set-up, and I will report back on how that shakes out.