The word I hear most when I’m cycling in London is ‘wow!’ – as in: ‘Wow! Your cat is so cute. Wow! Can I stroke her? Wow! I’ve never seen a bicycling cat before.’
Harnessed into her basket on my bike, Sigrid – my six-year-old Norwegian Forest cat – adores the attention. But she never hears the cries of ‘wow’. Like many blue-eyed white cats, she is completely deaf. She doesn’t let that stop her from treating life as a non-stop adventure.
Since we started cycling around the city that is my adopted home, after I lost my job during lockdown, we’ve clocked up 3,000 miles together and amassed more than a million followers on social media.
Every day, not only do we lift the spirits of dozens of people who wave, laugh or stop to share a few words and a selfie, but we also receive thousands of delighted messages from Sigi’s fans.
‘You made my morning,’ says one. ‘Sigi is so adorable.’ ‘Look how much fun she’s having.’ ‘She makes my heart feel happy.’
Harnessed into her basket on my bike, Sigrid – my six-year-old Norwegian Forest cat – adores the attention
Like many blue-eyed white cats, she is completely deaf. She doesn’t let that stop her from treating life as a non-stop adventure
The cover of Mr Nelson’s book, Sigrid Rides: The Story Of An Extraordinary Friendship – An Adventure On Two Wheels
Knowing that my cat gives a boost to countless people around the world makes my heart happy, too. She has saved me from recurrent depressions that left me contemplating suicide. Now our travels together fill every day with fresh possibilities. It’s impossible to be down when I’m surrounded by so many smiles, in the real world and online.
Our excursions began in the most low-key way imaginable: no bicycle, no camera – just a cat going for walks on a leash. Yes, I know that’s unusual in Britain. It is in San Francisco, too, where my wife Bianca and I acquired Sigi as a kitten. But she has never been an ordinary cat.
She saved me from depression and thoughts of suicide
I bought her from a breeder who lived in Hermosa Beach on the south side of Los Angeles. What struck me immediately was the brilliant white of her coat, so beautiful and unusual that I couldn’t stop staring at her photograph.
I remembered an old Norse name I had long admired: Sigrid, meaning ‘beautiful victory’.
It would suit her perfectly, I decided, and I named her before we even met. What also struck me was how piercing her eyes were, a dazzling azure blue. The breeder warned me that she was likely to be deaf. That colouring, she said, was linked to the gene for hearing loss, especially in long-haired cats. If a white cat has a blue right eye, it is likely to be deaf in that ear.
Within a few weeks, I was certain my kitten could not hear anything. If I needed to attract her attention, I had to stand in front of her, so she could make eye contact. If her food was ready, I made sure she could feel my footsteps, leading her to the kitchen.
Knowing that my cat gives a boost to countless people around the world makes my heart happy, too
Our excursions began in the most low-key way imaginable: no bicycle, no camera – just a cat going for walks on a leash
I remembered an old Norse name I had long admired: Sigrid, meaning ‘beautiful victory’
From time to time, I sent updates to the breeder, but heard nothing back. I Googled her name and a headline flashed up: ‘Hermosa Beach couple convicted in federal tax fraud case.’ It turned out she was now serving two years in jail for embezzling millions of dollars from the internal revenue service.
More bizarre still, her husband was a self-proclaimed psychic going by the name of America’s Prophet who made documentaries about the paranormal and spread conspiracy theories.
This was 2017, and I was going through a tough time. I’d lost my job in California’s Silicon Valley and there were days when I could barely lift my head above the duvet. After working 70-hour weeks in a high-pressure industry, I felt lost. The cocktail of antidepressants my doctor prescribed sent me on a big dipper of depression and delirium, and most nights I was finding it impossible to sleep.
It reached the stage when I saw no way back from the onslaught of mental illness. Even the love of Bianca, who was my girlfriend at the time, couldn’t snap me out of it. I kept imagining that if I wasn’t around, no one would miss me. I existed in a ghost-like state.
But things began to look up when a friend invited me to join him at a tech start-up. I found myself feeling hopeful for the first time. The catch was that the job was in London. Flush with new possibilities and a sense of adventure, a wild idea flooded into my brain: if I asked Bianca to marry me, would she?
We flew to Paris and, under the golden glow of the Eiffel Tower on our first night in that romantic city, I proposed. She said yes, without skipping a beat. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. My feelings of hopelessness evaporated.
Finding an apartment in London to rent where Sigi and our other cat Ylva (very much Bianca’s pet) were welcome wasn’t easy, but we eventually chose a two-bedroom place on the second floor of a Victorian terraced house in Belsize Park.
Sigi couldn’t go outdoors, but that didn’t stop her wishing. From the first day, she took up residence on a window ledge overlooking the garden which was home to pigeons, starlings, magpies and blue tits. It was as though she was watching an engrossing drama on cat TV. Back in San Francisco, I used to take Sigi for walks on a leash. She wore a harness, a funky leopardskin design – if she was stepping out with me, I was going to make sure she never looked boring.
It took her a few days to get used to it, but soon our daily walks could last for hours. When birds flew overhead, she could become almost dizzy with excitement, finding it a sensory overload.
Now our travels together fill every day with fresh possibilities. It’s impossible to be down when I’m surrounded by so many smiles, in the real world and online
Within a few weeks, I was certain my kitten could not hear anything. If I needed to attract her attention, I had to stand in front of her, so she could make eye contact
When I ordered a new basket from a company called Rixen & Kaul, they emailed back to offer a free one designed for pets
In London, we resumed our outings, and Sigi started making friends among our neighbours. But we were all still settling into our new home – and then Covid happened. The business was badly hit and I was put on furlough.
The last thing I wanted was to be catapulted back into the manic-depression of two years previously. Too much time on my hands might let the demons in.
I decided to use the opportunity to get back into an old passion, cycling with a fixed gear bike, the kind you have to pedal continuously. But I hated leaving Sigi indoors, and one day I strapped her into a harness on my chest, a sort of a papoose.
Far from resisting, she nuzzled her face against the material and I could feel the vibration of her purr against my chest. ‘Want an adventure, Sigi?’ I asked as I wheeled my bike out from the study. I secured a camera to the handlebars with tape, positioning the lens to point directly at the cat to show Bianca later.
Was she becoming a feline Kim Kardashian?
When I played the video back, I was captivated at how Sigi had taken it all in. Her big blue eyes were wide open for the whole journey, and her head swayed from side to side, following cars and pedestrians. Ears straight and turned slightly forward, she was clearly alert and interested.
Our rides became a lifeline when my boss broke the bad news that the pandemic had forced him to lay people off, and my job was one of those cut. I handled it badly at first, counting down the hours to the evenings when I could open whatever beer, wine or vodka was in the kitchen. I woke every morning to a thudding pain in my forehead.
But I couldn’t bear to see Sigi’s frustration that I wasn’t taking her out any more. I began to realise that our cats had become like children to me since we arrived in the UK.
I’ve never seen myself as a guy who wanted the responsibility of kids, but I could see now how the cats depended on me – and, just as importantly, how I have come to depend on them. Sigi doesn’t judge me, I thought. She is the most forgiving companion.
With Bianca’s encouragement, I got back on the bicycle with Sigi in the chest harness. We’d hardly gone any distance when I heard a voice hailing me. ‘Hey! Hey!’ It came from behind, getting louder and closer. I turned and saw a woman on a bicycle chasing me down.
As she passed, I could see she was beaming. ‘Hey, wow, that’s so amazing – your cat,’ she called out. She didn’t stop but almost clattered off her bicycle as she rubbernecked at Sigi. On the front of her bike she had a wicker basket – and that gave me an idea. So many people in London have these baskets, to carry their groceries or work bags. Would it be stretching things, I wondered, to put a cat in one?
The same evening, I posted the clip of the woman on my Instagram page. In the past, I rarely uploaded anything. I’d always felt a bit self-conscious. But I liked the idea of my friends back in America seeing the clip, and there was something about being outside with Sigi that gave me the urge to share.
A week later, we gave the basket a trial. I strapped her in using a cord that gave her the flexibility to move back and forth, left and right, without allowing her to lunge out.
I’ve never seen myself as a guy who wanted the responsibility of kids, but I could see now how the cats depended on me – and, just as importantly, how I have come to depend on them. Sigi doesn’t judge me, I thought. She is the most forgiving companion
Sigi was becoming my passport to meeting people. If I rode without her, I rarely talked to anyone. But when she was with me, I couldn’t help making new friends
As we explored, the North London streets became her Disneyland. Whenever I stopped, she turned her head and stared at me questioningly, as if to tell me to get going. The harder I pedalled, the more she seemed to enjoy it.
The online reaction to the videos I was posting of Sigi was extraordinary. Hundreds of people began following, messaging me to say how brilliant it was to see Sigi having fun. The camera captured so many lovely moments. The looks on people’s faces made me laugh, either smiling or staring open-mouthed as if to say: ‘Seriously? A cat in a bicycle basket?’
My followers were rising into the hundreds of thousands
Sigi was becoming my passport to meeting people. If I rode without her, I rarely talked to anyone. But when she was with me, I couldn’t help making new friends. It was the perfect antidote to redundancy. Every time someone told me how beautiful my cat was or flashed us a smile, my spirits lifted. The first inkling I had of Sigi’s potential to be a global star came when a digital media company, The Dodo, got in touch. Their website features daily stories about pets and animals, with a monthly audience of 110 million in the US alone. They wanted to share clips of Sigi on their site, offering me a small licence fee in return.
When I ordered a new basket from a company called Rixen & Kaul, they emailed back to offer a free one designed for pets.
I scratched my head. Did accepting a basket make me an online influencer? Was I turning Sigi into a feline Kim Kardashian? My follower numbers were steadily rising into the hundreds of thousands. One evening at Christmas time, a bunch of teenagers in Covent Garden recognised me from TikTok, giggling and shouting: ‘You’re a celebrity.’ That was unnerving. I have no intention of turning either of us into reality TV characters.
The online reaction to the videos I was posting of Sigi was extraordinary. Hundreds of people began following, messaging me to say how brilliant it was to see Sigi having fun
Ride by ride, a feeling of calm crept over me. ‘I love spending every day with you,’ I thought as I bent over to give Sigi a kiss
And I certainly wasn’t looking for online romance. It was surprising how many women contacted me – at first with innocent questions about Sigi, but soon asking whether I wanted to go on a date.
I couldn’t have imagined we’d be the object of such curiosity when we first moved to London.
Sitting with Sigi after a long ride, looking out of the window together, I remembered how tentative and unsure we both had been. Ride by ride, a feeling of calm crept over me. ‘I love spending every day with you,’ I thought as I bent over to give Sigi a kiss. I also love how we make people happy. Who could have predicted that?
Last June, Sigi and I headed out to join the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. On the long Bank Holiday weekend, I had the idea to head to Buckingham Palace to see the crowds.
When we reached Green Park, Sigi was less interested in the state occasion than in the squirrels. Though she was on a leash, she was desperate to chase them.
On the edge of the park, the crowd began waving their flags furiously. Something was happening. Blue flashing lights streaked past and we caught a glimpse of a cavalcade of police on motorcycles. ‘It’s Harry and Meghan,’ I heard people excitedly murmur.
A loud cheer rippled towards us from the barrier, like a Mexican wave. When I turned back, I saw that Sigi was surrounded by her own well-wishers, all commenting on her beauty. One woman even called her ‘Your Majesty’. Trust Sigi to steal the show, I thought.
© Travis Nelson, 2023
Adapted from Sigrid Rides: The Story Of An Extraordinary Friendship – An Adventure On Two Wheels, by Travis Nelson, published by Radar at £18.99. To order a copy for £17.09 (offer valid until 06/08/23; UK p&p free on orders over £25), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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