Moving in Tandem

Shira Gordon ’08 and Qudsiya Naqui ’06 — one sighted, one visually impaired — share a bike and a close friendship

By Miriam Berg

Shira Gordon (L) and Qudsiya Naqui with their tandem bike. Photo by Lexey Swall.

Shira Gordon ’08 and Qudsiya Naqui ’06 zoom down Pennsylvania Avenue on a two-seater bicycle in downtown Washington, D.C. — passing Freedom Plaza, the Newseum, and the Capitol Building faster than the red cabs can haul tourists a block. The pair sails onto a tree-lined path that meanders around Senate office buildings, and intern-age passersby do double takes.

“Ooh, wow!” exclaims a man in a tweed jacket. He stops in his tracks, surprised by the women on wheels, unaware of how much more there is to marvel at besides two friends on one bike. Naqui, who rides in the back seat, is legally blind. In adulthood, a condition called leber congenital amaurosis shrank her field of vision and ability to see details. She was always active but didn’t bike around town before finding the Metro Washington Association of Blind Athletes (MWABA), which organizes activities for people with visual impairments, including connecting them with sighted “captains,” who steer tandem bikes from the front seat.

Soon after getting paired up in July 2017, Naqui and Gordon discovered they both went to Barnard College. But the commonalities didn’t end there.

Up for the Challenge

While an untold number of tandem bikes collect dust in garages, Naqui and Gordon’s communication works like a well-oiled machine. At the top of a slope, Gordon asks, “Ready?”

“Yep!” pipes Naqui, who grips her handlebars and straightens her legs in the air as the bike splashes through a puddle, sending sparkling waves onto the path. Both women burst into peals of laughter.

They credit their compatibility to their “matchmaker”: Karla Gilbride, MWABA’s co-founder and president. Gilbride matched them based on several factors, including their similar size (they’re both petite). Gilbride also had a feeling they would click.

“Those two quickly became a team because they were ready to take things to the next level,” Gilbride says.

“While other captains may quit after a couple of false starts, Shira was completely dedicated,” Gilbride continues. “She was just like, ‘Let’s try it again,’ and by the end of her first day she got the hang of it. She’s now one of our strongest captains.”

Gilbride saw similar enthusiasm in Naqui, who quickly outgrew beginner rides. “Qudsiya is always looking for the next adventure. Luckily, Shira was up for the challenge of doing more ambitious distances on various terrains, even offroading in the mud and the rain.”

“I hadn’t really biked at all since I was a kid. I’m more of a runner,” explains Naqui, her black hair pulled in a ponytail under a white helmet. “But I thought tandem riding was a fun idea and a good way to meet people.”

Gordon explains that “stokers” like Naqui provide extra pedaling power from the back, which helps tandem bikes go faster downhill than single bikes.

When Naqui admits Gordon was not her first captain, Gordon gasps in mock shock. They chuckle, and Gordon announces they are coming up to Eastern Market, a bazaar on Capitol Hill.

More tandem riders join Naqui and Gordon, and the group passes blocks of 19th-century rowhouses built around the time tandem bicycles came out. Tandem popularity surged in the 1970s thanks to the U.K.- and U.S.-based Tandem Club and keen marketing from bicycle companies promising health and romance to couples. That’s false advertising, according to actual tandem riders.

“It’s known to take your relationship where it’s going that much faster,” Gordon says after arriving at a park on the Riverwalk Trail, which runs along the Anacostia River.

Naqui says she’s heard of couples who “buy a tandem with this spirit of ‘We’re gonna ride this together,’ and then it just totally goes awry, and they want to get rid of it.”

For Naqui and Gordon — who recently completed a 100-mile “century” ride through trails and backroads in D.C. and Virginia — the zest for collaborating on a challenge is strong and springs from their experience at Barnard.

Shared Experiences

After the tandemists leave Anacostia, they roll through Hyattsville, Maryland, loop back through Eastern Market in D.C., and end their 25-mile ride at Naqui’s cozy apartment in Logan Circle.

Taking a breather on Naqui’s couch, the pair reminisce about discovering that they both went to Barnard. Through conversations on long rides, they learned they both majored in political science and human rights, spent their freshman years in Sulzberger Hall, and studied abroad with the School for International Training. Both also felt that Barnard provided a warm community that embraced them, as well as a motivating force that pushed them outward.

“Barnard felt like its own part of Manhattan since we had our own campus. But the New York Civic Engagement Program was a way of getting involved in the city,” Gordon says. The program took her throughout Manhattan to volunteer in a variety of ways, including interviewing people on the streets — sometimes late at night — for a point-in-time count of the homelessness population.

“Some things were a little bit outside of my comfort zone, but it was really good to get out and see what different parts of the city were like,” Gordon says.

Engaging in the city was also important to Naqui. Through internships, she provided legal services for domestic abuse survivors and people facing eviction from public housing.

“Working in the community helped me to understand how unjust this world can be for people who are poor, people who are of color, people who are otherwise marginalized,” Naqui says. “I found that you can’t understand how to fix problems in the system until you understand the barriers that individuals face in that system.”

The drive to push beyond one’s comfort zone was key for Naqui when her sight deteriorated. By her senior year, her vision became blurry and she needed accommodations like extended time on tests. Barnard’s Office of Disability Services was there for support and encouragement.

“They taught you to become an advocate for yourself. It was on you to communicate to all of your professors and to work out with them what you needed,” Naqui says. She graduated with a resolve to continue
advocating for her needs as her vision continued to change.

Community Beyond Barnard

Naqui’s and Gordon’s paths brought them to law school and then to D.C., where they work as lawyers in the public-interest field: Naqui as an officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization project and Gordon as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Naqui now reads using text-to-speech software and no longer identifies as sighted — a transition that the tandem group helped her get through.

“Coming to identify as someone who has a disability is something this group empowered. It’s made me feel like this is an identity I’m proud of,” Naqui says.

On a tandem bike, Naqui doesn’t feel like she is being taken out for a ride. She and Gordon both actively contribute to
the whole experience. As Naqui puts it:  “It takes two people to ride that bike!”

What’s more, both women feel like they are part of a community.

“We all just love to bike, and we do it together,” Naqui says, her eyes tearing up. “I wouldn’t have that without people like Shira. I have so many amazing women in my life, and I’m excited to have more of them.”