In an effort to promote women in cycling, Gyl (Johnson) Golden '90 joined a group of women in July in staging their own Tour de France, making the same grueling climbs up the Alps and Pyrenees and going the 2,000-mile distance—one day ahead of the men’s professional teams.
Professional women’s teams aren’t allowed in the Tour de France, cycling’s most prestigious event.
"I felt very fortunate to be able to participate in this huge endeavor as a woman and as an American," Golden said. "I would love to be able to share this experience with other women in the efforts to expand this movement."
Golden '90 graduated from Lehigh with a degree in architecture. She went on to earn her masters in architecture from Ohio State University, then, after spending years as an architect in Ohio, New Mexico and Colorado, she realized her true calling was exploring different languages/cultures. She moved to Japan to teach English and has lived and taught in Thailand, Malaysia, Spain and France, where she currently resides.
“I had absolutely no interest in exercise until I was at Lehigh,” she said. “A close friend, my freshman year, was—and still is—a runner and what struck me was that despite our heavy class loads and busy social life, she always squeezed in a run.”
In her sophomore year at Lehigh, Golden said she had put on weight and decided to try running. She barely made it five minutes her first time out, she said, but was determined to keep at it. It was the start of something that blossomed into Golden becoming not just an athlete, but an Iron woman, an ultimate testament to her determination and athleticism.
An Ironman competition consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and full marathon. The Tour de France is a 24-day event covering a distance of 3,300 kilometers. Riders average 180 kilometers per day, and climb a total of 21,000 meters by its end.
Before Golden knew she was going to be a part of the women’s Tour, she set some lofty goals for herself as she approached turning 50, including five marathons (one for each decade of life), a 100km ultra marathon and a 10K swim.
In summer 2017, while watching the Tour de France as she did every summer, she saw televised footage of a group of young amateur women cyclists riding the entire Tour route one day before the pros in an effort to open the Tour to women. They were “Donnons les Elles Au Velo,” and last fall, they put out a call for applications for 2018.
Golden applied but wasn't accepted. They needed five women to round out a group of 13 but received close to 100 applicants. She was undaunted. Thanks to Facebook, Golden connected with others who were rejected and hatched a plan to cycle the entire route along the Les Elles team. Golden’s group, which included four riders, organized and paid for themselves.
“Rejection has ended up bringing me more joy in my life than acceptance ever did,” Golden said.
Training was demanding, but Golden had the experience of having completed 12 marathons and eight Ironman distance races. She said she cycled three sessions per week on the road including varying distances and hill repeats and the other three days were on her home trainer. She also swam and ran. She worked hard but questioned if she was doing enough.
Her Tour began July 6. Daily start time was 8:30 a.m. with three short breaks per day. Golden said she was sleep deprived and always hungry. Each morning, she said, her muscles were stiff, and at times she got down emotionally. Golden felt energized and motivated being the only American, and at 50, easily the oldest participant, that she could keep up with the group.
Each day, about 100 riders, including men, joined a leg of the Tour, she said. Some rode the entire leg and others rode a portion of it, depending on the degree of difficulty. Usually about 30 riders completed each leg, she said.
“Les Elles promoted this on their Facebook page and basically invited women to cycle with them, whether it be a day or several days,” Golden said. “So each day there was a large group of random cyclists who rode for sometimes even just a half day, sometimes a day or two to make the group look bigger as well as to encourage women to ride bikes. “
Golden's biggest fan is her mother, Brenda Johnson. “No matter what cockamamie idea I come up with, she supports me because she believes in me,” Golden said.
Once the Tour was definite, Golden modified her 50-year goals to five marathons and an ultra, but the swim had to wait.
Professionally, Golden has several profit centers, one of which is as an Ironman Certified Triathlon Coach. She also generates intellectual material for a living, working and doing business abroad.
From the Tour, Golden recalled the beauty of the Alps and Pyrenees and the kindness of strangers who supported them along the route. She celebrated each time she finished a climb over a 12 percent pitch and relished in the friendships she made between the moments of sufferance and euphoria.
Golden said she has been so inspired by the experience that she plans to bring along a small team of women next year. Those interested can reach her at https://www.goldentriathloncoaching.com/contact/ To follow this year's marathons and ultra, follow her on Instagram or Facebook @Ironwomanfortheocean
Story by Laurie (Parton) Gordon '90