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Tour de France Femmes

Kristen Faulkner had the worst physical experience at the Tour de France Femmes, but would do it all again

The Alaskan struggled after catching COVID before the race but still found the experience 'inspiring' and feels like the race was a 'tipping point' for women's cycling.

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Kristen Faulkner’s Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift didn’t go to plan as she battled through fatigue, illness, and injury, but she’d do it all again.

The BikeExchange-Jayco rider from Alaska had positioned herself as a pre-race contender following her second place overall at the Tour de Suisse and two stage wins at the Giro d’Italia Donne just a few weeks before the Tour Femmes began.

However, she caught COVID between the Giro and the Tour, and then some early crashes in France hindered her further. Despite the physical challenges, Faulkner found herself inspired by what was going on around her.

“Even though my body was not in good form. Emotionally, I actually was in really high spirits the whole time,” Faulkner told VeloNews. “I had a really amazing experience just from being there and it was really emotional in a good way just to see how much support we have and how many fans were out there cheering.

“For me, I was able to have like the worst physical experience of my life but still have like a really positive overall Tour. If I could go back and decide whether to do it or not, I would still do it again, even in the condition I was in. Because it showed me what women’s cycling could be.”

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Faulkner is a relative newcomer to pro cycling after stepping up with TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank in 2020 before moving into the WorldTour for this season. Even in that short amount of period, she’s been able to get a sense of the building momentum around the women’s side of the sport.

In conversation with VeloNews, she mentions Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point” and says that, for her, the Tour de France felt like that moment for women’s cycling.

“It talks about how there’s momentum for things, but then there’s this tipping point where just everything kind of comes together,” she said. “I feel like the Tour this year really was that for us in a lot of ways. We’ve had, over the last few years, the Tour of Flanders offering equal prize money, minimum wage for a woman in the World Tour, and we’ve had The Cyclists’ Alliance emerge.

“There’s been so much momentum building in women’s cycling, but I think we almost needed this moment for everyone to acknowledge the progress and people from around the world, who had never tuned into cycling, to realize what’s happening in women’s cycling and to tune in to the changes that are being made in the sport. I think it was definitely a tipping point for women’s cycling and a lot of ways.”

Before Faulkner turned her attention to competitive cycling she worked as a venture capitalist. She left her job at the start of last season in order to put her full focus on being a top-level cyclist.

The reach of the Tour de France Femmes saw her two worlds collide for a brief moment when the Financial Times published a picture of the women’s peloton on its front page. Her friend sent a picture of the front page to her and right in the center of the image was Faulkner.

For the Alaskan, it was more than just a picture, it was a representation of how her life had changed in the past two years.

“It was a photo of the peloton, but I just happened to be right in front. I was on the front of the Financial Times. I wouldn’t have made the front of the Financial Times if I had stayed in my job in venture,” she said. “It was this really interesting moment where I felt like, my cycling career was like putting me in places that even my finance career wouldn’t have.

“That was a moment for me personally, that made me really proud of my decision to leave my job and do this. I gave up so much and sacrificed a lot to come do this. It was always worth it, I never doubted it, but it’s become so much more than I ever would have imagined, just because of the way women’s cycling is changing. So that was also really meaningful to me to see that.”

Faulkner is a big advocate for gender equality and often uses her social media accounts to speak about it. The Tour de France Femmes was a big step forward for gender equality for the women’s peloton, but it also proved to have similar impacts elsewhere in the race, including in the press corps, which is usually male-dominated.

The experience brought up memories of her time working in venture capitalism, another male-dominated industry.

“I had so many more women coming up to me, asking me questions and interviewing me,” she said. “One woman actually asked me, ‘do you feel that there’s a different gender balance and the media people here and like, how does that make you feel?’ People often will say like, ‘how is a man’s interview different for a woman?’ There might be differences, but it’s also visual, it sends us a message.

“I tried talking about this to my old boss when I was in finance. In my company, there were all male managers, and the only other female on my floor was a secretary. He was like, ‘do you feel like a male manager can’t be as good as a woman?’ There are certain things that I want to talk about with a woman, but I also want to see people in power that I can be like. I want to be able to talk to a manager about how you manage maternity leave and coming back.

“There are all these questions that a man can’t answer, but it’s also visual. I want to see people that look like me. Imagine if there’s like a little girl watching the race and she sees only male interviewers, or what if there’s something a woman would have asked that a man wouldn’t have thought of asking, you know, it’s just things like that.”

Digging deep

As inspiring as she found the experience of the Tour de France Femmes, she had been hoping for a better physical performance. However, she and several teammates caught COVID at the end of Giro d’Italia.

While there was enough time for her to get rid of the virus before she started racing again, she didn’t have time to properly recover and started the race well below her level of just a few weeks before. Three heavy crashes in the opening stages of the race left her nursing injuries on top of that.

“I tested negative for COVID and the next day I raced the Tour. It was much worse than the crashes for me because I started the tour already in a bit of a hole and then every day I dug myself deeper.”

Though she tried to keep an open mind as she started the race, it quickly became clear that Faulkner wouldn’t be contesting the GC as she’d hoped. Instead, she was in her own personal battle of race survival. It was the first time she had experienced that, and it tested her to her limits.

“When I came to Europe, it was a hard transition for me, because I didn’t have much professional racing experience, but I also moved through the ranks pretty quickly. I didn’t have years of riding off the back or almost getting time cut from races. So, being in a race where I entered in such a bad physical state, and I was struggling to finish every single day, as someone who’s just won two stages of the Giro, I gained so much empathy for people whose goal is to just make the time cut.

“That was a really good lesson for me to have experienced that because I hadn’t ever experienced that before. Because I was in such a physical hole, I found myself to be a bit more stressed than normal, and also a bit more anxious about like what was happening in the race. If I got a mechanical and I got dropped, I didn’t know if I’d get back on, whereas another race is like I knew I could get back on and the stakes were higher. I was much louder on the radio and a little bit more anxious. I noticed that I actually had reached a limit where I wasn’t as calm as I needed to be during the race.”

Faulkner has had time to relax since returning home to Girona at the start of the month and has only begun stepping up her training again ahead of a planned return to racing at the Classic Lorient Agglomération on August 27.

“It took me a solid week to really just get back to where I feel like I could get on my bike and do a proper structure,” Faulkner said. “Right now, I’m easing back into it and not doing anything too hard. I haven’t done any super high intensity and it’s already been 12 days. It’s pretty long, but I hadn’t taken a break all season since the beginning of May, so I think it was like long overdue, and my body is just like really appreciating it right now.”