Kristen Faulkner promised herself that she would buy herself a meal at the Michelin star restaurant near her Girona flat when she won her first WorldTour race.
She didn’t expect that it would come so soon.
The American rider from Alaska stormed to her first WorldTour victory in dramatic style after holding off the chasing peloton on the opening stage of the Ladies Tour of Norway. It came less than a year after making her professional debut at the Tour de l’Ardèche — where she won a stage – and she would hold on for third in the GC behind Annemiek van Vleuten and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.
“I only moved to Girona three weeks ago, and my apartments right across from this Michelin star restaurant,” Faulkner told VeloNews. “I said to myself, okay, when I win my first World Tour race, I’ll treat myself to dinner at this Michelin star restaurant, and that’ll be my thing. And then three weeks later, you know, I won my first WorldTour race. I mean, one of my goals this year was to win a race. I just didn’t expect to win in Norway.”
Faulkner used to work as a venture capitalist and joined the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank team last year. She had only started riding at 23 in the spring of 2017.
She continued to work alongside her cycling career, which was ok when she could compete at home in the US, but she realized quickly that it wouldn’t be a sustainable way to live, and she would have to commit to doing one or the other.
In the end, cycling won out and she stepped back from her job as a venture capitalist at the start of 2021 and became a full-time cyclist.
“[At the beginning] I was still working full-time, and I wasn’t really thinking about if I was going to do this full time,” Falkner said. “I was just trying to get by and focusing on trying to make it work.
“After I went to Europe for the first time, I came back and realized that I really needed to make a decision between work and cycling. Because I couldn’t do both at the same time, at least with a level I was at. I could be a great cyclist or a great VC, but I couldn’t do both at the same time.”
The decision to quit her job has allowed Faulkner to put her full focus into cycling and commit to a much larger European racing program.
Her solo win over the likes of US champion — and teammate — Lauren Stephens, and Spanish star Mavi García, showed Faulkner had plenty of potential at the top level. The switch to racing full-time has seen her build upon that potential with top-10 finishes at the Tour of Flanders and Gent Wevelgem and she’s keen to keep pushing.
“Everyone always said to me, it takes so much time, it just takes time,” she said. “I would just look at them and be like, ‘no, I’m like, impatient, you know, I want to learn as fast as I can, I want to expedite my learning curve as fast as possible. I always felt that it was possible to have improved faster than conventional wisdom and I never set ceilings for myself on what was possible.”
Faulkner’s performances this year put her in line for a spot on Team USA at the Olympics. She missed selection and initially decided to challenge the selectors’ decision through arbitration but she later pulled the appeal.
From flashcards to instincts
Faulkner has always been athletic and competitive, but her transition to cycling came by chance and she didn’t have a background in the sport. Not being overly ingrained in a sport, or any other environment, can be a good thing sometimes as it can allow a person to act without the burden of preconceptions, but it can be a hindrance too, as Faulkner found out.
Turning professional has been a steep learning curve, not just in how to train her body right but in how to ride and read a race. Even without the stage win and GC result, the Ladies Tour of Norway was a turning point for Faulkner in terms of her self-belief and her approach to racing.
“Having the confidence that I can compete at this level, and I belong in these spaces, is something a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed,” Faulkner told VeloNews. “The most important thing is I really learned how to ride with my team. During my first year, you know, my DS would say: ‘ride as a team and ride together’. I’d be trying to follow their wheels and I’d get lost, and I’d be on the other side of the peloton and being like “hi”. [Faulkner waves as though she’s on the other side of a room at a party -ed].
“[Norway] was the first race where I felt I could do that in a relaxed way without being distracted by my bike or all these other things.”
Faulkner’s learning curve has involved a bit of trial and error, but she’s also taken an active role in building up her knowledge of cycling, its people, and its tactics. Just under a year into her professional career, she’s finding that the hard work is paying off.
Once again, Norway was a culmination of that progress and she was able to go with what she felt, rather than doing an on-bike mental assessment of the situation.
“When I came into bike racing, I approached it really analytically, because I really wanted to learn really quickly, and I had so much to learn,” Faulkner explained. “I studied so much, I watch every race, I made flashcards different riders, and I was as analytical as one could be. I came from a finance background and so, I just everything was super intellectual and I studied it like a textbook.
“I think when I let that go, and I just let myself race on instinct… it made no rational sense to me when I attacked in the break [in Norway]. I was like, this is stupid. When I started bike racing, I didn’t have any instinct to go off, so I had to rely on being really analytical about everything. I feel like now I’ve been racing for almost a year I have a little bit more instinct, and I have to learn to trust that a little bit more.”
Faulkner is still learning about bike racing, but also about herself as a rider. She has proved herself adept at the classics, whether it be on the cobbles or in the hilly Ardennes, and she now has a strong stage race result on her palmarès.
“I finished the classics and I thought I’d be a classics rider. A lot of times the GC is determined by climbs, the Giro, and the other stage races, just because that’s where the biggest time gaps typically happen. I’ve always known I can climb, but I’ve never been like a pure climber. I am more of an all-rounder. We’ll see, you know if that translates into GC. But I don’t really know yet, I’m still trying to figure that out.”