Kristen Faulkner’s feet have barely had a chance to touch the ground since she turned professional in the fall of 2020.
The Alaskan only rode her first full season of professional racing last year and was, for a time, using flashcards to help her recognize her rivals and learn race tactics. Since winning the opening stage of the Ladies Tour of Norway, her fledgling career has taken off.
She stepped up to the WorldTour with BikeExchange-Jayco over the winter and has firmly embedded herself as a GC talent. The flashcards are gone now and where she was often told what to do and when to do it from the team car, she’s now telling them what she wants to do.
“I’ve noticed in the last few races, actually, in this season, I have much more race intuition than I did last year,” Faulkner told VeloNews. “When I started this season, I still felt that I might not know the right moment to attack or I might not know, like, certain things that I should do. So, I communicated to the team that I need a little bit more direction during the race than most riders. But then, at the Tour, there was one moment where they said that I need to attack now, and I was like, ‘it’s not the right moment.’
“I realized I actually did know a lot of these things and I need to go back to my DSs and say, ‘I actually need a bit more freedom now.’ I feel that I’m at the point where I can start making those decisions for myself in the race. That’s not to say I disagree with what they’re going to do, but because I think there are moments where I feel like I know what to do. I think that intuition that I have wasn’t there last year, and that gives me a lot of confidence.”
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Faulkner is definitely looking more assured within the bunch, and it has reaped her plentiful rewards with two stage wins at the Giro d’Italia Donne and another at the Tour de Suisse. She was close to winning the overall title in Switzerland, only for a fall on the final stage that saw Lucinda Brand jump ahead of her to take the spoils.
Despite her exponential growth as a rider, Faulkner still suffers from what many of us do: doubts. Though she is swiftly growing in stature as a GC rider, she’s still relatively new to racing compared to some of her rivals and the minutia of it occasionally overwhelms her.
Part of her development as a rider has been learning not to let it get to her.
“I still sometimes, like oscillate a little bit, though, because I’m so confident in some areas, and then I’m so insecure still,” she said. “At the Giro, I won the opening stage, and then the next day, I was like struggling with my positioning upfront. I called my coach, and I was like, ‘how can I win a stage of the Giro and then still like struggle with like these other aspects of cycling?’ Sometimes I get this like imposter syndrome where I don’t know why I can be so good at something and bad at others.
“I think that is something that emotionally still affects me sometimes because I have so many areas to improve, but then I also like can still do well in other aspects of cycling.”
Working on weaknesses
Faulkner has been working on her weaknesses this season and she has seen improvements. Rather than getting bogged down in what she perceives as the many things she has to work on, she’s been trying to pick on or two things at a time to hone.
Once she’s selected something she wants to improve, she will doggedly work at it before moving on to the next thing.
“There are so many things that I still have to work on. Sometimes just have to be a little compassionate with myself, because I could work on so many things, but I know that that’s going to create a certain level of stress,” Faulkner said. “I can’t work on everything at once, as much as I want to.
“So, I need to be a little compassionate with myself when there’s certain things I know that I’m not working on that I want to.
“One thing that I am really good at is if I have like a focus, I can just hone in and do that really well. In May, my goal was to be really good at descending. So, for the month of May, every single ride I went out I would pick a really curvy road. If I did a corner wrong, I’d turn around and go back up the climb to do it again. That was my goal for the month of May, much more so than my fitness or anything else.”
The last few months have tested Faulkner to her maximum, particularly the month of July when she raced the Giro and the Tour de France Femmes. After a strong performance in Italy, she caught COVID-19, which wiped out her recovery period, and an early crash was effectively the nail in the coffin of her GC fight.
She struggled physically throughout the whole race and had to ultimately grind her way to the finish on the Planche des Belles Filles. There were moments where she found herself struggling mentally, but by the end of the race, she seemed at peace with the cards she had been dealt.
“A lesson that cycling has definitely taught me is to just control what you can and not get stressed about other things,” she said. “In my old job, and in my life, I would sometimes get a little emotional about things I couldn’t control. I knew that there was no point in it, but it still happened. In cycling, there are just so many things that happen all the time.
“You can like feel the best in the race, and you just get a flat tire the worst moment, like 4k to go in the race and it can be over. Cycling has definitely made me better at just rolling with the punches and knowing that getting upset about things I can’t control is just not going to help.”
Faulkner has found that her switch to BikeExchange-Jayco over the winter and embracing the Australian culture at the team has helped her become a more relaxed person.
“I’ve been really happy,” she said of her move to the team. “Everyone’s really positive and fun. I can sometimes be so serious and intense about my training and so focused, it’s healthy for me to surround myself with people who can be like really light-hearted and fun and funny. So that’s been really good for me.
“They’ve also given me some freedom to be in different roles in races and try out different kinds of races. Last year, I was in a leadership role for almost every race, which was actually really taxing by the end. It was good in that I learned how to take on that role as someone who was so new, and the responsibilities that come with that,
“At BikeExchange I’ve had the chance to be a protected support rider, I had the chance to get bottles when it was needed. There are just things that I think I really filled in, a lot of big gaps that I wasn’t able to last year, just given my trajectory.”