From Alaska to Kwaremont: The Spectacular Ascent of Kristen Faulkner

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Kristen Faulkner took 10th place for Tibco-SVB in the Tour of Flanders.

Imagine doing your second tour of Flanders just weeks after quitting your full-time venture capital job and finishing 10th ahead of former winners like Marianne Vos and Lizzie Deignan.

Kristen Faulkner did just that.

Your story is remarkable. The 28-year-old Faulkner grew up in the small fishing village of Homer in Alaska. Driving from there to Oude Kwaremont on the Tour of Flanders is remarkable enough in itself. But that's just the beginning of their story.

"For us as children there wasn't much to do, so nature was our playground," she says a few days after the tour of Flanders from the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank in Belgium. “We went hiking, kayaking, fishing. Sometimes my mother forgot something in the supermarket and asked us to catch a salmon in the river. I have three older siblings and have always tried to catch up with them. That taught me to persevere. "

Faulkner attended boarding school in Massachusetts, where her mother grew up and her grandmother lived. She ended up on the school's rowing team. Her athletic skills took her to Harvard University, where she studied computer science and was part of the university rowing team. She attracted a lot of high-paying job openings, but decided to go with the lowest-paying venture capital offer because she felt she could make a change here.

"Everyone wants to find the new Mark Zuckerberg and many start-ups are run by men," she says. “I've always tried to support equality for women in start-ups. I've always loved entrepreneurship and hoped to get more women into venture capital. I even moved across the country to work for a venture capitalist. The company has supported women in the past and I knew that gender equality is one of their core values. I only want to work for people and companies who share my values. "

Faulkner is passionate about equality and her work, but she missed being part of a team. She'd been on the rowing and swimming team in school and university, but she missed the camaraderie in New York City.

"I was homesick in NYC and missed the outdoors," she says. “I've been to Central Park a lot and found a cycling club there. I borrowed a bike from a man who is 6 & # 39; & # 39; 3 & # 39; & # 39; was tall and showed up in ordinary shorts. There was this starter group that was very welcoming. When I moved to California, I took part in local races and group rides. Someone in my group knew Linda Jackson, the team manager at Team Tibco-SVB, and when I finished fourth behind three pros in the time trial, I joined the team. "

The rest is what they call history. However, Faulkner did not suddenly switch from the world of venture capital to professional cycling. She's been doing both for months.

"My first race in Europe was the Tour de l & # 39; Ardèche (2020) in France," she says. “That was actually my first pro race. I would wake up at 6 a.m., work, race, and then work another six hours at night with Zoom calls and board meetings. "

Even so, she won her first pro race that week. On the famous Mont Lozère, she was riding away from the rest of the field and won. Her teammate Lauren Stephens finished second with 20 seconds.

"It was the first time this week that I actually competed in a peloton," she explains. “I didn't know anything about cycling. I had no idea who the other drivers were, nothing about their qualities and strengths, and nothing about the track. I've never seen bike races before. We hadn't traced the ascent. My ignorance helped me. Fortunately, I didn't know how long the climb took. I knew I was going to be closer to my goal every five minutes, so I just kept going. I really wanted to prove myself and show the team I belong to here. This phase was a huge confidence boost.

What followed were her first Belgian spring (or rather autumn) classics: Flèche Wallonne (33rd), Liège-Bastogne-Liège (20th), Brabantse Pijl (11th) and Tour of Flanders (31st) . All while still working full time in a very demanding job.

In January 2021, she quit her job to focus entirely on cycling. For Faulkner, that doesn't mean she can train and rest full-time – she's also started studying the sport.

"I'm in preschool for my knowledge of the sport," she admits. “All of these women basically grew up together in this peloton. I had never seen a race in my life. I'll give you an embarrassing example. I went to Oetingen in mid-March. Someone from the roadside shouted "Go Marianne" and I looked to the left and thought: "Ah, that must be Marianne Vos then." I have more time to analyze tactics, drivers and teams. I make index cards from the drivers and analyze all the races. It's humiliating, embarrassing, and exciting at the same time. "

(Side note: Faulkner finished fourth at the GP Oetingen, only beaten by the rising Italian stars Elisa Balsamo, Jolien d & # 39; Hoore and Vos himself).

Faulkner (left) during the last Tour of Flanders.

Faulkner laughs at Marianne Vos' anecdote, but there is a serious undertone. Faulkner graduated from Harvard and accidentally discovered cycling. There are many female pros in American cycling who have gone the same path: Connie Carpenter, Evelyn Stevens, Emily Newsom, Kristabel Doebel-Hicock, Katie Hall, and Mara Abbott, to name a few. They all started cycling later. It is the women who can juggle a full-time job and an education at the same time that stand out in the end.

"The barriers for US women are very high, but there is so much untapped potential in the US," says Faulkner. “Cycling is seen as a transport, not a sport. For every pro-woman who produces in Europe, there are 10 who don't. Cycling is not a sport and many Americans don't understand the sport. It's also an expensive sport. You need a good job to be able to afford it. We also need to recognize that the pipeline for young women to grow up through is almost non-existent. We have to build that.

“The American women who do it do it very well. We also need to build on TV coverage so that more women take up cycling as a sport. There are so many hidden gems out there. "

As mentioned, Faulkner has had some impressive results in her short career, but it was her 10th place finish on this month's Tour of Flanders that put her on many people's radars.

"The Flanders tour was so much more fun the second time around," she says. “I had a mechanic in the final last year. This time I knew the climbs better and that was a big advantage. I knew positioning was important. Unfortunately my teammates were caught behind a fall and I had no help to form the first group on the Oude Kwaremont. Nobody drove in the second group because everyone in the front had team-mates. I attacked from this group and ended up in 10th place on my own. "

While Faulkner is clearly incredibly strong, she lacks the skills to ride in a pro peloton. She believes this is one of the reasons there are so many great American time triallists. Faulkner himself feels like a newbie.

"I'm good at adapting and changing," she says. "As a rookie, I can only improve in literally all aspects of the sport: climbing, cobblestones, tactics."

When asked how she would define herself as a rider, she has no idea. "When I started, I thought I was a time triallist," she says. “When I won on Mont Lozère, I thought I was a climber. Now I was 10th in Flanders and maybe I'm a cobblestone specialist. Last year I was scared of sprints. I lacked fearlessness. Things went much better in Gent-Wevelgem (where she was seventh). I can position myself better and with my climbing skills that could be an advantage at the Ardennes Classics. "

Faulkner knows that life cannot be planned. That's a lesson she's learned over the years.

“Two years ago I dreamed of becoming a partner in a venture capital company,” she says. "I have no idea what I could have earned, but it doesn't matter to me. I'm so much happier with what I'm doing now. I want to go on for as long as possible. Maybe it's like Lizzie Deignan (who during her career has a baby) or a long career like Annemiek van Vleuten, who shows what is possible when you are 38. I am excited about the future and also impatient. Every race is a new lesson to learn from. "

Kristen Faulkner is definitely a name to check out. If you are in tenth place on your second tour of Flanders, in seventh place in the season of your first Gent-Wevelgem and can basically win the first mountain stage you ever started on, the sky could actually be the limit.

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