From Alaska to the Kwaremont: The spectacular rise of Kristen Faulkner
Imagine riding your second Tour of Flanders ever, only a few weeks after you quit a full-time job in venture capital, and finishing in 10th place, ahead of former winners like Marianne Vos and Lizzie Deignan.
Kristen Faulkner did just that.
Her story is a remarkable one. Now 28, Faulkner grew up in the small fishing village of Homer, Alaska. From there to racing up the Oude Kwaremont at the Tour of Flanders is remarkable enough in itself. But that’s only the start of her story.
“There wasn’t much to do for us as kids so the outdoors was our playground,” she says from the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank house in Belgium a few days after the Tour of Flanders. “We went hiking, kayaking, fishing. Sometimes my mom would forget something in the grocery store and ask us to catch a salmon in the river. I have three older siblings and I always tried to catch up with them. That taught me to persevere.”
Faulkner went to boarding school in Massachusetts, where her mother grew up and her grandmother lived. She ended up on the school’s rowing team. Her athletic ability led her to Harvard University where she studied computer sciences and was part of the varsity rowing team. She attracted many high-paying job offers but chose the lowest-paying one in venture capital because it’s where she felt she could make a change.
“Everyone wants to find the new Mark Zuckerberg and many start-ups are led by men,” she says. “I always tried to support female equality in start-ups. I always loved entrepreneurship and hoped to bring more women into venture capital. I even moved across the country to work for a female venture capitalist. The company has a history of supporting women and it was clear to me that gender parity is one of their intrinsic values. I only want to work for people and companies that share my values.”
Faulkner is passionate about equality and the work she was doing, but she missed being part of a team. In school and at university she had been part of the rowing and swimming teams but in New York City she missed the camaraderie a lot.
“I was homesick in NYC and missed the outdoors,” she says. “I went to Central Park often and found a cycling club there. I borrowed a bike from a guy who was 6’3″ and showed up in ordinary shorts. There was this starter group that was very welcoming. When I moved to California, I joined local races and group rides. Someone on my group knew Linda Jackson, the team manager at Team Tibco-SVB and when I came fourth in a time trial behind three pros, I joined the team.”
The rest is what they call history. Faulkner didn’t move suddenly from the world of venture capital to pro cycling though. For months she did both.
“My first race in Europe was the  Tour de l’Ardèche in France,” she says. “That was actually my very first pro race. I would wake up at 6am in the morning, work, race, and then work another six hours at night with Zoom calls and board meetings.”
Still, she won her first pro race that week. On the famous Mont Lozère she just rode clear of the rest of the peloton and won. Her teammate Lauren Stephens was second at 20 seconds.
“It was the first time I actually rode in a peloton that week,” she explains. “I knew nothing about bike racing. I had no idea who the other riders were, nothing about their qualities and strengths and nothing about the course. I never watched bike races. We hadn’t done a recon of the climb. My ignorance helped me. I was blissfully unaware how long the climb was. I knew that every five minutes I would be closer to the finish so I just kept going. I really wanted to prove myself and show the team I belonged here. This stage was a huge confidence boost.
What followed were her first Belgian Spring (or rather, Autumn) Classics ever: Flèche Wallonne (33rd), Liège-Bastogne-Liège (20th), Brabantse Pijl (11th) and Tour of Flanders (31st). And all of this while still working full-time in a very demanding job.
In January 2021 she quit her job to focus on cycling full-time. To Faulkner this doesn’t mean she can train and rest full-time – she also started studying the sport.
“I am in pre-school when it comes to my knowledge of the sport,” she admits. “All these women basically grew up together in this peloton. I had never watched a race in my life. I will give you an embarrassing example. I raced in Oetingen mid-March. Someone from the side of the road yelled ‘Go Marianne’ and I looked to my left and thought ‘Ah, that must be Marianne Vos then.’ I have more time to analyze tactics, riders, teams. I make flash cards of the riders and analyze all the races. It’s humbling, embarrassing and exciting all at the same time.”
(Side note: Faulkner finished fourth at the GP Oetingen, beaten only by rising Italian star Elisa Balsamo, Jolien d’Hoore and Vos herself).
Faulkner laughs at the Marianne Vos anecdote but there is a serious undertone to it. Faulkner finished a degree at Harvard and then discovered bike racing by accident. There are many female pros in American cycling who went the same route: Connie Carpenter, Evelyn Stevens, Emily Newsom, Kristabel Doebel-Hicock, Katie Hall, Mara Abbott to name a few. They all started cycling later. It’s the women who can juggle a full-time job and training at the same time who end up excelling.
“The barriers for US women are very high but there is so much untapped potential in the United States,” Faulkner says. “Cycling is viewed as transport and not a sport. For every female pro who makes in Europe there are 10 who don’t. Cycling is not the go-to 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. Also, we must realize that the pipeline through which junior women can grow to the top is almost absent. We need to build that.
“The American women who do make it, do very well. We also need to build on TV coverage so more women pick up the bike as sport. There are so many hidden gems out there.”
As noted, Faulkner has already scored some impressive results in her short career so far, but it was her 10th at this month’s Tour of Flanders that put her on many people’s radar.
“The Tour of Flanders was so much more fun the second time around,” she says. “Last year I had a mechanical in the final. This time I knew the climbs better and that was a huge advantage. I knew positioning was important. Unfortunately my teammates were caught up behind a crash and I didn’t have help to make the first group on the Oude Kwaremont. In the second group no one was riding because everyone had teammates up front. I attacked from that group and finished solo in 10th place.”
While Faulkner is clearly incredibly strong, she lacks the skills of riding in a pro peloton. She feels it’s one of the reasons there are so many great American time triallists. Faulkner herself feels like a rookie.
“I am good at adapting and changing,” she says. “As a rookie I can only improve in literally all aspects of the sport: climbing, cobbles, 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 at Mont Lozère I thought I was a climber. Now I was 10th in Flanders and maybe I am a cobbled specialist. Last year I was terrified in sprints. I lacked the fearlessness. In Gent-Wevelgem [where she was seventh] that went much better. I am getting better at positioning and with my climbing ability that might be an advantage in the Ardennes Classics.”
Faulkner knows that you can’t plan life. That’s a lesson she has learned throughout the years.
“Two years ago, I dreamt of becoming a partner in a venture capital firm,” she says. “I have no idea what I could have earned but to me it’s not important. I am so much happier doing what I do now. I want to continue as long as I can. Maybe it will be like Lizzie Deignan [having a baby during her career] or a long career like Annemiek van Vleuten who shows what’s possible when you are 38. I feel excited about the future and also impatient. Every race is a new lesson to learn from.”
Kristen Faulkner is most definitely a name to watch. If you can be 10th in your second Tour of Flanders ever, seventh in the echelons of your first Gent-Wevelgem, and win basically the first mountain stage you ever started in, the sky might actually be the limit.