Kristen Faulker Pre Road Worlds
Team USA

Kristen Faulkner: From Board Room to Leader Board

By: Jim Rutberg  September 14, 2022

When you’re from a small town in Alaska, resilience is in your DNA. A late starter in cycling, 29-year-old Kristen Faulkner has leveraged her resourcefulness, intellect, and grit to rise to the top-ranked American rider in the UCI Women’s WorldTour.

An Unconventional Path to Pro Cycling

Growing up in Homer, Alaska, Kristen and her brothers spent their days enjoying the outdoors. Although her passion for cycling wouldn’t develop until years later, hiking, kayaking, and fishing were popular activities throughout her childhood.

Kristen’s family also fostered her entrepreneurial spirit. When she was 12 years old, Kristen wanted to earn some spending money. Too young to get hired, she turned to her parents. Her parents, entrepreneurs themselves, told her to just go create a job. Speaking years later from her European home base, Kristen traces her comfort with staking out a place of her own – in Girona, Spain, and within Team BikeExchange-Jayco ­– to her Alaskan upbringing.

During her years at Phillips Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, Kristen was introduced to competitive rowing. She continued rowing at Harvard University and set the university’s record for the fastest 2-kilometer erg time for lightweight women.

As she prepared to graduate from Harvard University in 2016, with a degree in Computer Science, Kristen sought employment with the venture capital firm, Bessemer. Throughout her corporate and cycling careers, Kristen has actively worked to increase opportunities for women.

Her corporate career took her to New York City, where she enjoyed the work, but missed the camaraderie of participating in team sports. She connected with a cycling club in New York’s Central Park, and quickly realized she enjoyed the community and had an aptitude for the sport. A career shift to the San Francisco area was also fortuitous, as it led to a connection with Linda Jackson, the manager of Team TIBCO-SVB.

Professional Success On and Off the Bike

Kristen Faulkner joined Team TIBCO-SVB as a professional cyclist in 2020, while continuing to work full-time for her new California-based employer, Threshold Ventures. Her first season as a professional cyclist coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which in some ways made her dual career more manageable. Competing primarily in E-Sport races on Zwift meant less of the travel normally required of a professional cyclist. This allowed Kristen to train and race while also thriving in her corporate career. In 2020, she competed in Zwift’s virtual Tour de France and was then selected to Team USA for the UCI Esport World Championships.

As the pandemic waned and in-person races started up again in earnest, Faulkner began the European phase of her cycling career. In September 2020, she raced Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l'Ardèche in France. Despite knowing very little about racing in the European professional peloton, or even recognizing the sport’s biggest stars, Faulkner rode away from the field on a climb to win Stage 4. Following the l’Ardèche race, she finished the season with strong finishes in four Belgian Classics, including Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes and Tour of Flanders.

In January 2021, Faulkner made the choice to quit her corporate job to focus entirely on professional cycling. Leveraging research and analysis skills honed in university and finance, she studied races and competitors to steepen her learning curve. Strong results followed, including a 10th place in the 2021 Tour of Flanders, 7th at Gent-Wevelgem, and a stage win at the Ladies Tour of Norway (More on Faulkner’s early European success).

Kristen Faulkner’s Lessons for Success

There’s no doubt Kristen Faulkner has the requisite engine to be a cycling champion, but so do many others. What seems to separate Kristen from the pack is her championship mindset, which is one aspect of her success other riders can learn from.

When asked how lessons learned in university and board rooms have propelled her cycling career, Kristen cites the following examples:

  • “Always ask questions”: When you’re surrounded by knowledgeable people, don’t be afraid to ask a thousand questions.
  • “Balance risk with expectant value”: Expectant value is a financial term for evaluating risk by weighing the likeliness of possible outcomes. To win, you must risk losing, but you also want to take risks with the highest likelihood for success.
  • “Don’t be afraid to lose”: Venture capitalists know only a few companies they invest will go on to achieve major success and yield big returns. But it’s impossible to achieve the wins without also enduring the failures.
  • “Be patient, then go ‘full gas’”: Big financial transactions take time to develop, but you must be ready for a big effort when it’s time to close the deal. The same is true for racing.
  • “Think for yourself and the team”: Venture capitalists are compensated by salaries, individual bonuses, and a percentage of the firm’s (i.e. team’s) earnings. This structure, which is similar to professional cycling team compensation, incentivizes both individual performance and contributions to the team’s overall success.

When talking about her strengths as a cyclist, Faulkner commented, “One of my best mentors in venture told me to be T-shaped. What they mean, is that you want to be really deep in one area but have broad knowledge in other areas. You have your area of specialty, but you still have to be pretty good at everything else.” As a cyclist, Kristen is often referred to as an “all arounder,” an athlete who performs well in a wide range of racing scenarios. In 2020 and 2021, she achieved strong finishes in tough one-day Classics, but also won mountain stages. So far in 2022, she has excelled in time trials, stage races, and in the mountains.

2022 Season Recap

Faulkner’s upward trajectory accelerated even more in 2022. She won two stages of the Giro Donne, finished 2nd overall in the Tour de Suisse, and third overall in the Itzulia Women’s stage race. Notably, she won the prologue time trial and the climber’s jersey at the Giro Donne, and won an individual time trial and placed third in the climbing competition at the Tour de Suisse.

In a sport sometimes weighed down by antiquated traditions, Faulkner credits her relative naivete and ability to think outside the box for some of her success.

“It’s okay to think different. Sometimes things are done a certain way and people push back against an outsider’s perspective. When I started, I told people I thought I could be a good climber. A lot of people told me ‘You don’t have the body of a climber.’ It wasn’t always explicit, but I also wasn’t given climbing opportunities. To me, it’s like time trialing, just up a mountain.” 

Not everything has been sunshine and podium bouquets, however. Early in 2021, Faulkner suffered a concussion in a crash in the first race of the year, causing her to miss the Classics season. After nearly winning the Tour de Suisse in June, and winning the prologue of the Giro Donne in July, a fueling error on Stage 5 caused her to plummet down the overall standings due to severe dehydration. She rebounded to win Stage 9 and took the Queen of the Mountains jersey.

Just before the Tour de France Femmes, Faulkner came down with COVID. She recovered just in time to start the race but was uncertain about the effect on her conditioning. “Because of COVID, I never really recovered from the Giro, and then I had zero recovery time after COVID before the Tour de France Femmes,” she said.

On Stage 2, Faulkner’s luck ran out. She was caught in two crashes that left her bloody and chasing to rejoin the peloton. “I think that between the crashes and COVID, my body just started going downhill. At the start of every stage, I felt like I had just finished the stage before. There was no recovery happening overnight and every day got worse and worse. By the end, I think I finished in the last 5 or 10 riders on the final stage. But I really wanted to finish, so I did everything I could.”

Professional cycling has not always done a good job of prioritizing athlete health, which leads to questions about whether Faulkner should have abandoned the Tour de France Femmes. “I didn’t see a reason to stop,” she commented. “If I stop, I’m not going to be useful to my teammates at all. If I continue, maybe I can’t do much, but I can do something. And there were still things I could work on. For me, it’s the racing aspect I need to work on more than the fitness component, like riding in the bunch, positioning, and fulfilling team roles.”

Beyond the practical lessons to be learned by staying in the race, Faulkner admits the significance of the race itself kept her going. “I don’t know what is going to happen in the future. I had eight days, and yeah, a few that I just had to get through. But for the rest of my life, I can say I finished the Women’s Tour de France.”

Wrapping Up the Dream Season

With a tough Tour de France Femmes behind her, Faulkner is looking to recover and prepare for a few late season goals. Kristen has her sights set on the Individual Time Trial at the UCI World Championships. Although she has won shorter time trials like the Giro Donne prologue, she’s looking forward to testing herself in a long Time Trial against the best in the world.