Kristen Faulkner is on fire this season—metaphorically, in her racing, and nearly literally in her overheated apartment in Girona. The small city in eastern Spain has recorded temperatures of up to 104°F this summer, as a brutal heatwave engulfs Europe while the road racing season hits its peak and the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift looms on the horizon.

Faulkner has had a meteoric rise in the cycling ranks. So far, this 2022 season, the Alaskan from Homer has taken two stage wins at the Giro Donne, a second overall finish at the Tour de Suisse, and third overall in the Itzulia Women’s stage race. Girona, a 90-minute drive from Barcelona, is one of the most popular European spots for pro cyclists to call home, and the sweltering heat is almost palpable through the screen as Faulkner talks about her season and the races coming up.

The temperature doesn’t just have her reaching for a microfiber towel to dab sweat throughout the interview, though: It very nearly wrecked her chances in the Giro Donne on a particularly hot stage, which saw her collapsed at the finish line, low on fluids and electrolytes. The heat adds to her pre-race nerves, as the first eight-day iteration of a women’s Tour de France nears. But despite the high temperatures and lack of air conditioning, Girona finally feels like home to the racer labeled as an “all-rounder” by her team Bike Exchange-Jayco.

“I’m fully moved in, I know the best places to buy eggs and fresh food, and I know all the routes that I like to ride,” she says. “I miss my family, but I’ve developed friendships here as well. It feels like this is normal life now.”

From One Extreme to the Other

Faulkner is in her third year of racing professionally, though the pandemic certainly put a damper on her first forays into the pro peloton. 2020 was her first season as a pro racer for Tibco-SVB, and obviously, that year didn’t go exactly according to plan. However, it may have been a blessing in disguise, giving the Harvard grad and former collegiate rower a longer runway to ramp up to the pro ranks, while still holding down a job in the world of venture capitalism and finance.

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Marta Cavalli of Italy on second place, Kristen Faulkner of United States and Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy on third place pose and celebrate with champagne on the podium ceremony after the 33rd Giro d’italia donne 2022
Dario Belingheri//Getty Images

In fact, back in 2020, she was doing most of her racing on Zwift Island between virtual meetings and conference calls. She participated in Zwift’s virtual Tour de France that summer, prompting tech website Protocol to do a piece on the “venture capitalist who helped her team win first place.” By 2021, Faulkner’s cycling stardom was on the rise, and she then decided it was fiscally responsible (enough) to leave her job at Threshold Ventures to be a full-time cyclist.

“I’ve learned you can do a lot of things pretty well, but you’re never going to be world-class at everything at the same time. And ultimately, that's why I left my job.”

“Everything’s so different now,” she reflects. “And it’s not just having more time to train, it’s having the time for everything else. We often talk about physical recovery and physical training, but we don't talk much about mental training and recovery, which are equally important as a racer. In my last job, I was go-go-go all the time. Looking back, I wasn’t growing at a personal level. I didn’t have that time for myself. I have a lot more space for that now, which is really healthy. I'm being challenged in ways on personal levels that I might not have been before.”

Racing in the Big Leagues

Clearly, she’s found the right formula, but putting it together on race day is still a work in progress, despite her recent successes. At 29 years old, Faulkner isn’t the youngest racer in the pro peloton by a long shot, but compared to some of her compatriots who can’t even legally drink, she has less experience racing. Because of that, she says, she’s humbly learning new things at every race, and she’s also able to keep her expectations in check—while still fighting for a win.

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Faulkner leads the peloton during the 7th Vuelta a Burgos Feminas 2022 - Stage 3 a 113,4km stage from Medina de Pomar to Monumento Natural de Ojo Guareña.
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno//Getty Images

“I think I was pretty fearless going into the Giro Donne because I didn’t have any expectations,” she says. “I wasn’t that nervous ahead of time; I just wanted to go have fun. I wasn’t the GC rider for our team going into the Giro. So I didn’t have big expectations of myself for any of the stages.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t the pressure that caught up with her in the Giro. It was a lesson in communication during Stage 5, where Faulkner had countered an attack on a long climb while low on water. She had missed her chance to grab a new bottle when she covered the attack, and when the group came back together and her team leader told her to go again, Faulkner knew she needed to get some water and electrolytes but was afraid to speak up.

“I didn’t communicate that I really needed water. Looking back, if I had taken that moment and gotten water from the car, and then got on the front again, I would have had that chance to breathe between my two really hard efforts, but going completely dehydrated into a second effort was when I really dug myself into a hole,” she says. “If I had communicated that it was urgent, she absolutely would have been fine with it. At that moment, I didn’t know how to explain how much I was suffering. I just knew I needed to be there to support [my teammate].”

Tour de France Femmes

A background in finance gives Faulkner a unique view of the newly-minted Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. Understanding how much work and capital it takes to bring an event like this to life makes it all the more meaningful. And on a practical note, she’s hoping people will tune in to watch the women’s peloton.

I’m really looking forward to Stage 5—it’s the longest one in the race. And the longer and harder the stage is, the better it suits me.

“It means a lot, symbolically. But it also means a lot from a media standpoint for women’s cycling,” she says. “I think many riders are treating this race the way they treat the Olympics, as a major event they want to be on form for. Everyone’s coming in on peak form, prioritizing this race. A lot of people who don't really watch cycling will probably tune in for the first time to watch the Tour. It’s just a really, really exciting time to be a female cyclist.”

As for the actual race, Faulkner is looking forward to those later stages where some riders tend to fade. “I’m really looking forward to Stage 5—it’s the longest one in the race. In fact, it’ll be one of the longest stages in women’s racing in a long time. And the longer and harder the stage is, the better it actually suits me—and in the days after.” And, while her cycling career is arguably just getting started, one of her greatest attributes is her ability to pinpoint minor missteps—like skimping on hydration mid-stage—and correct them for the next race. “After the Giro Donne, I think I’ll have more confidence as it gets later and later into the [Tour de France Femmes.]”

Validation Comes at Its Own Pace

While Faulkner’s two stage wins at the Giro have boosted her confidence heading into the TdF Femmes, the past year has certainly had its ups and downs, leading her to question her decision to leave the world of finance and pursue this career.

“Last year, I was in this awkward transition phase where I didn’t yet have any results to feel validated by my decision to leave my job and pursue this,” she recalls. “I was still close enough to my old job that there was this anxiety around if I made the right choice. I didn’t have any regrets: I knew I wanted to be here. But I still felt the consequences of the big risk that I'd taken.”

There wasn’t one specific race win or aha moment for her. Instead, the validation has come slowly and increased with every race that’s gone well, and with every race, she’s left knowing exactly what she needs to work on next. “Looking back gives me confidence, because I can see that I'm making progress month over month. And that's really validating, more than any single result.”

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Kristen Faulkner of the United States and Team BikeExchange-Jayco descending during Stage 9 of the Giro d’Italia Donne 2022.
Dario Belingheri//Getty Images

Of course, that quest for validation can also lead to pressure to perform, which has been a tricky line for Faulkner to walk. “I know that I have to be really compassionate with myself. I have so many things I want to work on, and I see so much improvement when I do invest in working on specific skills like descending,” she says. “But I need to focus on one thing at a time, instead of wanting to fix so many things all at once. I need to give myself time, and I can’t overdo it. I still feel alive every time I go out to train. I don't want to lose that.”

The Next Evie Stevens? Think Again

The United States hasn’t had a true road cycling star since 2016, the year Evelyn Stevens—the former Wall Street banker turned cycling phenom—retired from professional racing. Maybe because of this, it’s nearly impossible for cycling fans to ignore the obvious parallels between Faulkner’s story and Stevens—arguably one of the women who gave women’s cycling a huge boost in the U.S. a decade ago. Their trajectories are remarkably similar: They both went to college in New England, worked in high finance, started their cycling careers with the Century Road Club Association in New York City, and quickly rose through the pro ranks. Before bikes, Stevens played tennis, and Faulkner rowed.

“I’ve never met Evelyn, but I've heard amazing things about her,” Faulkner says. “Generally, I’m just flattered, because everyone I know really looked up to her and really liked her, so I know it’s a huge compliment.”

But give her another beat to reflect, and it’s clear that comparisons, as they say, are odious, and while meant in a positive way, the comparison doesn’t sit entirely well with her. “What’s hard when people are compared to other riders is that sometimes they get funneled into being the same kind of rider as them or having the same kind of trajectory,” she adds. “It’s like, ‘oh, well, she struggled with this, so you probably will struggle with this,’ or, ‘she was really good at this or really bad at this, so you’re probably going to be that way too.’ That’s what I would want to avoid more than anything, because I am a different rider, and I have different strengths and weaknesses. And I have a different personality.”

Maybe it’s a younger sibling thing that makes Faulkner cringe when the two are compared. “I have an older sister, and we did a lot of the same activities growing up,” she says, warming up to the topic. “It was really interesting because we were both swimmers, but she loved the really long-distance events. Because of that, people would always put me in those same long-distance events, because they figured that my sister was good at them, so I would be good at them.”

“I hated them.”

“Eventually, I had to put my foot down and carve my own path. But it took me years and years and years to be able to do that,” Faulkner says. And ultimately, there might be a bit of fear wrapped up in it as well. While Stevens was arguably one of the best cyclists America has ever seen, her racing career only lasted six years before she retired at 33.

“There’s a lot of pattern recognition that people—with good intentions—try to enforce. And while I’m not as personally sensitive to it as I used to be, I’m very conscious of it from an intellectual standpoint.”

At the end of the day, Faulkner wants to blaze her own path, though she wants to do so with help from her coaches, teammates, and friends in cycling. While the life of a pro cyclist can seem insular and insulated, she’s found that asking for help is more important than winning races off the front. “I'm still really open to learning,” she says. “I find that my teammates and my coaches want to help me learn because they know that I’m still eager to learn and that I still have that humility. And I’m going to have that humility as long as I can.”