Kristen Faulkner is about to lead BikeExchange-Jayco into a potential yellow-jersey performance at the eight-day Tour de France Femmes. The first women's Tour de France since the 1980s kicks off on Sunday in Paris for a highly anticipated eight days of racing.
"This is going to be the most iconic race of my life, and being part of the energy from the fans, riders and everyone there, it will be contagious," Faulkner said in a phone interview with Cyclingnews from the airport in Barcelona on Friday evening.
"From a racing standpoint, I'm looking forward to what I can do from a leadership standpoint. It's going to be exciting to lift the curtain and see what I can do."
The American had a hugely successful Giro Donne this month, winning two stages and the mountains classification. But she was nearly forced to miss the Tour de France Femmes after a case of COVID-19 during the days following the race. She was feeling healthy and admitted she was lucky to have tested negative for the virus at the last-possible cut-off point in order to start the race on Sunday.
"I had COVID last week and just tested negative last night, which was the last possible night I could test negative to race. I had to delay my flight by two days, so I'm arriving late, but the good news is that I made the cut-off to race," Faulkner said.
Faulkner's teammate Amanda Spratt abandoned the Giro due to COVID-19, and Faulkner said she didn't test positive until the day she returned home from the race.
"I got COVID the day after the Giro. I didn't have a bad case. I tested negative every day at the Giro, but the day after I got home, I did a rapid test, which was positive. I kept testing positive for the last ten days, and then last night, I tested negative. The timing was not ideal, but if I was going to have it, the timing couldn't have been better because of the cut-off date."
Faulkner is in a leadership role at the Tour de France Femmes, with a support team that includes Spratt, Ane Santesteban, Alex Manly, Urška Žigart, and Ruby Roseman-Gannon. She said she was looking forward to this new role and expressed confidence in the team around her.
"I haven't been a GC leader for the team at all, but I've been in a lot of situations where I've been supporting GC leaders and still being in the race when it counts. That gives me a lot of confidence going in. We have a deep team, and Ane and Amanda are both so strong, and I have confidence that they will be there, which makes me feel more comfortable," she said.
"Physically, it's hard to gauge how I feel because in between the time of the Giro and the Tour, I didn't do much because of COVID. In some ways, I rested; in others, I didn't have enough intensity. The start of the race might be a bit of a shock to me."
Improved skills make all the difference
Faulkner has had remarkable success this year, with third at Navara Women's Elite Classics, third at Itzulia Women, seventh at Women's Tour, and second at Tour de Suisse, losing the overall lead on the final day by one second.
She went on to take the first maglia rosa at the Giro Donne after winning the prologue and then won stage 9. She was relatively new to the sport and had turned pro in 2020, so she attributed her success to improved bike skills this year.
"I've been pleasantly surprised with the results. My strength and my fitness have gotten a little better, but I have always been strong. My bike handling and skills have improved, so I'm not always wasting energy. If I look at my results from my first two years of racing, I had to abandon because of a crash, mechanical, whatever it was, I didn't know how to ride my bike as well," Faulkner said.
"I had a lot of races where I couldn't show what I could do. Now I can show what I can do. I'm happy that I'm healthy, I've known I have good fitness, and I worked on my bike handling.
"I always thought that the difference between me being good and great was fitness, but all the other things that are now coming together have led to my greater success."
A chance at yellow
Asked about her prospects of wearing the yellow jersey at the Tour de France after her time in the maglia rosa, Faulkner said she has a chance.
"I wish the Tour had a TT as that would set me up a little better for the yellow jersey. I felt good during the prologue [at the Giro], and I'm racing more confidently. I'm racing to win, and even if I don't, my attitude is that I can do this. I have less self-doubt," she said. "Those results have given me the confidence to know that I can race to win."
The team will also be going for the sprints with Manly and Roseman-Gannon, while Spratt will play a crucial on-road captain role.
"She has so much experience and is good at knowing what to do and where to be. She's a really strong team leader, making sure are all where we need to be at critical points in the race," Faulkner said. "I respond to that, and I also watch, which has made me a better racer and helps the team perform.
"When we study the course ahead of time, I used to look at it as me vs the course, but Amanda has taught me to think about who might try something at this point, what people are going to do when and why she thinks of it in a much more holistic way. I've learned a lot to think of courses that way."
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