It was early in Alaska, around 5 a.m., when Kristen Faulkner got on her bright yellow Cannondale bike and started racing in the Tour de France.
The view from her parents' garage in Homer was beautiful, full of snow-capped mountains and a blue bay at sunrise, but Faulkner's focus as she pedaled in place was on the laptop perched on top of a chair in front of her. That's where her avatar on Zwift was racing around the virtual Tour de France course as she virtually climbed up Mont Ventoux.
"My parents had never seen me race before this year because it was hard for them to travel, and to have them be with me so close, it was incredible," she said. "It was like, I'm having the Tour de France in front of me, and my parents are behind me."
Faulkner's team, TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank, ended up winning the competition that finished on July 19 by a wide margin. Faulkner raced four of the six stages, one from Alaska and the first three from her apartment in Menlo Park, where she continued to do her day job as a venture capitalist for Threshold Ventures, focused on enterprise investing.
"We swept across the board, which has been really exciting," she said, calling from the side of the road near Denali Park where she was spending her vacation on an actual bike ride through interior Alaska.
It's also a race she wouldn't have otherwise entered if it weren't for a global pandemic that's shifted everything virtual.
After the Tour de France was postponed for the first time since World War II, race organizers partnered with online training app Zwift to host a virtual competition. (They still hope to host the traditional race at the end of August, pandemic-pending). On Zwift, the race was shortened to six stages instead of the full 21 and allowed the women's teams to submit four riders per stage. But the biggest change came to women's racing: Instead of the one-day race called Le Course put on by the Tour de France, the women raced all six stages of the virtual Tour de France on the same courses as the men.
After years of complaints that women couldn't attract the TV viewership or sponsorship to have their own Tour de France, one of the most powerful results of the virtual race was how there was equal coverage for men and women for the first time in history, Faulkner said.
"I really hope that we can keep that momentum going next year when live racing comes back because of the level of equality we saw in terms of viewership and attention," she said. "For me it's really exciting to be a part of a team in a season to have witnessed that, because it's something really important to me, and I hope that during my cycling career, we can get to the point where people pay for men and women."
If the pandemic hadn't happened, it's unlikely Faulkner would have taken part in any part of the Tour de France this year.
Born and raised in Alaska, Faulkner only picked up cycling after she moved to New York after graduation and missed team sports, like rowing. It was still a side hobby while she worked for Bessemer Ventures at the time, focused on SaaS startups and sourcing deals like Applitools, before joining Threshold Ventures, an early-stage firm that spun off from DFJ. After relocating to the Bay Area, she had to start her race network again, but a pro coach scouted her at the end of 2019 and convinced her to go pro in January 2020. She got three races under her belt before the pandemic hit.
"This was supposed to be my debut year as a pro, and everything went virtual, so it was kind of stripped out from underneath me," she said.
Unlike in the real Tour de France, Faulkner could have her parents cheering her on from right next to her the whole time.Photo: Courtesy of Brian Bailey
While the virtual racing tries to mimic events like the Tour de France as much as possible, there was still a distinct virtual feel to it. There's no steering like in a real race, Faulkner said, and sometimes the avatars overlap with each other. Zwift also has Power Ups in the virtual race that gives riders things like a short boost or 10 seconds of invisibility that obviously don't exist in a real-world challenge.
There have also been the technical challenges of moving a race online. Sometimes teammates' Wi-Fi drops out, effectively dropping them from the race. Faulkner almost missed her race stage in Alaska after the trainer that her bike connected to started smoking the day before the race. She ended up recruiting a cousin to drive the four and a half hours from Anchorage to bring her extra trainers to try so she had one that worked for the race. "In some ways you could say, the percentage of people who had connectivity issues is probably the same percentage of people that might get a flat tire," she said. "So it's really unfortunate, but it's also kind of realistic in a way."
It also took Faulkner several races to get used to the technical setup. Faulkner had to have Zoom on the whole time so race organizers could make sure she was the one racing. The constant streaming also meant that the race commentators could switch to watch her pedaling in the middle of the virtual race broadcast.
She races with her bike in a smart trainer, which is basically an electric wheel connected to the Zwift app that can track her power and automatically vary resistance to mimic hills or other terrain. But to get it right, she has to send in videos of her weighing herself on a scale for many of the races so it's calibrated correctly. To complete the tech setup, Faulkner used gaming communications app Discord to listen to teammates cheering her on through her AirPods, although it doesn't come close to the real thing.
Faulkner's tech setup included a laptop running Zwift and Zoom, AirPods that had a Discord chat going, and a less high-tech fan. Photo: Courtesy of Brian Bailey
"The cons are that it's definitely harder to form relationships virtually than in person," she said. "I have teammates that I feel super close to, and we went through the Virtual Tour de France together, and I still haven't met in person. So that's a little weird."
It's been a shift to get used to online racing, but going virtual has been a boost to the opportunities Faulkner has had. Instead of having to travel the world, she's been able to do a race in France one day and a race in England the next, all from a bike that goes nowhere. It's also worked out well for work because she can do a race at 6 a.m. before starting the day and not have to take time off to travel to Europe just to compete.
"In terms of being able to keep doing my job as an associate and be a professional racer, digital sports has created this whole new opportunity for a group of people who want to be able to merge the two really well," she said.
As for the future of virtual cycling, she expects it to stick around thanks to how much it's opened up the sport to people at home who are enjoying the virtual races. She also thinks that the definition of "esports" could expand from just gaming into virtual events like a cycling race or a basketball game. She compares the evolution of digital sports to Spotify, which has allowed more people to listen to music with greater convenience but hasn't replaced the in-person concert business entirely. "It's going to be much bigger than in-person racing in terms of the quantity of people, but I don't think it'll ever replace in-person racing because there's a lot of tactics involved that don't show up in Zwift," she said.
Despite being bullish on the idea of virtual sports, she hasn't made any investments yet, although she's tracking a few and looking for companies to invest in. Instead, the biggest impact has simply been believing in herself more and setting her own cycling goals even higher.
"Ever since I started cycling, it's been a dream of mine to do the Tour de France, and now I am 100% determined to do the real-life one," she said. "Before I thought my big dream was just to do the Tour De France, and now my big dream is to win the Tour de France. So it's helped me dream bigger."
Correction: This post was updated July 31 to correct which countries Faulkner has virtually raced in.