Kristen Faulkner’s journey with Supersapiens – a company which makes continuous glucose monitors to offer insight into blood glucose levels – began last Autumn. The American rider was introduced to the brand by her coach after she was struggling to fuel properly on the bike.
“I would eat too much or too little. Often, I would under-eat while I was training, and then I'd come home and I'd eat the whole kitchen. I found that I wasn't consistent with my training. I didn't know how much fuel I needed for an endurance ride versus an intensity ride,” Faulkner says.
For the 30-year-old, optimising her fuelling strategies was about more than just getting the best performance out of herself on the bike, it also was her road to re-regulating her menstrual cycle – for years Faulkner did not have a period.
“In training, I followed conventional guidelines and ate a gel every 15 minutes on intensity days, and every 20 minutes on endurance days, but even that led to spikes and crashes which perpetuated my problem. Within a few months of using Supersapiens to track my glucose levels, my period came back. For me, that was a really important health moment,” she explains.
But while Faulkner felt immense relief that she had managed to regain control over her fuelling, elsewhere, the reaction to professional cyclists starting to monitor their glucose levels had not had such a positive response.
In July 2020, cycling’s governing body, the UCI, banned the use of glucose monitors during races, stating (in summary) that it could be a distraction for riders, it removes the area of decision that riders and coaches have regarding when to fuel, and that “there is no evidence proving that it could improve the safety of the non-diabetic riders.”
The Supersapiens patch was visible on Faulkner's left arm during Strade Bianche (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
Faulkner finds fault with the logic of the UCI's rule, arguing that there is scientific evidence out there which proves athletes' health can suffer from hypoglycemia (where the level of sugar (glucose) in your blood drops too low) even if they aren't diabetic. She also argues that the terminology used within the rule itself is unclear and misleading to riders. Article 1.3.006 of the UCI regulations says: “devices which capture other physiological data, including any metabolic values such as but not limited to glucose or lactate are not authorised in competition”.
This is where the Team Jayco-Alula rider’s recent, well-documented debacle with the UCI regarding continuous glucose monitors begins. Faulkner says that she believed she was allowed to continue to wear her Supersapiens monitor in competition, as long as the device was not recording data while she was racing. It’s for this reason that she opted to race Strade Bianche a few weeks ago, where she finished in third place, still with the patch visible underneath her jersey.
“I didn't know that I couldn't race with it. Someone had said to me, you're not allowed to see the data, or you can't race with the data, so I assumed as long as I didn't see data, then it was fine to race with,” Faulkner states. “I admit that I didn't investigate the rule as I should have, I didn't look up the wording, I didn't look at the documents by the UCI, I just assumed that as I didn't have data, it was totally fine. To me that made sense, because there was no performance advantage whatsoever.”
Faulkner adds that she asked a member of her team’s staff if she would be allowed to keep her glucose monitoring patch on and was told that it would be "fine" as long as it didn’t record data.
“It had been activated, but I never synced it with my phone. Even after the race, I never had access to any race data. To this day, even if Supersapiens wanted to see my race data they couldn't because it was never synced to my phone and the patch expired. No race data had ever been synced from my patch to my phone,” Faulkner says.
The American rider explains she was asked by others afterwards why she didn’t cover the device with tape so that it wasn’t visible underneath her jersey and Faulkner responds that she genuinely wasn’t aware that the patch was not allowed to be on her body during a race. The fact that she did wear it openly is perhaps proof enough of this.
When photos of the monitor peeking out of Faulkner's jersey surfaced on social media after Strade Bianche, conversation quickly started about what her punishment from the UCI would be. Her third place in Strade Bianche was her career best result in a one-day race, so the stakes were high.
“After the race, my team doctor came up to me. And he's like, Kristen, why are you wearing this? It was all over the news. I was like, what are you talking about? I've been wearing it all week and no one said anything. I had no idea. I thought as long as there was no data, it was fine. I didn’t actually think I was going to get DQ’d. I just thought I might get a fine or penalty,” Faulkner says.
Last week, a the UCI confirmed: "Kristen Faulkner has been disqualified from the 2023 Strade Bianche which took place on 4 March, for breach of article 1.3.006 of the UCI regulations due to the wearing of a continuous glucose monitoring sensor throughout the event."
Is the UCI inconsistent with its sanctions?
Faulkner tells me that she finds a number of faults with her punishment and how it was enforced by the UCI.
“The first thing is, there was no verbal communication. They never called me. I offered an interview, I offered to meet them in person, I offered to talk to them on the phone. I gave them my login information to Supersapiens, I gave them videos, I gave them all the evidence. They never followed up with the phone call,” Faulkner says.
Another factor that concerns Faulkner is that the UCI Ethics Committee wasn’t involved in her case. According to the UCI website, the UCI Ethics Commission is “in charge of investigating and adjudicating potential violations of the rules of conduct and providing assistance and recommendations to the UCI on matters related to ethics.” They are there to answer questions regarding if there was intent behind the rider’s actions or if the rider actually had an advantage during the race by breaking a particular rule.
“Unfortunately, the UCI Ethics Commission was never consulted on, or even made aware of, my case. This raises serious concerns about the purpose of having an Ethics Commission at all if it is not invited to participate. Is the committee purely for image and show? Why is the Ethics Commission consulted on some cases but not on others? My case seems like a perfect case to consult the Ethics Commission on because my situation falls favourably to the criteria the Commission aims to protect,” Faulkner says.
The American rider also points out that the letter she received from the UCI notifying her of her disqualification was signed by ‘UCI Legal, Compliance and Integrity.’
“There is no reference to my case being reviewed by the UCI’s Disciplinary Commission, which is ‘the body in charge of imposing sanctions for breaches of the UCI Regulations’,” Faulkner says. “The Disciplinary Commission is the body responsible for reviewing the case, but it appears that has not happened, and it is unclear who was actually involved in reviewing the case.”
Faulkner on the podium at Strade Bianche (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
Finally, Faulkner argues that there have been various examples in the past of inconsistent penalties being applied by the UCI when rules are broken.
It's true that looking back at the UCI's enforcement of particular rules, there have been discrepancies over the years. For example, Marianne Vos was disqualified from the Postnord Vårgårda WestSweden Women's WorldTour race last year for adopting the banned 'puppy paws' position during the race, while
"Without naming specifics, people taking off their helmets, people wearing illegal skin suits, they were not disqualified, even though those impacted the race performance," Faulkner says. "But my case was disqualified, even though there was no impact whatsoever on race performance. I think the way that the UCI penalises riders has also been really inconsistent, not transparent, and inequitable in a lot of ways."
“I implore the UCI to be more transparent, consistent, and equitable in its decisions going forward,” Faulkner says. “I hope that my situation raises awareness about the inconsistent decisions applied by the UCI, and I hope that by speaking out we can create more fair and equitable behaviour going forward. I may not be able to change my Strade Bianche DQ, but I hope we can ensure all riders receive equitable punishments in the future.”
A danger to health?
Aside from the concerns she holds over the punishments and application of sanctions by the UCI, Faulkner argues that the banning of glucose monitors in competition is particularly damaging and dangerous to female health.
“It's much more complicated for women than it is for men because we burn different amounts of fat versus glucose throughout the month, depending on where we are in our [menstrual] cycle. The second thing is that the risks for women of not getting it right are much deeper. If a man doesn't fuel properly, he bonks, but if a woman doesn't fuel properly, she could lose her period. That creates a whole host of hormonal deficiencies,” Faulkner says.
There have been numerous examples in the media of female cyclists beginning to open up about RED-s (relative energy deficiency in sport) and the risks associated with it. Evie Richards, former women's cross-country mountain bike world champion, has spoken about how she changed her fuelling strategies to regain her period, while Kaia Schmid of Human Powered Health has also recently shared her struggle with RED-s and under-fuelling.
“Having personalised nutrition insights is necessary to properly fuel and take care of our bodies. Supersapiens is a brilliant tool, especially for women, that allows us to be proactive and prevent long-term damage to our bodies,” Faulkner argues. “Any governing body that forbids me from staying informed about my food uptake is preventing me from taking care of my body in a natural and healthy way. It pains me that the UCI is sending the message to young girls that understanding our bodies' fuelling needs so that we can better take care of ourselves is not only discouraged; it is forbidden.”
Faulkner in a solo breakaway on her way to finishing third in Strade Bianche 2023 (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
The UCI does allow riders to apply for exemptions to wear glucose monitors, but in someone like Faulkner's case, they would require proof from a medical professional that an athlete suffers from amenorrhea (missed periods.) According to Faulkner, this approach is backwards; it means that riders have to damage their bodies before receiving help, rather than having preventative methods available to them. At the time of writing, the UCI has not approved any exemptions for female cyclists to use glucose monitors in competition to prevent amenorrhea.
When it comes to the glucose data being distracting for riders if they are looking at it during competition, Faulkner strongly refutes the UCI's claim that this adds danger during a race.
“It's much more dangerous when a rider is hungry and not cognitively functioning properly. Your cognitive function declines significantly when you're hypoglycemic,” she says. “At the end of the race, many riders are hypoglycemic. They're hangry and they're riding dangerously because of it. I think that's a much greater risk of crashing than looking at your Garmin.”
“None of their justifications [for banning glucose monitors] are actually that valid. I don't think they put any kind of weight on the health of their riders, especially women's health. To be honest, when they outlawed Supersapiens, there was no reference whatsoever to any studies talking about women's health, despite the fact that there's tons of research articles showing the relationship between glucose and amenorrhea. The UCI has omitted all research, which means that they never even considered women's health when they outlawed it back in 2020.”
As Faulkner’s extensive research into the topic and her strong position on the fact that it is fundamentally detrimental to rider’s health that glucose monitors are banned by the UCI in competition shows, she is not prepared to sit back and accept her Strade Bianche disqualification lightly.
The American rider makes a strong case against whether the processes used by the UCI to decide her punishment were fair and confirms that she will “push back” to ask them to clarify their procedure, ensure that they are aligned on terminology and try to get them to understand how their rule could discriminate against women and their health.
“I'm nervous that I'm going to lose my period again and that's quite concerning from a health standpoint for me, especially when I tried different things for so many years and I finally found something that really helped me,” Faulkner says.
“It's pretty demoralising as a woman to have this organisation of mostly men tell me what I can and cannot use. They haven't cited any sources about women's health, they have no idea what causes amenorrhea, the relationship between glucose and yet, without that information, they still have the authority to govern it.”
Faulkner is also hoping to raise awareness and start a conversation around glucose and women’s health and she explains she is working on campaigns and projects to do this. While her disqualification from Strade Bianche is understandably disappointing for her personally, Faulkner appears determined to use it as a positive force to drive change.
While her main focus remains on being achieving results on the bike, Faulkner seems energised by the new purpose that her experience with the UCI and glucose monitoring devices has given her. Before becoming a professional cyclist, Faulkner worked in venture capital in order to support female entrepreneurs who were creating products that support women.
“If I can have a similar mission and purpose in my life as a pro athlete, that's even more meaningful to me,” Faulkner says. “This has given me a purpose behind my riding that is much greater than a third place at Strade Bianche.”