‘I didn’t want to fall in my tomb, I had to be strong’: Audrey Cordon-Ragot puts horror year behind her to focus on Olympics

Having bounced back from a stroke, and team transfer misery, the Frenchwoman has her eyes on the road race in Paris

Audrey Cordon Ragot headshot
(Image credit: Getty Images)

‘Bad luck comes in threes’, so the saying goes, and if true, France’s Audrey Cordon-Ragot is due a luckier spell. Following a winter spent first recovering from a stroke, searching for a new contract after the collapse of B&B Hotels-KTM, and then removing herself from Zaaf Cycling Team after the management’s failure to pay wages or expenses , it’s little wonder the 34-year-old is ready for a turn in fortune.

The season ahead being an Olympic year in her home country, the two-time National champion will be fighting for a place at the start line in Paris, but she’s already overcome some monumental hurdles to get this far. 

“I was already down, but I didn’t want to go deeper and just fall in my tomb. I had to be strong”, Cordon-Ragot says reflecting on the year that was 2023. It was the dream of competing at a home Olympics, she says, which motivated her to fight. 

“I would say, ‘Okay Audrey, you are not ready to stop. You want to do the Olympics in Paris, so you have to race this season. So just go on, go on, go on!’” the 34-year-old tells Cycling Weekly, ahead of a season that she anticipates may be her last, with a desire to start a family leaving question marks - for her - over future seasons. 

Cordon-Ragot’s bounce back to fitness was no mean feat, the French rider overcame a two-month enforced break to take a European title in the mixed team relay and second at the World Championships within the French team for the same event. Now, she has her eyes on a home Olympics in Paris.

A bounce back year

For Human-Powered Health rider Cordon-Ragot, the dawn of 2023 saw her still on the comeback trail, following heart surgery to correct an abnormality found after she suffered a stroke in the lead up to the 2022 Road World Championships.  

Her first ‘race’ had been a 100km cyclesportive in Martinique, French West Indies, in November; the six-time National time trial champion finished well behind the rest of the pack, but it was enough. 

“It was terrible,” she remembers, “I crossed the finish line completely alone and when I saw the face of my husband, who was waiting for me, I cried so much. Physically I was completely dead. I had nothing in my legs, and had lost a lot of muscle. But I said to myself, ‘F**k, Audrey you are back! It was super hard today, but you are back.’” 

What followed was not the return to glory Cordon-Ragot may have hoped for. First, her team B&B Hotels-KTM collapsed, then her new team, Zaaf Cycling Team, crumbled into obscurity.

Audrey Cordon Ragot in Zaaf team kit

Cordon-Ragot riding for Zaaf Cycling Team at the UAE Tour 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Frenchwoman’s life became a constant dogged loop of training rides followed by rounds of phone calls to various people for assistance and trying to, in her words, "find a way out of this sh*t. I was like a machine just going and not thinking much. And then I found Human Powered Health, which saved my ass.”

It would be easy for a rider to feel they’d been dealt bad luck, but Cordon-Ragot has remained both philosophical about her situation, and steadfast in her focus, keeping her eyes on the prize: the de Coubertin dream.

“I never thought about leaving – I always said ‘there is always worse in life’. It’s just cycling. I love cycling and nobody will decide when I stop – so that was my guidance for all those months, and I would say, ‘Okay Audrey, you are not ready to stop. You want to do the Olympics in Paris, so you have to race this season. So just go on, go on, go on!’ Even when I had no team and I didn’t know when I would start racing again, I was training like normal.”

Support from her husband, friends and the French federation was instrumental in maintaining her morale, “I also wanted to continue for them. I was already down, but I didn’t want to go deeper and just fall in my tomb. I had to be strong.

“The thing I always tell myself is not to pull out. It’s easy to say, not easy to do. It’s a hard sport, a hard job. And you need to be able to get over all the bad moments because then when you live a good moment; it’s just like everything bad disappears. And that’s the good thing about sport.”

Whilst Zaaf Cycling Team’s demise was a difficult pill to swallow, dynamics among the riders there helped to make the situation - whereby riders were not paid salaries or expenses - bearable.

“We had a sh*t camp and we were not paid, but the atmosphere between the girls was just about pushing ourselves to have good results. And we did. We had good results, so it was quite amazing.”

Cordon-Ragot was the first team member to resign from Zaaf Cycling Team, followed by others over the subsequent few weeks, and by default there then ensued a race to find a team in time for Paris-Roubaix, despite being outside of the transfer window. In the end the UCI, the French Federation, the Cyclists Alliance, and Human Powered Health all did their turns in the chain gang to achieve an outcome.

Audrey Cordon Ragot at team presentation ahead of Paris Roubaix

Audrey Cordon-Ragot at team presentation, representing Human Powered Health, ahead of Paris-Roubaix

(Image credit: Getty Images)

“I had to fight for a lot of things and I was so lucky I could find Human Powered Health, and they could help me. They were really pushing for me to race before the 1st June, which normally isn’t allowed. Then like a magician I was at the start of Roubaix, and I can tell you one week before it was not expected at all!

“I was the only one to go to Human Powered Health, but we are still in contact, texting each other. When we see each other at the races it’s always special, knowing the story we had together. I remember seeing them in Roubaix before the start, and we just hugged each other and cried a lot; it was very special.”

 Sights on the Olympics 

Cordon-Ragot did not make it to the Toyko Olympics, in 2021, with France only able to put forward one female riders. For 2024, the home nation will be able to field three athletes, and Cordon-Ragot is hopeful.  

“It’s a special season for me with the Olympics. So this winter is super important to fix everything and be ready to fight for a spot,” she asserts with confidence. 

“With the French Federation we visited the course. The route will go into the suburbs which have short sharp hills like what I am used to. The climb up through Montmartre will be tough, like in a Classics race – a steep cobbled climb like you see in Belgium. If there is one race that I want to do next year it will be the Olympic road race.”

Audrey Cordon Ragot tattoo

Cordon-Ragot's passion is stamped on her skin

(Image credit: Getty Images)

As for the pressure of having the weight of the nation’s expectations on her, Cordon-Ragot takes it in her stride.

“We are getting a lot of attention from the media and that leads to pressure, but that’s pretty normal,” she says. The big challenge will be dealing with that pressure come summer, but Cordon-Ragot will be channelling her experiences over the course of 2022 and 2023 into keeping a cool head, “I have been through so much recently, and the whole time I kept my focus on trying to get to the Olympics. So I just need to keep telling myself that on D-Day. Wherever I finish I want to cross the finish line with a big smile on my face,” she says.

This could be the Frenchwoman’s final year as a professional racer. “I will be 35 next year and I want children and I don’t want to lose the opportunity to have my family. To me it’s very important that I stop [racing] before it’s too late.”

Of course, in recent years, several women in the peloton have had children, and returned to race. But Cordon-Ragot’s own vision is different. “I’m a big fan of Lizzie [Deignan] and how she can deal with two kids and go so well on the bike still. But I don’t think I’m able to do that, to be honest.

"For the moment in my head it is quite clear that I want to stop cycling in the interests of my family and to have a more normal life. For now, I want to focus on what is coming up in 2024 first and then we’ll see.”

Before she hangs up her wheels, Cordon-Ragot would like to finish her season on a high. “It’s important for me to do the best I can so that I finish my season with no regrets,” she says. If the last year is anything to go by, then there can be no question over her willpower, fighting spirit, or ability to come back strong.

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