Whoever is writing the tale of Audrey Cordon-Ragot’s life must be a fan of pathetic fallacy. When she pops up on my screen for our video call, the Frenchwoman says she’s tired after spending yet another day cycling in the rain in a grey and wintery Brittany. “I got back from Spain three weeks ago, and everyday since then I’ve been training in the rain,” she says.
The dark storm clouds that have been following Cordon-Ragot as she tries to prepare for the season ahead are an apt representation of her last few months. It’s almost unfathomable to think that after one of the best years of her career – which saw her win the French national title in both the road race and individual time trial and the Postnord Vårgårda WestSweden Women’s WorldTour race – the 33-year-old has spent the off-season in a state of uncertainty about her future.
If you haven’t heard about the drama surrounding Team B&B Hotels, you’ve done well to not spend too much time on social media and avoid most of the cycling media press. It’s a complicated saga and one that Cordon-Ragot describes as “a roller coaster of emotions”. The Frenchwoman went from being an integral part of trying to bring the Team B&B Hotels women’s team to fruition, to being let down by bad communication and poor management (like all of the male and female riders involved in the project were) and was left scrambling to find a new contract in December when it was announced the team was folding.
“The hardest thing for me was not my situation, because I knew in the end, I would find something because I'm lucky, I am the national champion and I think it helps a lot. The hardest part was to see my teammates and the staff that I was bringing with me to this team lose their jobs. This is the most annoying thing for me and at the moment I do feel really guilty. Before that will go away, I need some time but even I think at the end of the story I will always feel guilty about this.”
Cordon-Ragot explains that her husband, who has worked as a mechanic for B&B Hotels for the last four years, also forms an integral part of her story with the now defunct team. “We were at home just talking about this everyday, all the time,” she says. “I saw that my husband wasn’t sleeping during the entire night and he still doesn't have a job at the moment. It's still a bit hard right now. But it's another roller coaster that I need to survive.”
Cordon-Ragot at the start of the Tour de France Femmes 2022 (Image: Getty)
The demise of her hopes and dreams with B&B Hotels is not the first bump in the road that Cordon-Ragot has had to face in a tumultuous second half of 2022. Just before the World Championships in September, the French champion suffered a small stroke, forcing her to forfeit her place in the race and causing some crucial concerns over her cardiac health.
“I’ve had a heart problem since I was born, so it was really unlucky that I had the stroke, because it could have happened any of the days or never. I could have developed this stroke because of tiredness, lack of hydration, it can be a lot of things. The doctors asked me, are you more tired than normal? I'm like, I'm always tired, this is my always, so I cannot really say. The day before, I was probably in the best shape of my life and ready for Worlds, so focused, I was training hard. I was ready and my body was ready. I was not feeling more tired than I normally am. It's really complicated to explain,” Cordon-Ragot says.
She tells me that after undergoing an operation to close the hole in her heart that was identified after MRI scans, she was given the all clear to return to cycling. Since then, she’s aimed to have a normal winter’s training, but explains that she hasn’t been able to do cyclo-cross or mountain bike races like she normally would in the off-season due to being on blood thinning medications. With the higher risk of crashing in a race scenario, she was advised not to partake from her doctors.
“They said at the beginning, you might think about [the stroke], and maybe it's going to block mentally you a little bit,” Cordon-Ragot says. “But I have to say, I don't even think about it anymore, that’s my character.”
“I had a bit of a delay to start my training because I stopped everything for two months when it happened, I really did nothing. I lost a lot of muscles. I gained fat so my body composition changed a little bit and I had to rebuild. I still think I'm going to come back stronger, though. It's been a bit more of a step by step program at the moment. I really listen to myself first. If I feel like there is a training I cannot do, I don't do it. While before I was more like: I'll do it even if I'm exhausted, now I don't do that because I know I still need to recover from what happened.”
Cordon-Ragot in La Fleche Wallonne Femmes 2021 (Image: A.S.O./Gautier Demouveaux)
Cordon-Ragot appears keen to move on from the drama surrounding the last few months, and starts to talk about her new team for 2023, the Spanish squad Zaaf Cycling Team. The French rider explains that it was largely down to her agent that she secured a contract with this team so late in the year when it was finally announced that B&B Hotels was not continuing.
“I'm very lucky that I think I have the best agent in the world. She was the one keeping in touch with some other teams because she felt like something was wrong with B&B. I kept on saying no, it's going to be fine. She was saying okay Audrey, we’ll do what you want, but I want you to have a backup in case,” Cordon-Ragot explains.
While she says that there was potential for her to re-sign with her old team, Trek-Segafredo, due to the departure of Leah Thomas opening up a new space in their roster for 2023, Cordon-Ragot says that what she was offered at Zaaf Cycling Team was a more attractive proposition.
“This is a great opportunity because this is kind of the same project I was working on with B&B, it’s a new team where I can really have my chance to be a leader and have my own results. The only thing was I really wanted to be on B&B because it was a French team and I knew those people so I was really so involved in that project,” Cordon-Ragot explains.
“I was in conversation with the team manager [of Zaaf Cycling Team] and he was saying that he had other girls who were contacting him to get a spot there, who he needed to give an answer to. In the end, I told him I would not be joining the team. The day after, I knew that B&B was to end and the first thing I did when I cut the phone with the person who was telling me B&B was over was call Zaaf and say: can you just take me, I want to come. They said they would call me back in an hour and then did, and they said okay, you can come. I can never thank the team manager enough for waiting for me and keeping the trust that they have for me, it is pretty special.”
One of the main reasons that Cordon-Ragot wanted to sign with a smaller team, rather than return to a team like Trek-Segafredo, is to have more opportunities in a leadership role for the last two years of her career (she will retire in 2024.) The Frenchwoman explains that she feels like everytime she had an opportunity to race for herself last year, she excelled, and believes that if she has more freedom in the upcoming seasons, she can dramatically improve her results.
“The most important thing for me was to get back a leader's spot, which was not possible in Trek with the roster we had, the girls were just the best in the world, it's difficult for me to really fit but as soon as I had my opportunity, I could have results myself. I was thinking, if I have my opportunity more often, then I can get better results all year. That's the reason why I signed to Zaaf,” she says.
Image: A.S.O./Gautier Demouveaux
The 33-year-old is under no illusions that stepping down from a WorldTour squad to a UCI Continental level team won’t be without its difficulties. One of the main hindering factors to her progression could be securing entry into WorldTour races such as the Tour de France Femmes and Paris-Roubaix, two of Cordon-Ragot’s big goals for her final two seasons in the peloton.
“I was a bit worried because if I was in a French team it would have been much easier talking about the Tour and all the ASO races. But I need to deal with that. I'm a bit stressed about the calendar but we have already got some invitations to some big races,” she says. “Also, if I have fewer races than the past years it is good, because I was racing a lot before. Sometimes it's hard to have really big goals when you have to race everything.”
Having an inexperienced team around her could also mean that Cordon-Ragot is outnumbered or isolated by bigger squads when it comes to crucial points in races. When I mention this, the French rider doesn’t seem worried, though. “I'm not so lost when I'm alone. I know how to ride my race,” she says with a smile.
In fact, despite all of the trials and tribulations she has faced over the past few months, Cordon-Ragot oozes confidence and calm. It’s an impressive testament to her character that she is still so motivated to perform despite the setbacks. “I'm not even questioning myself in the morning if I should train or not, I just go. I think it's been a big motivation for me to just prove to some people that I'm not finished and, most of all, that honesty is the power of humanity. I'm going to prove to them that this is the most important thing you should have in your life, honesty. That comes from results and showing that I'm the best of myself on the bike, so training is the first thing I need to do,” she says.
Image: A.S.O./Fabien Boukla
Retiring after the Paris Olympics in 2024 is Cordon-Ragot’s ideal end to her career, and before that she wants to win Paris-Roubaix and defend her French national title. Once she hangs up her race wheels, Cordon-Ragot doesn’t plan to leave the sport, either. Her ambitions in retirement from professional cycling are perhaps as big and important as those she has while she is still racing.
“In 2024, I think it is my time to go to the other side of the fence and work for more equal cycling between men and women. That's something that I really want to do. Being a rider, it's not easy to be involved in this kind of battle, you need to be a bit more conservative. I think being on the other side of the fence will help to just stand up and do things,” she says.
“I want to give all the talented female riders in France an opportunity to be the best of themselves. That’s giving them salaries, conditions, all those things that some countries already have had for ages. That's the reason why they are better than us. We are not worse than the other ones. We just don't have the same conditions. And that's something I want to change in France.”
Cordon-Ragot’s passion for improving the sport and working conditions for female cyclists is part of the reason why the deceit and betrayal she experienced with the management of the B&B Hotels was, as she describes it, heartbreaking. Through it all, though, the Frenchwoman has emerged more motivated than ever to perform, and she says she has taken some important learnings from the experience.
“I think I’ll never really forgive what happened because it's been really hard for my family to go through it,” she says of her time negotiating with B&B Hotels. “But I just think I’ll take it as a lesson. I always wanted to be a manager after my career. And now I know even better how a manager should act.”