Audrey Cordon-Ragot rode her new team bike for the first time on Monday. Three days later, she was smashing over the slippery cobbles of Paris-Roubaix in a course recon with Human Powered Health. There have been no team bonding meetings, no time to get acquainted with new equipment, and no time to even reflect on the “roller coaster” last month she’s had. It might be nicknamed the Hell of the North, but Roubaix is representing a sort of final, heavenly peace for Cordon-Ragot.
The 33-year-old started the season with new team, Zaaf Cycling Team, after originally being due to move to the now-defunct B&B Hotels squad. Although things looked, outwardly, to be going smoothly with Zaaf as Cordon-Ragot opened the season strongly, it was recently revealed that the team's riders had not been paid salaries or expenses for the past three months.
Understandably, Cordon-Ragot decided to leave the team, explaining that it was not “possible financially” for her to wait to be paid until the 1st of June (when she would be free to look for another team within the UCI rules about when the transfer window opens.)
In a press conference on Friday before Paris-Roubaix, Cordon-Ragot revealed that the UCI had made an exception to their rule about the transfer window for the French Naitonal Champion’s situation, meaning that she was allowed to sign for American squad Human Powered Health, just in time for the biggest one-day race in France on Sunday.
Audrey Cordon-Ragot during the 2023 Women's UAE Tour (Image: Getty)
“It was not fair to let us sit on the couch while the team was still racing and also not being paid. To wait until the first of June means like six months without salaries. That was definitely not possible financially for me and for the other girls. They realised that their rule was not adapted to the situation we were in,” Cordon-Ragot said.
“My biggest wish was to come back in a WorldTour team because I found out that being in a Continental team is not the best. I think a lot of work still needs to be done at that level,” she explained.”I just want to be at peace right now. I just want to be in a stable situation.”
Despite having offers from several teams, Cordon-Ragot says that she was drawn to Human Powered Health after being on an American team for much of her career (Trek-Segafredo) and because of the way that they “are organised and respect the riders.” Her new team has taken no time in putting Cordon-Ragot to work, adding her to their Roubaix roster straight away so that the home favourite has the chance to try and win in the Hell of the North.
“For Roubaix tomorrow, what pressure should I feel?” Cordon-Ragot said. “I got my bike on Monday and rode it for the first time on Monday. I know the team is waiting for me to get a result but I also know they are aware of the situation and how hard and crazy it has been the last few days.”
“Tomorrow I will be ready physically, but most of all, mentally. I want to push the pedals and I just want to show the world that you need to always fight for your dreams. Roubaix is exactly the race when you always have to keep fighting. You can crash so many times and puncture so many times and still win the race, this has basically been my life for one month.”
Despite Cordon-Ragot’s admirably positive mindset, Human Powered Health will start as the underdogs in Paris-Roubaix against the likes of Trek-Segafredo and Team SD Worx. With the 33-year-old’s less than perfect preparation and a team around her that lacks any hugely well-established star riders, is it really plausible that she can target the win? Cordon-Ragot argues it is.
“I believe we have the same team as the biggest team because I’ve seen my teammates riding on the cobbles and I see how powerful they are.” Cordon-Ragot said. “I see the two trackies pushing so hard on the cobbles and when I'm behind them, I can almost ride with my eyes closed. I was looking for a team that couldn’t just work for me, but also could win the race themselves.”
Audrey Cordon-Ragot riding for Trek-Segafredo during the first edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes (Image: Getty)
Cordon-Ragot points to the last two editions of Paris-Roubaix Femmes as an indicator of how unpredictable the race is and how it isn’t always beneficial to have one sole leader in a team.
“The last two years with Trek, the two riders who won the race [Lizzie Deignan and Elisa Longo-Borghini] were the two riders who were not supposed to win this race, they were supposed to help their leaders but they ended up winning,” she said. ”I really believe that having good teammates is not enough, you need to have teammates who are able to win the race and I believe almost all of mine can win this race. This is also putting me in a really good situation.
“That's also the reason why I'm so relaxed because I know we can really win. I know we have good material, we've been checking everything. We've been here for one week, we have good mechanics who will be working really hard. The last recon this morning was really good. Everyone is super fit and ready. There is no reason that we cannot beat those big teams.”
Despite her trust in her team’s abilities, Cordon-Ragot is under no illusion that Paris-Roubaix will be an easy race. She explains that she believes her experience in the peloton will give her the upper hand and that the savage cobbles of Northern France will be the true deciding factor of who will come out on top, regardless of the preparation that has come before.
“I’ve been on the cobbles this morning and tomorrow is going to be a battle. The girls who rode in the rain two years ago are going to be the ones that know what to expect. The new riders who think they can ride the cobbles the same as Flanders are completely wrong and I’m excited to see who is going to be on top,” she explained.
“You need experience on the cobbles before thinking you can tackle them and win the race. It’s going to be a fight but I’m sure after the first sector it’s going to be clear about who is the pretender for the win.”
Paris-Roubaix is known to be a race which requires determination, tenacity and fighting spirit from its winners, and the last few months have shown that Cordon-Ragot has these qualities in abundance.
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix