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Audrey Cordon-Ragot has been through more than most in the eight months, but she says the experience has made her a stronger person.
The French champion suffered a stroke last September, just days after finishing second overall at the Simac Ladies Tour, as she prepared for the world championships a few weeks later. Doctors would initially tell her that she might not be able to race again.
That would have been more than enough to test any person, but there was more for Cordon-Ragot as her proposed move to the new B&B Hotels women’s team hit the rocks as promises of big-money sponsors failed to materialize.
Just when it looked like she was through the challenges, her new team Zaaf was not paying its riders their salaries and she would be forced to leave and search for a new team. She’s now on more stable ground with a contract for Human Powered Health, but the turbulent months have left their mark.
“I feel much stronger mentally. Before I would pull out easily, but I would never do it again. I think I would die on the bike before pulling out, to be honest,” Cordon-Ragot told VeloNews before her move to Human Powered Health was confirmed. “I also see things differently. Before, I was someone who would fight for little things, and now maybe I see the big picture of the situation and try to find solutions before fighting.
“I would also take more decisions for myself and not to please people. Before, I was always thinking, ‘but if I do this, or if I say this it is going to hurt this person or is going to put this person in a bad situation.’ Now I will first think okay, ‘what is the best for me and which situation I should be in,’ and then I take the decision and not the opposite way. That’s something that my husband was always pushing for. He was always saying, you are too nice, you do too much for others, and you should think about yourself.”
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The last few months have been a lesson in stubbornness and patience for Cordon-Ragot. It would take weeks before she could start riding again following her stroke, and even longer before she could truly start pushing herself on the bike.
The subsequent demise of the B&B Hotels project put her career on a knife edge again as she was trying to build back her form but throughout it all she never questioned her place in the peloton. She was determined to race again.
“I think this was the first question I asked when I knew I had a stroke. Straightaway, I said, ‘but can I be a cyclist?’ And I had a doctor who was telling me it’s finished, you’re never going to come back. I was like, ‘no, it’s impossible, I’m going to do it.’ Then I saw a sports doctor who told me they saw many people having the same problem and coming back, it’s just a question of motivation and how you want to do it. If your head is telling you yes then the body will follow, and that’s what happened. In my head, the goal was to come back and I never doubted it.”
One silver lining for Cordon-Ragot amidst all of the strife has been the response that she has got from others in the peloton. Previously, she had been focused on racing and had not considered how she was seen by her peers.
The outpouring of sympathy and support she’s had in recent months showed her that she was well-loved by the rest of the peloton.
“It’s been quite incredible. I also think that’s been my source of motivation is to have so many people reacting to what happened to me, being there and asking how I was, and also after B&B seeing so many teams being interested in me and trying to save my season,” Cordon-Ragot said. “And again, now I still received some calls asking me but how are you and what do you need? To be honest, I’m so surprised. It’s made me realize the place I took in women’s cycling, and in cycling in general. I also realized that I’ve been probably seen as a good rider and as a good person. If not, people would not come to me like this. This is also really nice to hear and to feel.”
Leaving by the big door
Despite the ups and downs of recent months, Cordon-Ragot has enjoyed some of the best results she’s had during her career. She scored a podium place in her first race of the year in Almeria and went on to take another at Omloop van Het Hageland a month later.
A further fourth place at Le Samyn des Dames and a close call for a stage win at the Tour de Normandie showed that the extra gym work she did as she recovered from her stroke was paying dividends.
“I was not expecting that at all, because of everything that happened I didn’t get the winter I wanted to be honest. I was just trying to come back really slowly,” she said. “I started really late and I didn’t want to push myself too much before being sure that my body was reacting well, and so I was going like slowly and I did less kilometers than the past years where I was doing a lot of training camps with Trek where we were working a lot.
“Of course, motivation has always been there, but my body was not always following my motivation, so I had to deal with that. I also worked differently because, before I was not doing so many hours in the gym, and then I did a lot more than in past years. When I see how I’m sprinting now, I think it worked out pretty well. I surprised myself, to be honest, and I also uncovered another Audrey, psychologically. I was never aware that I had this strong character to go ahead of all this shit happening.”
Aside from not wanting to stop her career because of factors beyond her control, one of the driving forces behind Cordon-Ragot’s desire to return was the goal of riding a home Olympic Games. She has twice competed at the Olympics before but missed the selection for the last edition in Tokyo and she wants one more go in Paris in 2024 before focusing on trying to grow women’s cycling.
“That’s why I wanted to continue for three more years after Tokyo. What a better end of career than finishing there in Paris. This is really my dream, and the national team is really supporting this project,” she said. “When you know that people are counting on you, you cannot pull out you have to continue. Then, I want to stop and just make women’s cycling better because this is not the case yet. There are too many people who are just not good for women’s cycling, and this needs to change.”
Despite the challenges she’s faced over the last eight months, Cordon-Ragot is determined to go out with a bang next year.
“I just want to go out with satisfaction and be full with what I had to do in my in my career and just not having any regrets,” she said. “Sometimes I see girls who are doing a season too much, and I don’t want to be this kind of girl. I want to leave by the big door and not leave by the small door.”