Audrey Cordon- Ragot is Breton through and through, and became the French national champion last summer at the 12th time of trying. Trek- Segafredo’s road captain talks to Procycling about mastering the art of race tactics and why it’s okay to get angry s
Brittany has always been a place apart in France. It’s not just the culture and language that differentiate it, nor the visual iconography of the stark black and white of the Gwenn-ha-du flag against the bright primary colours of the French Tricolour. It feels different. The rural plains of northern France and much of the south are bright, fertile, airy places; Brittany is granite barely coated with acidic soil, a region of standing stones, of wind and rain blowing in from the Atlantic, of green landscape and grey sky, of implacable locals and legends.
It’s not mountain country, though it feels like it. The highest point is only 385m above sea level. But the topography is particular. Millions of years of compression, folding and extrusion have given Brittany a series of ridges of granite and slate running east to west: there is no way to tackle this other than head on. Bretons are, by stereotype, obdurate. Maybe it’s less an ingrained trait than just a realistic way of doing something as simple as getting from A to B.
Audrey Cordon-Ragot, French national champion and road captain of the Trek-Segafredo team, is Bretonne born, bred and based. She’s raced all over the world, and has the cosmopolitan adaptability of the international athlete. But Brittany is the beating heart of French cycling, and Cordon-Ragot is the beating heart of Trek-Segafredo.
“I always compare Brittany to Belgium,” she says. “It’s a cross between the Ardennes and Flanders. It’s never flat. We call this ‘mal plat’ - bad flat - and it means you can never rest, and you are always pushing. But it’s the land of cycling, and it’s full of good spirits. We have a strong regional culture, and I could also compare it with Yorkshire. We have a really strong identity and I really like it. I know sometimes the weather is a bit difficult, but it’s still really nice to train and people like cycling in Brittany so training is safer than other countries or
even other places in France. It’s my home, and it’s going to stay my home forever.”
She adds: “If I was born in the south of France I wouldn’t have the same spirit and the same angriness I have on the bike.”
Brittany, then, is both France and not France. You could say something similar about Cordon-Ragot’s own status as a professional cyclist. She is neither leader nor domestique. She’s a winner; not a prolific one, but neither do her wins come once in a blue moon, with 15 in total. She’s been strong enough to finish in the top 16 at Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and LiègeBastogne-Liège, and is a fourtimes national time trial champion and the reigning national road race champion. She’s also a strong team rider. These alone make her an important rider in her team, but it’s her tactical sense and her character which have elevated her into the road captain’s role.
“No leader wins without a team, now, without a good captain and good gregarios,” she says. “I think I’m one of them. It’s a nice position because there’s not too much stress and pressure, but at the same time there’s enough pressure just to do well and doing the best for the team.”
Though Cordon-Ragot describes herself as a naturally angry person, of which more later, her modus operandi in terms of race management is to maintain a neutral atmosphere, keeping the leaders calm and making sure the team riders are doing their job.
“It’s important to be really lucid and make good decisions at the right moment, and to do it quick because a race can change in one second,” Cordon-Ragot says. “Advise the leaders in the best way and make them feel confidence, and make them have no doubts about what they have to do to win the race. It’s a really important position.”
Cordon-Ragot cites her teammate Trixi Worrack, also a road captain, but who also doubles as a very prolific winner and leader, as her inspiration and teacher. Being a road captain is a role that needs to be learned, even if there are certain people who are predisposed to it in terms of character. “I think I have it inside,” Cordon-Ragot says. “I’m a charismatic person, and also in life. I know what I want, and I don’t like to be in the shadows, so somehow I’m someone who likes to do this job. But of course I’ve had to learn how to do it as well. You never stop learning.”
There’s a certain kind of person who thrives in bike racing - somebody who can give as good as they get. Cordon-Ragot describes her manifestation of this as ‘anger’, though this is not to say that she has any trouble managing it, nor that she sees it as a negative thing. It’s more nuanced than that - the way she describes it makes it sound more like passion for justice, rather than just moving
around the peloton being pissed off at people.
“I can be really angry,” she says. “I always want to try to make things fair, and I hate it when unfair things happen. For example, I hate people throwing litter in the race. I shout at them and get angry, and I hate it when people don’t respect the rules.”
Angry might be construed as a negative thing, but angry also gets things done. Cordon-Ragot made the news at the start of the year when the Association Française des Coureures Cyclistes, of which she is co-vice-president, managed to successfully lobby for female elite cyclists in France to have professional licences, which staggeringly they couldn’t before 2021. Though it’s only a word on a licence, it’s also a status which means being able to apply for a mortgage and be recognised as a professional athlete. If CordonRagot had been less angry at the injustice, French female pros still might not be recognised as such by their own federation.
When Procycling asks whether Cordon-Ragot’s talent in bike racing is physical or tactical, she initially says it is a 50-50 split. As a multiple national time trial champion she is obviously physically gifted, and she admits herself that in a time trial, if a rider is the best, they will probably win. But she relents, and says her tactical sense is more important. “You have to have strength to be at this level, but I’m not the best. One of my good points is tactics - I am able to read races quite well. Most of the time this is the reason I won races, more than the physical part. It’s almost 50-50 between the two. No, 70-30.”
“You have to have strength to be at this level, but I’m not the best. One of my good points is tactics - I am able to read races quite well”
Cordon-Ragot’s development as a cyclist and road captain - tactical and physical - as well as her ability to take and give criticism, were honed early on. Her father, a keen and successful local cyclist, was her instructor.
“I started to learn tactics really young because my dad was a really fine tactician,” she says. “He was not super good physically, but he was so good at reading the races and he knew how to act to win. He was what we call a ‘fox’ in French - really intelligent and clever and I think I learned a lot from him because I remember having a debrief of every race I did in the car back home. I got sh*t even when I was winning, for doing something wrong or stupid. He taught me a lot and I started to learn what was the best thing to do, especially from mistakes.”
She thrived under Damien Pommereau, a coach with a similar modus operandi at her first elite team, Vienne-Futuroscope.
“Daniel was a really rude and honest guy,” she laughs. “He didn’t say things to please you, he just made you suffer on the bike, training really hard and being really honest when he had to be, when you were doing sh*t, and that helped me a lot. I was crying a lot, but I also learned a lot from him. Cycling is a hard sport and that team taught me to be a cyclist.”
Cordon-Ragot is in her 14th season as an elite cyclist/professional. She spent six years with the
Vienne Futuroscope team, who had a France-centric programme but also took part in most of the World Cup and important international races. It was a tiring life, and she covered a lot of races since many of her team-mates also had jobs in the real world.
“I really enjoyed it, but I was so tired,” she says. “I finished my first year and I was completely f**ked. But this is the way I learned how to be a cyclist and how hard it is; how many sacrifices you have to make. It was hard but it’s also part of the person I am now.”
With Vienne, Cordon-Ragot won her home race, the Tour de Bretagne, and Cholet-Pays de Loire. Things were going well, and she was prepared to sign for a seventh year, but she got the feeling that something was missing. She wanted more - more racing, to make more sacrifices, and to live more the life of a professional. She felt that she wanted this more than some of her Vienne team-mates, who were happy to be racing and enjoying it, without moving up to the next level. At the GP Plouay in late August in 2013, which is to say moderately late in the day to be sorting out a contract for the following season, she contacted the Hitec team, which was led by Chloe Hosking and Elisa Longo Borghini, about riding for them.
The good news was that they could find her a spot. The bad was that the budget was already spent, so the best the manager could do was offer her races and a bike on
“I started to learn tactics really young because my dad was a really fine tactician. He was not super good physically, but he was so good at reading the races”
which to do them. It turned out to be one of her best seasons, and she rode a very competitive and wideranging programme, fitted in well, and achieved some good results of her own - second in Brittany, fourth in the Route de France, first in the GP Plumelec-Morbihan, 10th on a Giro stage… It’s also where she met Longo Borghini and formed a close working relationship and friendship. They roomed together at the first Hitec training camp without much in the way of common language, and they’ve moved through the sport together since - through Wiggle-High5 in 2015 and then Trek-Segafredo since 2019.
“Wiggle was a family - the riders were more than friends, and that’s what I like in women’s cycling,” she says. “The men’s teams are sometimes 30 riders, but we are 10 or 15 riders and with that nice atmosphere you get the best of yourself.” With Trek-Segafredo, Cordon-Ragot has found another family, and in 2020 she achieved one of her lifetime ambitions when she won the French National road race Championships. On a physical level, four national time trial titles were an equal achievement, but Cordon-Ragot points out that there are so few time trials on the women’s calendar that she rarely got an opportunity to wear the national champion’s jersey. This year, she’s been one of the most visible riders in every race she’s ridden, with her tricolour jersey. She took the start line every season from 2009 onwards, and often got a good result, but couldn’t win. She’d been seven times in the top 10, four of those times in the top five in her previous 11 attempts.
“It was a real love-hate story at that race,” she says. “I always had the goal to win, to get the national jersey for one year on my shoulders. Something always happened. I made many mistakes. But last year I learned from all my mistakes and I finally made it. I will remember it my whole life. There are two French boys on the Trek team and whenever they see me, they say, ‘Ah, that’s the nicest jersey in the bunch.’”
In the end, that’s Audrey Cordon-Ragot. Both leader and domestique. Both winner and team rider. Both Bretonne and French. With her, you can’t have one without the other.