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RAGBRAI Training: Think Iowa’s Flat? Think Again.



Everyone who isn’t from Iowa tends to have a stereotype of Iowa – that it’s flat as a pancake.  I know I did before I moved here. 

Compared to other hilly or mountainous states, Iowa’s topography is relatively flat, but we don’t ride bikes relatively!  We ride on actual roads that go across, and up and down, the countryside.  Iowa is generally flat terrain, but it’s had 10,000 years of erosion which has carved out a network of streams and river valleys all across the state.  The hills in Iowa are typically places where you are coming up out of these valleys.  The closer you are to the eastern and western borders of the state, nearer the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the more undulating the terrain becomes.  Iowa is fairly level, but it isn’t flat, if that makes sense.

I just read an article on another website that compared the elevation gains of this year’s RAGBRAI with this year’s Denver Post Ride The Rockies.  You can read the article for yourself here, but here’s some of the interesting statistics:

RAGBRAI has a total of 21,206 feet of climbing this year while Ride The Rockies, which goes over several mountain passes, climbs a total of 21,604. And I don’t believe that this RAGBRAI total includes the addition Karras Loop.

The first two days of RAGBRAI each have more climbing than any of the days on Ride The Rockies.

A lot of the climbing on Ride The Rockies comes in just one or two climbs, where on RAGBRAI the climbs are much shorter, but hit you a lot more often. In a way, climbing long mountain passes may be easier.  You know they are coming and psych yourself up for them. As a matter of fact, that’s the reason people go to Colorado to do rides – to challenge themselves in the mountains.  But what a lot of people doing RAGBRAI don’t realize is the amount of climbing they are in for when they sign up for a ride across ‘flat’ Iowa.  Psychologically as well as physically, our short but fairly steep hills can get to you after a long hot day in the saddle. 

Now don’t let this news scare you away.  I’m telling you this well in advance so you have time to adequately prepare.  Because our hills are fairly short, you can get up and over them, but what you will need is stamina to hang in there on those days where it seems like it is just one hill after another.  Some days it is!  The two best things you can do to start preparing is to do a lot of riding to build endurance, and to find hilly roads on which to train.  Some cyclists tend to shy away from hills when they ride because they are, well, hard!  But use your hills to build strength and confidence in your hill climbing ability.  I get quite a few questions from people who live in truly flat places, like Florida, who don’t have hills on how to prepare for hilly Iowa.  I will address ways to train for hills, even if you don’t have any, in future blogs. 

Let’s face it, if Iowa was pancake flat, what fun would that be?  It’s the hills that make it interesting!  So get out there and start riding so you will be able to conquer RAGBRAI, knowing that you really have accomplished something.

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach and owner of Cyclesport Coaching. He coaches individual cyclists, the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and the JDRF Greater Iowa Chapter for the Ride to Cure Diabetes.  He can be contacted at Coach@CyclesportCoaching.com 

15 Responses on “RAGBRAI Training: Think Iowa’s Flat? Think Again.

Steve Bayard

February 20, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Greetings from Florida… Hey we got hills in Florida. They are called High Bridges over the Intercoastal Waterway.. Seriously… Having ridden RAGBRAI the last three years (with Metal Knees) the Iowa hills are quite manageable, as well as fun. Just gear down and keep a steady cadence.. Once over the top it is a lot more fun coasting down a hill than trying to coast down a strong headwind off the Gulf of Mexico.

Coach David Ertl

February 21, 2011 at 7:59 am

Thanks, Steve. Well said. Oh, we have wind here too!

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February 21, 2011 at 8:51 am

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Keith Sams

February 21, 2011 at 9:41 am

My best times are the rated climbs of the Ozarks. My worst are those high rollers of the Ozarks. I won’t underestimate the rollers of Iowa! The good news is that for every uphill there’s often a downhill to catch your breath. No, I’m not too proud to coast!

Dennis Pfleger

February 22, 2011 at 1:17 pm

I think back to 2001 and the hills. The little book said after the state park the ride was a piece of cake. We came around a turn to see roller for miles ahead and a head wind too. Thank God for the water on top of every hill. It was hot really hot too. It was a slower ride than other years and the conversations were great.

BIll Simon

February 25, 2011 at 2:02 pm

A true comparison of Iowa to Colorado terrain might be to “The Bicycle Tour of Colorado” instead of “Ride the Rockies”. BTC has 45,000+ feet of climbing this year… RTR has been getting easier over the years. BTC, not so much

Brendan Sweeney

March 1, 2011 at 11:36 am

Man this loks like so much fun! i dont like going down hills that much tho on a road bike…. but still looks freaking awesome!

Jim Emch

March 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Steve,
Where are you riding across the intercoastal? I am in Brandon Florida and planning on riding this year. I was out riding the Pinellas trail last week near Dunedin.
Any suggestions on training in Florida would be greatly appreciated as well as a recommended bike shop. Just new this year.
Jim

Jackie - Miami Beach

March 1, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Jim Ench –
Welcome to RAGBRAI! We Floridians do quite nicely in Iowa. We truly KNOW what “Heat-Headwinds-Humidity” is about. It’s the “Hills” part that always needs work. (the 4-H’s”)
Living on the Atlantic coast, we have tall bridges over the Intercoastal – Lighthouse POint, Key Biscayne, etc.
Train into the headwinds as much as possible. Try you tougher gears.
The bridge to Cape Coral should be a good one. Check with your local bicycle club.
Just before my last RAGBRAI in 2008, my 14-yr-old son (who rode Iowa) and I spent July 4th weekend training in the hills of Claremont. Mt. Dora is also good for the rollers.
Check out http://www.bikeflorida.org for bike shops, clubs and local rides that may help you train.

Coach David Ertl

March 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Headwinds make good hill training. As Jim above says, select a slightly harder gear and work hard into headwinds. I call headwinds “Iowa Mountains”. Ride for about 5 minutes grinding away into a headwind, then shift to an easier gear and spin faster for a while. Not a whole lot of fun, but riding into headwinds will make you stronger, which will translate over to hill riding.

Paul E. Miami/Key Biscayne FL

March 11, 2011 at 9:27 am

I agree with Jackie!!! if yoy train on Key Biscayne you have the head wind, the 2 bridges and the sun. You also can find manny groups to ride with to train. Big gears will help you with strength. The humidity and heat of the sun is just part of the norm!!!

Keith Sams

July 3, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Interesting comparison. My Garmin listd 11,001 feet of total climbing in Bike Across Kansas. Iowa is touting 22,000 feet of climbing. Kansas was pretty flat with a few rollers once we got into the Flint Hills. I’m thinking Iowa is managable.

calories to lose weight

July 27, 2011 at 1:14 am

I just desire to say thanks, i havent posted on your blog but i have been an avid reader for quite some time now.

chuck b

October 30, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Florida hills: Don’t they have quite a few hills in Polk County and thereabouts? Seems like I recall seeing them whenever I drive the Turnpike. Maybe also northward towards Gainesville.

Elnora Spinetti

May 5, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Really you have write which everybody feel in deep but can’t write. Really thanks…

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