The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa


RAGBRAI Training: Is Iowa Hilly? Hill Yes!

by Coach David Ertl

Iowa is flat. Believe that and I’ll tell you its cold in Iowa in July too. Sometimes people are surprised how un-flat Iowa is. Yes, there are parts of Iowa that are pan flat, but most of the state has some rolling hills and valleys, and the east and west parts of the state, near the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are downright hilly. Yeah, we aren’t Colorado, but people don’t expect us to be either. But we have more hills than a lot of people expect too. These can wear on you when it is late in the day when the hot sun is beating down, you are tired and want to be done and you are fighting a headwind. This year’s course has a total of 12,576 feet of climbing which is elevation of Mt Rainier. So it’s a good idea to incorporate some hill training in your preparation for RAGBRAI.

Here’s an example of Day 5 this year. As you can see, there’s hardly any level parts to this day of riding. No huge hills but a lot of small ones that can add up. And some of these are pretty steep. This day has a total of 2719 feet of climbing which is quite a bit. More than a half a mile of straight up.

One of the most common questions I get is “How can I train for hills if I live in a place that doesn’t have them”. So I’ll give some answers to this as well as for those of you blessed to live in a place with hills.
First, for those of you who have hills to train on:

If you have hills to train on, then it’s quite easy to train for hills. Just make sure you get out and ride up and down those hills as part of your training. The hardest part of that is to actually do it. We tend to pick courses that avoid hills, which is like riding early in the morning to avoid the heat and wind (yes, you guessed it, I recommend training in the heat and wind sometimes too). It’s okay to avoid hills some of the time, but make sure you intentionally find courses that contain hills. You want to be strong enough to get up hills when you have to on RAGBRAI, and you also should ride enough hills to learn how to use your gears, and when to stand vs staying seated.

What if you only have one hill to train on? You guessed it, you can ride up it several times to mimic hilly days that are constantly up and down. Correct, you would never do that if you are just ‘going out for a ride’, but you aren’t just riding, you are training. Training for hills. So ride them and incorporate them into your training. Part of training on hills is also mental training. You need to convince yourself that you can make it up hills.

Now, there are different ways to practice riding hills as well. If you have a long gradual hill, just work on keeping a nice cadence (e.g. 80 RPM) and maintaining your speed all the way to the top. When you get to the top, keep it going until you are all the way up and over the top. This is good mental training. Many people give up just before the top. You can use different gears to adjust the amount of resistance you are pushing while climbing. If you use a harder, higher gear, it will mimic a steeper hill. Use an easier, lower gear and it will make the hill seem less steep.
If you have a steep hill, you can work on shifting and standing while climbing. Some hills will be short but quite steep. Learning to stand will give you extra power to get up these steep little buggers. You can also practice shifting to easier gears as you slow down. Make sure you know how to shift on level ground before attempting it on hills.

If you don’t have hills to train on:

All is not lost. You can still prepare for climbing without hills, but it takes a little more creativity. There are two main tools at your disposal. One is to use your gears to mimic a hill. On a flat road, shift to a much harder gear than you normally would for a level road. This will create a much higher resistance on the pedals. You will be pedaling much slower than normal, which is true when climbing a hill too. You can do this for a minute at a time, and work up to longer periods of time. Focus on pushing hard on the pedals without letting up until your simulated hill ends. Pick a place ahead of you where your imaginary hill ends and push hard all the way to that point. Then shift to an easier gear and pedal easily before doing another hill simulation.

The other tool at your disposal is wind. You may not have hills but I guarantee that no matter where you live, you will have windy days. Instead of cursing the wind, yell with excitement that you can go out and do hill training! Okay, maybe you won’t be that excited, but use the wind to your advantage to build leg strength. Find a stretch of wide open road where there is a steady strong headwind. Grind away into the wind – it feels remarkably like climbing a hill. Use your gears to find a cadence that is reasonably hard like you would be pedaling uphill. Decide how long each hill simulation will be, before shifting to an easier gear and recovering. Just do a few of these into the wind and then enjoy the tailwind home. That will be your downhill.

Here’s to hills!

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team, JDRF Ride To Cure Diabetes and individual cyclists through the Peaks Coaching Group. He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: . He can be contacted at



Keith Lippincott, May 15, 2018 at 9:02 pm

Thank you for the tips. I have been riding into the wind to help prepare. I will find a couple of hills to train on

OldHoopsJunkie, May 16, 2018 at 4:14 am

Coach Dave,
Thank you for the commentary. However…

Iowa is quite flat, by any reasonable definition. I’ve done RAGBRAI only twice, so who am I to judge?

However, in my view, the real challenge wasn’t the hills, it was the heat, humidity, headwinds, and the fat people’s food along the way.

Now, I’m pretty young — only 71, and I’ve had only one quadruple bypass operation, and I’m only 20 pounds over my ideal cycling weight at the moment. But today, I did 1,200+ feet of climb in a five-mile jaunt up the mountain on my 40-pound mountain bike, carrying about 40 more pounds in survival gear and tools (it’s wilderness; I like to be prepared) on deeply rutted, gravelly, occasionally rocky and occasionally sandy forest service roads, starting from 7,000 feet elevation and ending up at an oxygen-challenged 8,000+ altitude. And some of the grades are steep enough that the rear wheel starts to spin in the gravel. I would have done a longer run, but I was short on time (the mountain lions come out at dusk here).

Last week, I did an 18-mile ride on the same forest service roads with about 2,500 feet of climb; that was tiring.

So 2,700 feet of climb in 68 miles on nice, paved roadways on a 17-pound road bike seems pretty easy, not counting …

That heat, humidity, and headwinds.

But the Iowa hills? Train for them on long, steep hills on rugged surfaces, and you notice that …

Iowa’s flat.

Ray Nipper, May 16, 2018 at 6:27 pm

Freeway over passes can help with hill training. Some are relatively steep and short, just ride it over and over and over.

MARSTU, May 17, 2018 at 6:02 pm

Need a few hills to get warmed up for RAGBRAI? There are just the right amount (not too few, not too many) on Marshmallo XXXIII. It’s on Saturday, May 19, with Iowa Valley Bike Club. Meet at the Riverview Park Community Building in Marshalltown for rides of 30 mi (gravel), 37, 55 or 100. The century ride begins at 7:00 a.m.; the others at 9:00 a.m. Registration begins at 6:30 a.m., and your free will donation benefits Iowa River Valley Trail.

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