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RAGBRAI Training: Getting Ready for Hills

  • 30 April, 2012
  • TJ Juskiewicz

By Coach David Ertl

One of the common questions I receive has to do with hill training, especially from people who live where there are no hills.  Imagine that – there are places that are flatter than Iowa!  For those of us who live and ride here, or for those of you who have done RAGBRAI before, you know that Iowa has hills.  No, we don’t have mountains but we do have a lot of rolling hills which can wear you down. 

This year’s RAGBRAI is the 11th flattest in the history of the ride.  However, it still contains a total of 16,125 feet of climbing.  That is a total of 3 miles of vertical climbing!   So it will serve you well to incorporate some hill training in your RAGBRAI preparation, even for this relatively “flat” route.  Here are some tips for building your hill climbing ability.

If you have hills where you live, here’s some ways to work on the hills to improve your climbing ability.  Being a good hill climber involves both leg strength and cardio fitness.  The best way to get better on hills is to ride hills. Now that sounds foolishly obvious, but how many of you actually do that??    If you are serious about getting better on hills, do not avoid your local courses that contain hills.  Instead go out of your way to ride hills, at least on some rides. There are several ways you can train on hills to work your strength and cardio fitness.  

Seated fast cadence
You can ride hills seated in your saddle and spinning a low (easy) gear quite rapidly.  This tends to work your cardiovascular system more than leg strength but is a great way to build overall fitness as well as climbing ability.

Seated slow cadence
While you normally don’t want to pedal at slow cadences (less than 75 rpm), for this workout it is okay.  On a hill keep it in a fairly hard gear and grind up the hill at a low cadence (50-75 rpm).  This should feel very slow to you if you are used to spinning at the recommended 80-100 rpm.  This will build leg strength – think of it as strength training on the bike.   Word of caution – if you have any knee problems or pain, do not attempt this workout.

Standing fast cadence
It is good to develop the ability to stand up on your pedals as you climb.  This is helpful for very steep hills and to give your legs a break when climbing longer hills. As you get to a hill, stand up and shift to an easier gear and try to spin up the hill while standing, at 80 rpm or higher.  This may feel a little awkward at first but will improve with practice.

Standing slow cadence
By climbing hills standing at a slow cadence (50-75 rpm), you will be building leg strength while learning to control your bike at slow speeds.

If you don’t have hills where you live, here are some tips for training for hills.

Headwind grinds
Even if you don’t have hills where you live, you probably have wind.  If you don’t, tell me and I will move there!  On days when you have a strong steady breeze, head out to an open road and ride into the wind and keep it in a fairly hard gear so that you are only able to pedal no more than 75-80 rpm.  Ride like this for 2-5 minutes at a time pushing hard as if you are climbing.

Low cadence grinds
On days you don’t have much wind you can still do the above hill simulation.  You just have to use an even larger (harder) gear to get a resistance level that simulates hills.  This can also be done on a spin bike.  Crank down the resistance and force yourself to pedal hard at a slower cadence.

Riding well on hills is as much mental as physical.  I know a lot of people who psych themselves out when they see a hill. They are already defeated before they even get to the hill.  If you have been riding on hills in your preparation, when you get to a hill on RAGBRAI you will know that you can handle it and may even look forward to hills. 

One final note – a great way to get faster on hills is to be as light as possible.  If you happen to be ‘gravity challenged’, making hill climbing easier is a great motivation to shed a few pounds.  With all the riding you will be doing in preparation for RAGBRAI as well as the 400 plus miles you will do at the event, it’s a great opportunity to drop some weight and make hills a little easier. 

Happy climbing!

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach and Personal Trainer. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team, the Iowa JDRF Ride To Cure Diabetes Team, the Above & Beyond Cancer RAAM Team, and he coaches individual cyclists.  He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com . He can be contacted at coach@cyclesportcoaching.com



  1. Jenifer Hanson

    I rode a single day last year, and although I trained to do that one day, I hadn’t ridden any hills. I knew the last 17 miles or so of the ride would be hills, and I was psyched-out from the start. I rode every one of those hills, and here’s what I learned: hills are completely do-able, even for the “gravity challenged”. This piece is full of great advice, and I will incorporate it into my training this year – yes, I rode those hills last year, but I plan to be both physically and psychologically ready for them this year!

  2. kicks9

    everywhere has overpasses, man made mountains as we call them here where it is flat. Ride those, turn around and ride again and again. They may not be very long or steep but it is better than nothing.


  3. Craig

    Well the first thing is the guy in the first picture shouldn’t get off his bike in the middle of the road. Get to the side of the road if you can’t ride up the hill without walking.

  4. Megan

    @Craig, if that’s the hill I think it is from 2010, then that whole lane is full of people walking. It was brutal! You’re correct that you should be as far to the right as possible, but if this is Potter’s hill, then that guy probably is pretty far to the right :).

  5. Diane

    Lehigh Hills will be Fun, Fun, Fun

  6. Bearcat Bob

    It was interesting to read Coach David’s comment about riding hills. He specifically discussed standing on steep hills. I was always under the impression that standing requires much more effort than sitting. On my first RAGBRAI my buddy taught me what I now call the “Schweitzer Slide.” That is, to slide back on the saddle to extend your legs more, giving you more leverage while ascending a steep hill. For me standing works only for very short spurts, otherwise I’m seated. I’ll be curious to see if the Coach has any comments.

  7. Lynne

    My memory of Potter’s Hill was coming around a corner into the steep climb. Not coming down a hill and going back up. I don’t think the picture is of Potter’s Hill.

  8. Fred

    Yes ! Potters hill is the meanest and nastiest hill in the State !!

  9. Earneto

    It would be nice to know the challenging hills in this years route with the length and percent grade. Also, it would be nice to have suggestions Gear Inches for Touring loaded/unloaded, Sport Touring, Race bikes. Not all of us riding come from Iowa. I could train to where I was in great shape, but my bike is geared for the flat lands…

  10. Kennith Tilman

    We’re a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with valuable info to work on. You’ve done an impressive job and our entire community will be thankful to you.

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