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RAGBRAI Training: Handling the UPS and DOWNS

  • 12 May, 2011
  • TJ Juskiewicz

If you’ve read my earlier article on the amount of climbing on this year’s RAGBRAI, or if you’ve looked at the profile, you will realize there aren’t long, long climbs, but there is a lot of overall climbing.  That climbing comes a quarter or a half mile at a time.  The hills in Iowa are short but they can be frequent especially on the first couple of days.  These can cause challenges for riders both going up and coming down.

First, the going UP part.  Hills tend to intimidate people, and there is a reason for this.  Hills make you work.  On the level, you have to overcome a little bit of rolling resistance and wind resistance.  But when the road tilts up, you now have to overcome gravity as well.  The more ‘gravity-challenged’ you are, the harder you have to work.  Hills force us to work no matter how slowly you go.  But most hills can be overcome by pacing yourself and by using ALL of your gears.  Your bike probably has at least 10 gears and maybe as many as 24.  You have them, use them.  Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to use your ‘granny gear’ if you need to, to get up hills comfortably.  As I said, most hills on RAGBRAI are quite short so you can power up and over them without too much effort.  Where they get hard is when you have them all day long, over and over the hills.  But keep the same strategy.  Pace yourself, slow down and use your easy gears.  Of course, training for them ahead of time should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway.  Expect a lot of short hills on RAGBRAI this year.  Make sure you go out and find hills to ride as you are preparing for RAGBRAI.  If you only have one hill handy, ride up it several times.  The more you ride hills, the more fit you will become but also the more confident you will become that you can indeed handle the UPS.

Now, the going DOWN part. For every uphill there is a downhill so you will need to be comfortable riding down as well as up.  Believe it or not, the going down freaks some riders out more than going up.  Add in 10,000 of your fellow cyclists out on the road and it can make downhills even more frightening.  Here are some tips for handling the downhill part.  Control your speed.  Yes, it’s fun to zip down hills but you need to remain in control and also be considerate of your fellow cyclists who may not be as comfortable going fast.  Just as in driving (you don’t tailgate do you?!?), you should keep a reasonable distance between you and the riders in front of you.  ‘Reasonable’ means that you have adequate stopping distance between you and the riders in front of you.  If they were to fall, would you have time to stop without crashing into them?  Remember, stopping distance increases considerably the faster you go.  You need to be looking ahead farther when going downhill as well, for the same reason.  Obstacles in the road such as bumps come at you faster and with more force, so be prepared for them.  It’s best to maintain the same speed as others around you, but if you feel the need to pass, be sure to pass ON THE LEFT side (passing on the right will really freak people out because they aren’t expecting that) but don’t cross the center line in the road (RIDE RIGHT). If you don’t have room then don’t pass.  Wait for an opening.   Probably the most important thing to keep in mind is to give people room and don’t scare them.  Flying by people 20 mph faster than they are going with inches to spare is a great way to frighten a rider which may cause them to lose control.  Be considerate of your fellow riders.  If you see someone going downhill slowly, realize that they may not be as comfortable as you with speed.  Give them plenty of leeway when passing. 

Finally, it’s important to keep both hands on the handlebars when going downhill and in a position close to your brake levers.  I often keep my fingertips on the brake levers (but not applying any pressure) when I’m in a situation where I know I may need to brake quickly.  So remember to ride in control, be able to slow down or even stop if necessary, and watch out for slower riders.  Enjoy the hills of RAGBRAI, but don’t make downhills a downer, for you or the other riders.

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 


  1. Tommy Frerking

    I would also add that, when going up, shift down before you have to. Shifting down when you’re putting a lot of pressure on your gear (i.e. when you are going slower) grinds the chain against the gear teeth and results in poor shifting. It also tends to stretch your shift cables out. Sometimes your bike won’t shift at all, or it will end up over-shifting, and both of these will kill your pace and may cause an accident. I always get some good speed going before the hill and shift down before I think I will have to.

    Also, when going downhill remember to ALWAYS ALWAYS use your back brake first. This may seem like common sense to most but forgetting this rule while going downhill will result in you taking a leap over your handlebars. If you need to stop suddenly, apply your back brake first and then your front brake.

    Another important thing to do if you are in the first or last days of the ride, when you are coming out of or going into the river valleys that make the hills so close together and so steep, and you are climbing a particularly long hill is to stop at the top and rest. Going down a long steep hill while you are trying to grab your water bottle or you are light headed from exerting yourself is not a great idea. Take a breather, drink some water, let your lungs get some oxygen to your muscles, and then take that glorious downhill part with enjoyment.

  2. SD Grey

    Great article and information on the hills for the ride.
    As a first timer this sort of information in invaluable for learning how to succeed at RAGBRAI.

  3. Sheryl

    Also, if you are not sure you will make it up the hill, unclip one of your shoes so you can stop easily. Beats falling over in slow motion!

  4. susie scott

    Great article, thank you! Also, what Tommy said is VERY true. My coach has taught me over and over to shift before you need to and it save both you and the bike. Thanks Tommy. Ride on!

  5. John

    What if you have only 1 gear ?

  6. Samske

    As noted, the downhills can be treacherous. During Biking Across Kansas a rider crashed when the group in front of him had to brake to avoid hitting a dog that darted into the road. He went down, resulting is a broken collarbone and a final ride in an ambulance. Leave room, and always expect the unexpected. With 10,000 riders, it’s not a time for record-breaking, kamikaze speeds.

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