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RAGBRAI Training: Head for the Hills!

  • 23 February, 2024
  • Andrea Parrott

OK, I’m going to hit this topic head on and right up front. Lots of you are talking about the hills on this year’s route. I can sense there is a lot of anxiety about it. Yes, it’s the hilliest RAGBRAI in history, but Iowa has not grown more or bigger hills. If you have done RAGBRAI before, you’ve experienced them. You will be doing a few more of them this year but they aren’t bigger or harder, just more. So to try to convince you that you can do it and it won’t be that bad, I am going to give you my standard tips on conquering hills.

First, hills feel harder than riding on the level because you are working against gravity. But unless you are riding a single speed bike, you have gears to make it easier when the road tilts up. Learn to use your gears, all of them; then use them. As you see the road going up, shift to an easier gear and try to keep your cadence up. Your cadence may drop some compared to riding on the level, but try not to grind away at 60 RPM. Find a gear that allows you to keep your feet going around at a decent clip. You will go slower, but hey, RAGBRAI isn’t a race!  It may seem like it’s taking a long time but for every uphill there is usually a downhill coming soon where you can make up some time.

Second, hills are as much a mental challenge as a physical challenge. Have you ever been riding along and see up ahead and think ‘Oh no, a hill’? Well if you did, the hill has already beat you. You need to train your mind as much as your body to climb hills. You do this by doing hills in training frequently. It may not be fun, but the more you do them, the more confidence you will gain. At some point you will see a hill and say ‘I’ve got this!’. You may not ever love them but you will have the knowledge that you can do them. In future blogs I will give you tips for training on hills. If you live somewhere that is flatter than ‘flat Iowa’, I will be giving you ideas for that as well.

Third, I’ll give the same advice I did the last two years for riding a long distance – pace yourself. Hills are hard and require more effort, but don’t make it worse by trying to ride up them fast. Allow yourself to slow down and not overexert. If you push too hard, you will get aerobically and muscularly fatigued and that will hinder your ride for the rest of the day and week. Keep within your abilities as you climb.

Fourth, the more fit you are, the better prepared you will be to tackle the ride. So treat this like any other RAGBRAI and get your miles in, lots of them. This will make you stronger and better able to handle the physical challenge. I’m not going to say it will be easy because it won’t be. It isn’t supposed to be. But it can be challenging and enjoyable at the same time if you are prepared. But you do have to put the work in ahead of time.

Fifth, hills make it more of a challenge. Sure you can ride 424 miles of flat miles, but just think how you will feel after you complete ‘the hilliest RAGBRAI ever!’. You don’t do RAGBRAI because it’s easy (I hope), you do it because it is a personal challenge, but it’s one you can do. And accomplishing big challenges can be fun and rewarding.

So be the little (bike) engine that could. If you think you can, you know you can.

Coach David Ertl

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

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