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: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com . He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.