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RAGBRAI Training: One Big Ole Hill

  • 24 June, 2010

As you have likely heard already, this year’s version of RAGBRAI is one of the least hilly in history, but that doesn’t mean it’s absolutely flat.  It also means that the few hills on the course are getting more attention.  There is one in particular that has it’s own forum topic – Potter Hill which has a video of the climb and some excellent tips.  (A tip of the helmet to Davey Sprocket for the video link)


This hill is kind of like a parting gift.  It occurs within 20 miles of the finish on Saturday, but it isn’t going to let you escape RAGBRAI XXXVIII without a memory of riding uphill.  Potter Hill is a little more than a mile and averages 6% grade or so, but parts of it are steeper.  It twists and turns some so you can’t see the top thus making it seem longer.  So what’s the secret for riding up large hills without having to walk?  Here are some pointers to help you master hills, or at least survive them.

1) Hills are hard. Not only are you working against the two always present sources of resistance (wind and rolling resistance) but also gravity.  Gravity, especially if you are gravitationally challenged, is a much greater force so you really notice it and you have to pedal harder.  The real secret to riding hills is to accept that they are hard and you will go slower.  Don’t expect or try to maintain your regular pace on hills.  Maintain a pace that will allow you to keep your breathing and heart rate from going through the roof or you legs from seizing up. Know that hills will be hard and accept the fact and ride them accordingly.

2) Use your gears.  God put gears on your bike, use them. (Okay, actually Tullio Campagnolo developed shifters but use them anyway). The steeper the hill, the lower and easier the gear you should use.  Don’t be afraid to use your lowest gear.  I sometimes think I should save it in case a steeper hill comes along.  If you need your lowest gear, by all means use it.  The idea is to keep your cadence up in the 80-90 RPM range.  The faster you can spin your pedals, the less force you have to put out with each given pedal stroke.  Your feet have to go around more but that doesn’t require nearly as much energy as pushing a hard gear slowly.  Plus spinning saves your legs. If you grind away at 50 RPM on hills, your leg muscles will tire more quickly and make future hills more challenging.  Oh, and make sure you shift into your lower gears before your start climbing a hill. Once you’ve started up the hill, it is more difficult to downshift and you may lose your speed trying and have to stop.  There is one thing harder than riding up a hill, and that’s trying to get started riding once you’ve stopped on a hill. If you don’t know how to use all your gears, or you don’t know which are lower/easier and which are higher/harder, ask an experienced cyclist friend or your local bike shop for help.

3) Train on hills prior to RAGBRAI. Don’t avoid hills on your training rides.   As a matter of fact, you should be going out of your way to find hills to ride.  Riding up hills is a very effective way to build fitness.  There’s no slacking on hills – you can cheat and go easy.  They force you to work hard which will get you in shape.  Hills increase your cardiovascular fitness as well as leg strength.  

4) Train your brain.  Training on hills also makes you mentally stronger. If you go out and intentionally ride on hilly routes, when you come to hills on RAGBRAI you won’t be afraid of them.  Often times, I hear people complain when they see a hill coming.  They have already been defeated.  If you think a hill is going to be hard, it will be.   If you see a hill and know that you can conquer it, and even look at it as a challenge, it will be a much more pleasant experience. And you’ll be much more likely to make it to the top.

5) Pace yourself.  Don’t start off going too fast up a hill when you are fresh, especially on a long hill like Potter Hill.  You will die, or at least feel that way, after a minute or two and the rest of the hill will be really tough.   Instead, start out going up the hill a little more slowly than you think you can ride it. Don’t worry, it will feel hard soon enough.  The first objective should be to make it up every hill without having to walk.  There is no contest for fastest up a hill so go your own pace and try to make it up every hill without walking.

I think hills make riding interesting. If all roads were flat, riding would be easier but it would be less interesting and challenging.  So look at hills like the wind and the rain; it’s an aspect of cycling that gives it (and you) character and makes it the wonderful sport that it is.  The ability to ride up a big hill adds to the sense of accomplishment of riding RAGBRAI.  Hopefully there will be more hills next year!

Ride on, and up!     – Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach and owner of Cyclesport Coaching (www.CyclesportCoaching.com) . 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. Georgie

    I’ve been working on them!!

  2. Big Iowa 7

    there is a easy to use method and secret to riding any hill, whether it is potter or pilot mound. that is focus on small goals as you climb. for example focus on making it to a line or crack in the pavement, a tree, fence post, etc. once you reach that goal set your next one. before you know it you’re at the top.

  3. Cycling Roberto

    You can always train in Pennsylvania. Potter looks like what we call “Pennsylvania Flat.” Have fun guys! See you next year!

  4. Tony

    Being one of those gravity challenged persons. I would like to add a few things. Don’t concentrate looking for the top of the hill. Staring at it can play mind games on you. Focus on the road just ahead of you. Keep your mind set like the little train that could. Ride at your own pace. Trying to adjust your speed to match another rider will destroy any rhythm you have. You can regroup after you get over the hill. Try to maintain a constant cadence above 70. Stay in the saddle. You cant spin fast mashing the peddles standing. Spinning is truly the key for heavier riders. Maintain a straight line. Stay to the right. So your not blocking faster riders. They are trying to maintain a cadence too. Some people think zig zaging helps. I doesn’t and its dangerous riding in a group. Gear the bike for you. Gravity challenged riders like big gears. Triples, compact cranks, and large cassettes. I run a 50/36 compact with a 12/27 cassette on one bike. A 52/39 double with a 11/28 cassette on another. Your LBS can help you with this. You can go even bigger to a 34 cog. Again check with your LBS about modifying your drive line. There are many other things that can help. Controlled breathing, attacking hills, handlebar grip, and your saddle position.For most people the biggest obsitcal is between the ears. You can tackle that big hill.

  5. UP in da Corn Girl

    I focus on the front tire, or just in front of it. You trick your brain into thinking you are just riding and its much easier. I do it all the time and it works for me!

  6. WhitneySue

    I’ve never walked a hill and I never want to. Walking looks much more difficult. Sometimes I am peddling to the words of the “The Little that Could,” but it works! AND never focus on the top if it’s long and steep.

  7. Sarah

    I SO agree with “Up in da Corn Girl”!! :) If I’m riding with someone, I look at their tire or the road right in front of my tire to avoid looking up at what’s left of the hill and getting discouraged!

  8. Team Me-Off

    Have you heard? We laugh at hills!

  9. RoyBoy

    When it comes to hills, if you think you can or think you cannot, you are correct either way.

  10. Schley Cox

    I have walked some great hills in the past: El Tigre at the Hilly Hundred, Cemetary Hill (AKA Ol’ Crankbender) right here in Daviess County, and the Hills of Perdition somewhere between Fort Collins and Estes Park. I look forward to walking one or two or three more in Iowa.
    Ride on.

  11. David

    Great tips folks, keep them coming.

  12. mike Freemire

    Looks like about a 36 second hill on the video… no problem. I might just have my son tow me up the hill. He says he’s stronger and more capable.

  13. rsumwalt

    Have a long drink before you start up the hill – make sure you are refreshed and hydrate fully. Also, chomps or a gu pack gives you that little mental boost. Then, a little Michael Jackson or Doobie Brothers in one ear really gets me up the hills. Practice on 2 mile hills and the 1 mile hills will go easier.

  14. Crazy-b

    Just a long roller.

  15. suzi-q

    seeing as how this is the only hill in my adult life and 15+ years of RAGBRAI that I have never been able to make it up (baring technical difficulties) I am not looking forward to it. we have tried several times to make it, I don’t walk it I just stop and catch my breath and start up again. once I only had to stop 3 times usually it’s four. and always on my mountain bike with a much easer granny gear. I prefer praying. Oh and I’m a Me-Off too. I laugh at the ludicrosity of this hill.

  16. Linda CPA

    No problemo hill. That qualifies as a “roller” in washington state. Will be ready!

  17. Paul Team Boozehound

    Looks like a consistent, steady climb & fairly straight. Those are easier to tackle than climbs that meander around (switchbacks) and change steepness often.

    You gotta start slow, pick a pace you can maintain, and save some juice for the end. Steady as she goes…

  18. Bridget

    This applies to the whole ride not just the big hills…..after the ride when you’re “burning” hungry what are some filling and nutritious things to eat? Besides pie….

  19. Rin

    When going up a hill and starting to feel the “burn” in your legs, alternate the muscles you use. For instance, push down for four strokes, then pull up for four strokes (or whatever sequence works for you). I find this really helps on the long steep climbs so you never completely burn out, you just use a group of muscles, then switch to a different set while those recover. It works for me, and I’m gravitationally challenged!

  20. dan from IL

    good tips. Also – unzip the jersey (or jacket, etc.) to avoid possible overheating before the long climbs. then : at the top : zip up, gear up and prepare to take flight and fly !

  21. TokenFemale

    We fear no hills (well maybe one or two)! I am the captain of a three seater bike this year (all girls so rock on) and hills can be mean to big bikes but we will survive! Say ‘Hi!’ as you pass us on the way up! We vow not to walk unless we fall over. I am thankful it’s a short day, hopefully the temps will still be cool, and that my legs will be made of steel (cross my fingers) on hill day. I tell my stokers to look at those pretty toes of theirs go round-n-round instead of the hill … and spin it out at the top to recover. Filling the stokers up with chocolate donuts helps too.

  22. paul wiedemann

    I’ve been riding the hills of Dubuque for 30 years. Always been too smart to go up Potter hill. Going down is fun except for 3 dogs that love to chase. I guess there is a first time for everything.

  23. georgie dack

    this is my first year, I will ride as much as I can, I just want to part of and experince this happening

  24. Bill

    Hardest hill in the Dubuque area. It’s the hill all the elementary kids love because school buses get stuck going up it on a yearly basis in the winter. Once you’re up it, though, it is smooth sailing all the way down to the Mississippi River!

  25. khvanzant

    when riding up a hill (and there are not many in central Ohio) I repeat over and over to myself – “earn the downhill” gets me in a zone where the hill becomes a challenge and I know I am up for it. This hill – I can’t wait! One last challenge to remember my first RAGBRAI and know – I earned it!

  26. Bill Hertzenberg

    I recall in 08 a hill in Boone. I think it was 11 miles up hill. Okay, it felt like it. Is this hill worse?

  27. northsea

    I’ve forgotten the name; perhaps another bike geek can help. Some old Tour winner once said “To win the race, don’t upgrade your ride, ride up the grade.” Riding hills is like talking to your mother-in-law. It’s hard at first, but if you’re creative, you can find ways to make it fun.

  28. Don

    … and if you can’t find a hill to train on, then ride into the face of a strong headwind. You’ll work just as hard.

  29. Brian

    I’ve ridden up Potter hill. I have a triple and had to use the “granny” gear. The Hill outside Boone in 08 was long but the grade was not too terrible. Potter Hill on the other hand is steeper in the middle.

    I started in the middle ring and then right before the really steep part, I dropped into my little ring and kept it there for the rest of the climb. I could have probably upshifted a bit towards the top of the hill but my legs were on fire by then.

    Unfortunately, there is no reward at the top of Potter Hill. Potter Hill is your punishment for the big descent into Graf. After you climb Potter Hill you get a nice flat stretch for a few miles until you get into some short steep hills on Middle road.

    Potter Hill is not insurmountable. Use your gears, keep spinning, keep breathing and eventually you will make it. Took me 7 minutes according to my computer.

  30. Rex Bartley

    After several rides to the top of Mt. Evans in Colorado (at 14,264′, the highest paved road in North America) it’s hard to be intimidated by a hills any more. 28 miles, nearly 7,000 feet of climbing. It’s truly a beast.

  31. Ruthe Olivo

    And,I want a wonderful menu for a person with diabetes.

  32. Steven Kadera

    I am an “older” rider and I live in LaCrosse county, Wisconsin. We have more than enough steep, long hills here to practice on. I for one go out of my way to find these type of hills. And I refuse to walk up any of them. It’s great to know that a mere hill is no obstacle.

  33. Mike Mullins

    Your advice on hill climbing was a considerable help. I started out on Potter Hill with too high a pedal rate, and quickly found myself getting out of breath. A lowered rate, and slower pace, got me to the top – but it was a challenge. Thanks for the information on spinning, which I used to advantage this year, as the concept soaked in.

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