RAGBRAI Training: One Big Ole Hill
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.