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RAGBRAI Training: There ain’t no mountain high enough on RAGBRAI

  • 25 June, 2021
  • Andrea Parrott

Oh baby there ain’t no mountain high enough,
Ain’t no valley low enough,
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to Clinton
(with apologies to Marvin Gaye) 

So true, there ain’t no mountains on RAGBRAI this year and there never were, except when RAGBRAI went through Mt. Pleasant, and that doesn’t really count. After all, Iowa is known as a flat state, but don’t be fooled. I think anyone who has done RAGBRAI will tell you there are a lot of hills. Maybe not any that are all that big, but incessant at times.  Just look at the daily profiles below and note that there are very few absolutely flat sections. The cumulative feet of climbing each day is anywhere from 1000 to almost 3000 feet per day. That’s about a half mile straight up on the first and fifth days of the ride.

That’s adds up to 11,481 total feet of climbing in all. So your preparation for this year’s ride needs to include some hill climbing work if you want to be fully prepared.  One of the more common questions I get from riders is how they should train for hills when they don’t have any where they live.  That’s a great question and deserves a great answer, but I’ll attempt to answer anyway.

But first, if you do live where you have hills available, by all means ride them to get in some hill training. I see folks avoiding hills, because they are hard. But hard is why they will make you strong, so don’t avoid them.  Go find them.  One of the things that I always say is a true cyclist seeks out hills, and doesn’t avoid them.  Hills provide great training. There is no way to avoid working hard riding up hills.  You can get lazy and just cruise along on the level, but with hills, you don’t have that option.

Riding hills will improve your leg strength as well as your cardio system. You will find your legs burning and breathing more heavy when climbing hills, because you are working harder than normal. This is what gives you the beneficial training effect. But hills are more than just a physical challenge. They are also a mental challenge.  How many times have you been riding along and up ahead you see a large hill.  Do you just wilt and dread what’s coming?  If you do, you’ve already lost the mental battle.   By riding on hills in training, while you may not learn to love them, you should at least learn that you can conquer them and this will build mental toughness. Instead of saying to yourself “Uh oh, a hill”, you will be able to say “Oh, a hill. I can do this because I did what Coach Ertl said and trained on hills”.  OK, maybe not that last part.  But by riding hills, you will get stronger both physically and mentally.

Now, for those of you unfortunate enough to live in a place like Florida or central Illinois that is devoid of hills, there are some other tactics you can use to simulate the benefits of hills training.  These tactics involve using your gears and headwinds.  To simulate hills you need to increase the resistance while riding. Because you can’t use gravity, use other ways, and your gears are one of those. You know that if you shift into your hardest gear, the resistance needed to turn the pedals increases significantly. Normally you are told to spin when riding your bike, maybe 80-90 RPM. But for this hill simulation exercise, I want you to ignore this advice and use a much harder gear than you normally do.  Even riding on a level road, you will feel increased resistance. So ride for a period of time around 50-60 RPM for several minutes to build some leg strength – think of it as strength training on the bike.  I call this workout ‘grinds’ because that’s what they are and what hills are as well. [Word of caution – if you have a history of knee problems, or feel any twinges in your knees while doing these, stop and don’t continue].

Another way to simulate hills is to go out on a windy day and ride straight into a roaring headwind.  Again, you can play with your gears so you find one that feels as hard as riding up hills, and grind away.  I don’t find this nearly as fun or enjoyable as actually riding up a hill, but if wind is all you have, take advantage of this training tool. It’s free after all.

Alternately, you can do some off the bike leg strength exercises, such as lunges, step up, squats, deadlifts, etc., either with or without weights. Make sure you get instructions on how to do these properly before attempting though so you don’t ruin your cycling season with a leg or back injury.

OK, so much for training. Now what about conquering hills while on RAGBRAI?  A couple of tips: Gears and Pacing.  Unless you are riding a single speed bike (and if you are you probably are able to climb hills already), your bike has gears, lots of them.  Your bike probably has anywhere from 14 to 22 different gear combinations and you should not be afraid to use them. Why haul all those gears across the state of Iowa if you don’t use them? The lowest gear is referred to as your granny gear, but there is no shame in using it. It’s there for when you are at your limit trying to get up a hill.  But one thing I’ve run across on rides is that a lot of people don’t really know how or feel comfortable shifting the gears on their bikes.  If you don’t know, please ask for help from a friend or you local bike shop – before you get to RAGBRAI, and then practice.  And another tip – always remember to shift down to an easier gear before you need it. If you wait until you have to shift, you may be pedaling under so much tension that your chain will resist shifting easily.  Ideally you should be able to maintain a certain cadence up hills and not grind away like you did in training.  The more you are able to spin, the longer your legs will last.

Also, when riding up a hill, try to pace yourself. Only go as fast as you must to get up the hill. You may be crawling along at 4-5 MPH, but that’s okay. Eventually you will get to the top. Pushing too hard on hills will cause fatigue and you may not make it all the way up.  Of course, on some very steep hills, you have no choice but to work very hard, even in your granny gear, but these tend to be shorter. And if you must, get off and walk. There is no shame in that.  Think of it as giving your bike a rest.

So get out there and hit the hills.

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: www.cyclesportcoaching.com. He can be contacted at cyclecoach@hotmail.com .


  1. stevecycles200

    Hey coach, hope you don’t mind if I add a tip: When going uphill, slide back a bit in your saddle and sit upright with your hands on the flats. No need to crush your lungs in the aero position, aero isn’t going to help you at 7 MPH. But opening up your chest by sitting upright will help your breathing.

  2. Scott

    Training… Why suffer twice?

  3. Scott Kies

    I love you point about using your gears and learning to shift! It should be second nature when to shift as you progress up the hill. The goal is to maintain your cadence and shift to an easier gear as you go. Also, to understand the hill and try to apply an even effort throughout the hill. All good stuff on getting over the hill with confidence. I hate to say it but hills require you to embrace the pain a bit.

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