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RAGBRAI Training: Time for Base Training

  • 11 March, 2011
  • TJ Juskiewicz

In cycling jargon, this is the time of year for base training.  For cyclists who follow a regimented training plan, they divide their training year into various phases, or periods.  Typically after the winter, where riding is decreased considerably, we need to rebuild some of our fitness going into the summer again.   It is this time, late winter into spring, that we call the base building period.  This is kind of similar to spring training in baseball. It’s a chance to get our bodies used to riding the bike again for long distances.  Here’s what you should be doing at this time of year to be building a solid base, or foundation, for your summer of cycling.

Start increasing your riding mileage gradually but steadily.  

If  you haven’t been riding much over the winter now is the time to start getting back on the bike.  Winter is just about behind us now and you should be able to get outside.  I know many of you have been doing some sort of indoor training during the winter and that is great, but it just isn’t the same as riding outside.  The feeling of riding outside on the road, with wind, hills and other factors, is just different and the sooner you can get outside and start riding, the better.  You may be able to start out riding 50 or 75 miles in a week and progress fairly quickly.  A good rule of thumb is to add 10-15% more miles each week to your weekly mileage as well as to the distance of the longest ride of the week.  If you have been riding long distances for several years, you will find you can increase your mileage quite quickly.

Ride frequently. 

Not only should you be riding longer distances each week, but you should also be riding more often.  Aim for 5 days of riding each week.  Even if it is only 20-30 minutes a day, it all counts this time of year.  It all goes into your base mileage bank account!    The idea here is to get your legs and your body used to riding every day.  This will help you to build stamina for your upcoming 7 day trek across Iowa.   Now be sure to give yourself one or two days completely off the bike each week to allow full recovery and recuperation.  Remember, the riding breaks your body down, it’s the recovery that brings you back stronger.

Don’t ride too fast. 

Believe it or not, I’m telling you to not ride fast during this time of year.  Maybe some of you never want to ride fast and that’s perfectly fine.  I’m talking to those hammerheads who think the only way to get faster on the bike is to hammer all the time.  This is not the time of year to be hammering.  Give your body time to get used to riding long distances again.  I think you will find that if you’ve taken the winter pretty much off of riding, that your first two hour riding will wipe you out.   You need to build back your stamina and endurance.  You do this by simply put in hours and miles in the saddle.  You can’t ride long distances if you ride them fast.  So slow down so you can go the distance.  It’s not the speed or intensity of the ride which will build your base fitness at this point in the year, it’s the distance.

Don’t forget to eat. 

Yeah, right, like you would ever forget to do that.  But if you haven’t been doing much riding and all of a sudden start doing two hour rides, you may find yourself short of energy, especially if you aren’t eating enough carbohydrates to last you through your long rides.   Short rides of 90 minutes or less don’t need much special nutritional preparation but once you start riding 2 hours or more, you will need to make sure you increase your carbs and make sure you eat 2-3 hours before your long rides.  Although most of us have enough body fat to fuel a 2,000 mile ride, fat doesn’t burn fast enough by itself to keep you riding so you do need to make sure you have some carbs in your system.  Failure to do so will result in low blood sugar, or, as we like to call it, the ‘bonk’.

So get your bike ready and start hitting the road for some early season base miles.  This is one of the best times of the year to be riding.  After being cooped up inside all winter there is nothing like getting back out on the road and breathing the fresh air again. 

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach and owner of Cyclesport Coaching. 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. Dave Frels

    I live in North Iowa, the weather is just getting to the point where I can get the bike out again. I am fairly new to cycling (started mid season last year) and can’t wait to get riding full time this year. My question is that most of the bike trails around Mason City are next to highways and are now covered with gravel from the plows clearing shoulders.
    How long does it normaly take to get these cleared?

  2. Steve Hansen

    I usually start riding in late March or early April. I live in Clear Lake, if you want a nice ride, riding around the lake is a good route and is usually clean. There is a bike lane on the side of the road and some trails also.

  3. Amanda

    Last year, my first ride was March 18. In previous years, I didn’t get out there until April. We’ll see what this March brings! Thanks for the tips, Dave! This year, I resolve to train consisently. Once I get started:)

  4. Sean Meade

    thanks for the tips, Dave. unfortunately, i would never forget to eat.

    just found out the route is literally going by my childhood home, the farm where my parents still live, between Oxford and Coralville. pretty cool :-)

  5. Ginny

    Live in Clear Lake and have been riding indoors or outdoors all year, going to Seattle in Dec. and Jan. Felt I was doing well then ended up Four weeks ago today in Mayo Clinic Hospital with acute left lower leg compartment syndrome and had triple faciotomy with complications. Ok, started riding 8 miles twice last week, 16 this week. Can’t go full board yet for 2 weeks. Help! Frustration! I’m a Physical Therapist doing all I can, but…Do you think I will be able to get back in shape by Ragbrai? Also, anyone in the Clear Lake, Mason area we are trying to get riding groups together. Anyone interested?

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