RAGBRAI XLIX registration is now open!

RAGBRAI Training: Time to Hit the Road

  • 2 May, 2019
  • TJ Juskiewicz

by Coach David Ertl

I have been slow getting started writing these training blogs this year and I have one good excuse. I haven’t been riding outside a whole lot yet due to the weather and perhaps mistakenly assumed you haven’t either.  But depending on where you live, your bike training season may have started long ago, or maybe even never ended if you live down south.  However if you live anywhere north of I-70 in the U.S., you’ve had a doozy of a winter. Thank goodness for smart indoor trainers, Zwift and cross country skis to give us something to do for the past six months.  But even up north now spring is coming (reluctantly) and signs of life are re-appearing after the long winter’s break. It’s hard to believe we will be complaining of the heat in three short months. Now is the time, if you haven’t already started, to get on your bike and to start racking up the miles.

RAGBRAI is all about having the endurance to sit on your bike for four to six hours a day for seven days in a row. Well, not quite. It’s not only about sitting on the bike for that long, although that is a very important aspect I’ll address later, but you also need to pedal the bike for all those hours and that requires fit leg and heart muscles. You don’t have to be fast to complete RAGBRAI (it isn’t a race you know, or do you?), but you have to have endurance to make it through.  Coaches like to have little secrets they can use to help people achieve their goals, but I have to tell you there really isn’t a secret for developing improved endurance.  You need to ride your bike, a lot.  As a cycling friend once said, you can’t fake endurance. Either you have it or you will know you don’t on your first long ride.

Therefore the very #1 piece of advice for preparing for RAGBRAI is boring. Ride your bike, then do it again, and again. That’s called ‘recycling’ by the way.  But I am determined to elaborate on this boring advice and fill up this blog.

First of all, besides riding a lot, you need to be systematic about it. Start small and work up. If you have been entirely off your bike all winter, start with short rides, 10-15 miles and work up. If you’ve done a lot of riding before, especially if you are a RAGBRAI veteran, your endurance will come back quite quickly. Your longest ride each week can increase five or even 10 miles more per week.  Before you know it you’ll be knocking out 70 mile rides again.  But don’t do that the first week out or you will be a wreck.  Start small and build slowly but gradually.  Not only should your longest ride of the week increase each week but your weekly mileage should also increase gradually throughout the summer. Refer back to my training plan for some specific guidance here.

Secondly, the more miles you can get in before RAGBRAI, the more fit you will be and therefore the more you will enjoy your journey across Iowa. I recommend getting in 1000 miles as a minimum. You can get by on less but it will be more work and your sit muscles may not be ready for the task either.  You can of course get more than 1,000 and that will get you into the enjoyable level of riding through RAGBRAI.  That may sound like a lot but considering you have three months yet to train, that’s less than 100 miles a week, and if your long ride of the week is up to 50 or more miles, you won’t have any trouble getting in 1000 miles.

Thirdly, you don’t need to be fast while riding on RAGBRAI.  The longest day is 84 miles.   Even if you ride it at 8 mph, it will take 10 hours to complete the ride (stops not included).  There is plenty of daylight in July in Iowa to get through each day’s ride well before dark as long as you don’t stop and party too much along the way.  So focus on riding far, and not necessarily on fast.  It’s okay to incorporate some faster training if you wish, as that will built greater fitness and make the miles seem easier, but you have to be able to go the distance before you can worry about going the distance faster.

Fourth, you can work on endurance in a number of ways.  You can increase duration of rides:  You can ride longer as the season progresses,  adding miles to your rides.  You can increase the frequency of rides:  You can ride more days a week as the season goes on. You may start out riding 2-3 days per week and work up to 5-7 by July.  Or you can ride more than once a day (2-a-days) to get in more hours on the bike (commuting by bike to work is a great way to do this). Or, you can add intensity:  There is scientific evidence that riding faster can also help improve endurance. But I’d work on duration and frequency first.

Finally, you need to ride enough to allow your body to be able to handle all those hours on the bike during RAGBRAI week.  In all you may be on the bike 35 -40 hours during RAGBRAI – that’s as long as some of you sit at your desk during a work week! You need to make sure your seat, hands, arms, shoulders, back and neck are up to the task of perching yourself on a bike for that long and the best way to train those body parts is the same way you train your legs – by riding your bike, a lot.

So start your journey of increasing your endurance.  So get out and ride and then ride some more.

Happy recycling!

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 coach@cyclesportcoaching.com.


  1. skb-mpls

    Oh, come on! No such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing.

    I’ve been riding all winter in Minneapolis. The city does a great job of plowing the trails and as a former cross country skier- I enjoy exercising in the cold.

    I’ve got 1400 miles in this year on my SS 29er. Just took off my front studs a few weeks ago. Haha.

  2. Ralph Banasiak

    For training, there is a concept called “establishing one’s base.” Can you provide more info on this?

  3. Marilyn Loesch

    Establishing ones base may be helpful to me as well if you would be so kind to share. My first Ragbrai and a bit nervous so any tips are greatly appreciated!

  4. John Richardson

    To have ridden 1,400 miles already this year is very impressive skb-mpls! We must keep in mind that all RAGBRAI riders are not created equal both in cycling ability and time resources. Many RAGBRAI riders find it difficult enough to have a reliable, safe bike for the ride and having an appropriate winter bike with studded tires and a warm winter kit is not an option. I hope to see you in Council Bluffs and hopefully you’ll have adapted to Iowa’s hot humid July weather by then. : )

  5. LawnchairMan

    Ralph and Marilyn,

    I am not a trainer, so this is just my humble opinion, but I view base miles as time in the saddle without hammering. Hammering to me is high intensity effort. Although base miles may start as casual riding, it also includes gradual increases in miles and or speed. For Ragbrai this may be all you need. But, as Coach Ertl says, intervals of faster riding can help you have a more enjoyable Ragbrai. Just save those high efforts for after you get your base and long rides.
    There are lots of comments or articles about base training online.

    Congrats on joining us for the first time. I too was apprehensive before my first. I was surprised that the average speed of the pack is about 10 to 12 mph. You should be able to find someone to match. your speed.

  6. Pam koontz

    I got a wristband but havnt yet trained much, is it too late?

  7. KenH

    Pam, it is time to get serious about getting in the miles but if you go out and do as the coach suggests you have plenty of time yet to get in 1000 miles. If you cannot get in 1000 miles it is quite possible to do with less. If you can get in 400 or more you will be in pretty good shape but you’d do best to make them quality miles. Ride on hills, ride into headwinds, ride on the hottest days, and if it rains on your training day then ride in the rain. Unless there is lightning, don’t mess with lightning! Try to do long rides two days in a row. Harden yourself up as best you can and get as close to 1000 as you can.

    If you look on this website and read the history of the very first RAGBRAI (although no one called it that at that time) you will discover that on the first ride an 85 year old man rode the whole thing on a heavy ladies Schwinn with basically no training at all. It can be done but most of us are not as tough as he was so train as much as you can and be prepared to have the time of your life!

  8. statrixbob

    Okay, I’ll admit I have it easier than some as I live in Hawaii where year-round cycling is possible. I use a bike for a lot of short rides in Honolulu, commuting, shopping, getting to events, and the like. I track everything and use all those miles towards my goal. I do follow the training plan in the available grid, but tend, because of my schedule, to add up to the weekday miles. On weekends, I make sure to get in the full mileage as a single ride on each day. This will be my 4th RAGBRAI this year and I’ve never really had a problem. I’m up to 735 miles so far (out of 610 listed as the goal) today (5/11). Today I’m off for a 40 mile ride and probably a couple of extra.

    Having said that I’m pretty good about following the plan, this year’s ride is fairly ‘easy’ and I’ve seen riders in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and levels of fitness do just fine. I wouldn’t recommend not training, but get in all the miles you can, building up to long rides just before we go and you should do fine.

Submit a Comment

Related Articles
Friends of RAGBRAI