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RAGBRAI Training: Yes, you really should train for RAGBRAI

  • 28 May, 2021
  • Andrea Parrott

Having written these RAGBRAI training blogs for the past 11 years, I occasionally catch some grief about using the term ‘training’ for RAGBRAI.  This usually comes from some of my more serious cycling friends who race and do other very strenuous cycling events that require challenging and structured training.  Some more advanced cyclist scoff at having to train for RAGBRAI.  You see, they figure, RAGBRAI is (just) a bike ride, a tour, not a race (I hope this isn’t news to you).  You can cruise along at a nice easy pace.  Why do you need to train for that?  Training is reserved for athletes, right?  I’ve even found myself using the terms ‘prepare’ or ‘condition’ when talking about training for RAGBRAI, just to avoid cynical comments.

But no more.  Today I openly declare that people can and must train for RAGBRAI. There, I said it. First of all, to set things straight, anyone who rides their bicycle across Iowa in a week is an athlete in my book. Therefore you are eligible to train like one.  Second, even though RAGBRAI is a ‘just a bike ride’, it’s a very long one. You will be spending long hours over seven days pedaling your bike, sometimes in difficult and challenging conditions (read my previous blogs on the 4 H’s of RAGBRAI).

The inspiration for this blog came last weekend with riding with a cycling friend Steve who has ridden RAGBRAI and he told me every bit of his training was well worth it – he said he couldn’t have made it without training for it.  And Steve is a decent cyclist. That got me thinking.  Yeah, for competitive cyclists and triathletes, riding RAGBRAI probably isn’t too much of a stretch so they don’t really need to train specifically for it. But they train for their competitive events so in fact that are also training for RAGBRAI.

For the rest of you, who aren’t in training for competitive or extreme events, you most likely do need to train specifically for RAGBRAI.  Here I will give you several reasons why and address them in more depths in future weeks.

1) Sitting on the bike for hours on end, for seven days.  Even if you weren’t pedaling at all, just getting your body ready to sit on your bicycle for as long as you will in RAGBRAI (approx. 30 hours at 14 mph), you back, arms, hands, feet, neck and buttock need to be ready for that. I often tell people that it more important to train your seat than it is to train your legs. You butt takes the brunt of the pressure. You can coast to rest your legs but for most of the time you will be sitting on your derriere. Likewise, leaning over on your handlebars takes a toll on your upper body as well.  It takes a lot of riding to get these parts of your body used to what’s coming.  The more riding you can do prior to RAGBRAI, the more your body will adapt to the bike, making it one with you.

2) Prepare for the conditions.  RAGBRAI likes to choose July to ride across Iowa. The hottest and most humid month of the year (although August is a close second so if you enjoy it, you can hang around after RAGBRAI is over).  A lot of folks like to do their riding early in the morning to avoid the heat. But guess what – unless you get up really early,  ride fast,  and don’t stop to enjoy the festivities along the way, you will be riding in the heat and humidity of the day during RAGBRAI. So don’t do all your training in the cool hours of the morning. Do some of it in the sun, heat and humidity.  Iowa can also be windy.  The reason RAGBRAI goes west to east is to take advantage of the prevailing winds which are typically west or southwest in the summer. But the weather doesn’t always remember that, and sometimes you get a headwind. You should get used to riding in that as well.

3) Mental training.  As Yogi Berra once said, half the game is 90% mental.  Same goes for cycling.  Often the head gives out long before the legs. Imagine this – you are into your forth day of RAGBRAI. Perhaps you may have stayed up too late, partied too much, your legs and butt are hurting, and you are 50 miles into an 84-mile day facing hills, heat, humidity and headwinds (there’s those 4 H’s).  You turn the corner and see a hill and you want to quit.  But you have miles to go before you sleep.  I tell people that hill training is as much mental as physical. Some people see a hill and are immediately defeated even before they get to it. The same goes for long miles when you just want to be done. Going out and doing long training rides will help teach you to put up with some discomfort – to forge on when you just want to quit.  This will help develop the mental fortitude to keep on going when you would rather take the sag (don’t do that unless you are sick or hurt please!).

4) Finally, what most people think of when using the word ‘training’ – getting the legs and aerobic system ready to pedal yourself across the state of Iowa under your own power.  This takes power and that is something you develop by riding more.  Now one of the things us coaches preach is to train specificity – i.e. train specifically for the event you are going to do.  RAGBRAI is a tour which means you can pedal along at your own pace – whatever is comfortable for you.  But you will be pedaling for a long time (30 hours, remember?).  Therefore, your training should reflect that. That is why your main form of training should be doing long rides at your own pace.  Sure, there are other things you can do to enhance your fitness – such as interval training, but that isn’t necessary. The main thing is to put in the miles and hours on your bike.  More is better.

So as you can see, there are many things to train for RAGBRAI.  But they can all be addressed by getting out and riding, a lot.  Riding to train for RAGBRAI is training. It doesn’t have to be fast but it has to be long enough to get your ready for long hours on RAGBRAI.  It is still training, all the same.

So go do some training, athletes!

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 .

2 Comments

  1. Kent Clow

    My wife and I talked about this post. Yes, fully agree that training for ragbrai is a must. What we question is the 30 hours in the saddle over a week. The recommendation is that you maintain a 10 mph pace. This puts the week of riding at closer to 45 hours in the saddle.

  2. Len Radin

    Thanks for your training advice. I started cycling very late in life and got hooked on life in the saddle. As a first time RAGBRAI cyclist and someone who was never an athlete in my younger days, I’m a bit intimidated by the prospect of riding across Iowa, particularly the century loop. I have been keeping up with your training plan and am feeling more confident by following a specific plan.

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