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RAGBRAI Training: Tips for a Comfortable RAGBRAI

  • 21 June, 2019

In previous blogs I’ve talked about training for RAGBRAI so that you can complete the ride and feel good and feel good about yourself.  Because RAGBRAI is not a race, your main objectives are to 1) finish and 2) not be completely exhausted/sore/incapacitated when you finish.  You want to be able to enjoy the ride and not be so tired at the end of each day that you can’t enjoy the rest of the festivities that make up the whole RAGBRAI experience.  If you follow my training plan and put in about 1000 miles of training miles prior to RAGBRAI, chances are you will be fit enough to complete the ride feeling good.  Yes, you will be tired but not exhausted. You should be able to recover after a shower, good meal and night’s sleep.  But I want to share some other tips to help make the ride more comfortable in addition to the training rides you are doing.

There are five contact points between your bike and your body.  You need to take care of these pressure points to fully be comfortable on your ride.  These are:  2 hands, 2 feet and buttocks.  So let’s go over some things to help eliminate these as problem points during your ride.

Let’s start with the saddle (bicycle seat) as that is the most critical to get right.  Many people complain about how uncomfortable bicycle saddles are.  In many cases, this discomfort is the result of 1) the wrong seat height, 2) wrong seat angle, 3) the wrong type, and/or 4) lack of riding on it.    In the past I’ve written about ways to take care of your buttocks – https://ragbrai.com/2013/06/28/ragbrai-training-lets-get-to-the-bottom-of-the-issue/ so that you can make it through RAGBRAI.

It is very important that you have your saddle height and forward/aft position set correctly. This ensures that your body is correctly aligned with the bicycle. If it is not set up correctly, you can experience knee pain (saddle too high OR low) and your leg muscles won’t be able to work most efficiently.  A simple way to determine if it is close to correct is to sit on your bike with the pedal in the lowest position and put your heel on it. Your heel should just touch the pedal without having to rock your hips.   It is also important that the forward/aft position of your saddle is set correctly.  The rule of thumb for this is to sit on your bike with one pedal all the way forward (crank horizontal) with the ball of your foot placed normally on the pedal.  The front of your knee should be directly over the axle of the pedal.   Thirdly, the saddle should be adjusted so that it is fairly level.  If it is pointed up in the front, you can experience groin pain (definitely don’t want that!) and if it is tilted down, you will tend to slide forward which affects your riding position.  Some people prefer a slight tilt up or down and that is okay as long as it is not too extreme.

If you want to be sure you have your saddle adjusted correctly, visit your local bike shop. They can help you adjust everything properly.  You need to put in many hours of riding to allow your own seat to become used to sitting on the saddle. There is just no substitute for this. Saddles do come with a variety of widths and cushioning.  But I would warn against going for the widest, softest seat you can find. While tempting, these are actually less comfortable in the long run.  Go with a narrower saddle but if you think you want more comfort, there are many that come with gel padding. On the other hand, using padded cycling shorts is a must to avoid saddle sores and chafing. Finally, there are seat posts that offer suspension systems if you really need more help with creating a more comfortable ride.

Handlebar position is also important to have set correctly for a comfortable ride. A number of variables come into play here, including the position of the handlebars (forward/aft and up/down), use of cycling gloves, and padding on handlebars/grips. The position of the handlebars is just about as important as the positioning of your saddle if you want the most comfortable ride. If the handlebars are too close or far away, you can develop back, shoulder, neck and arm pain while riding long distances. The same goes for the height. If the bars are too high or low, they can also cause discomfort. There are a number of ways to determine if your correct position.  One general rule of thumb is that when riding, the handlebars should obscure your sight of the front wheel axle.  Of course, this varies depending on the type of bike and handlebars you have. But the best measure is whether your upper body is comfortable when riding. If not, check with your bike shop or consider getting an expert bike fitting.

The type of padding on your handlebars is also very important. If you have upright or straight, handlebars, you will have some sort of handgrips on the ends of your bars. There are various types of these with more or less padding. If you have problems with numb or uncomfortable hands, consider getting the type with thicker/softer padding. If you have the downturned handlebars, you will have handlebar tape wrapping them.  There are various thicknesses of those available as well.  There are even cushioning pads that can under your tape to make it even softer on the hands.

As with seat posts, there are also stems that come with various types of suspension if you really want a smoother ride.

Finally, to increase comfort, consider wearing cycling gloves. These offer another layer of padding.  These come in a variety of padding levels from almost none to very thick gel pads.  In addition to padding, gloves help soak up perspiration so your hands don’t slip on the bars, and in the event of a fall can really help protect your hands from cuts.

The final contact points are your feet.  It is important that you don’t cut corners here.  If you ride a bike a long distance (e.g. RAGBRAI!), you are going to make more than 100,000 pedal strokes. If your shoes aren’t the proper type, that’s a lot of repetitions that can really hurt your feet.  Serious cyclists wear cycling shoes. There are a couple of important reasons for doing so.  First, they have very stiff soles. This is to prevent your foot from bending as you push down on the pedals (100,000 times). If you wear a standard running or tennis shoe, they will bend every time you push down, which over time will create sore feet. It is also less efficient. Every time your foot bends you lose power going to your pedals. Multiply that by 100,000 times.

The second main reason for wearing cycling shoes is so that you can attach cleats to them, which then attach your feet to the pedals.  Not everyone wants to have their feet clipped in and that’s okay. It’s more important to ride with cycling shoes even if they aren’t clipped in.  But by clipping in (with what are called, ironically, clipless pedals) your feet are better able to transfer power to the pedals (more efficient again), not only on the downstroke but all 360 degrees around the pedal stroke.  They can also help prevent your feet from slipping off the pedals.  Of course, they are also the cause of embarrassing falls when you come to a stop and is the source of guaranteed good natured harassing by your fellow cyclists, but that’s okay because we all have done it.  Note that if you want to get clipless pedals and cleats, there are several different types and they need to match.  Also note that some pedals have a much broader platform than others. If you experience foot pain, consider getting one with the larger platform.  Again, your local bike shop can really help here.

If you don’t want clipless pedals, you should opt for toe clips.  These are metal bands that attach to the front of your pedals and have a strap that surrounds your foot. These help hold the foot into the pedal but not as securely as clipless pedals.

So those are the basics of creating maximum comfort at your five contact points.  Paying attention to these can go a long way towards a comfortable and enjoyable RAGBRAI.

Have a comfy ride!
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. Thomas LaBuff

    Thanks for an excellent article. I would however point out one key omission: the correct socks can make a huge difference in your ride. I for one need socks with no seam in the toe area. Otherwise, I have some issues with my toes on the top part of my foot.

  2. Gary Harkins

    On a similar multi-day ride, DALMAC, I have encountered people who complain about having a sore butt only to find out that they are wearing underwear in addition to bike shorts. While you would think that anyone doing a ride like this would know better, apparently that is not necessarily the case. In addition some sort of lubricant such as the commercially available gels or baby powder will help prevent chaffing.

  3. Brian Bleck

    Another key to comfortable hands and shoulders is keeping your elbows slightly bent. Often riders lock up their elbows when tired. As a result road shock goes right to hands and up to the shoulders and neck. Keep you arms relaxed and you muscles not your joints with do the absorption.

  4. Mario Macia

    30 years ago, we would ride with toe clips and cleated cycling shoes that had a slot for the edge of the pedal. With the strap on the toe clips pulled tight, it was not possible to remove your foot without reaching down to loosen the strap. Clipless pedals were an innovation made it much easier to remove your foot and much less likely to take those embarrassing spills when your foot was stuck in the pedal. Toe clips without straps are not much of a help for pedaling efficiency, so most people don’t consider using toe clips now that clipless pedals are widely available. I would definitely recommend clipless pedals for anyone planning to ride the full week.

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