Top 10 Training Tips for RAGBRAI #7 - Iowa isn’t Colorado, But There are Still 13,000 Feet of Climbing on RAGBRAI. Get Your Climbing Legs On!

  • 2 June, 2017
  • TJ Juskiewicz

by Coach David Ertl

Iowa has a reputation of a being a flat state.  Certainly there are parts of Iowa that are pan flat, and you will see some of those during this year’s ride.  So it’s a little surprising that I get so many questions about how to train for the hills on RAGBRAI. And that’s a good thing to ask, because in total, there is quite a bit of climbing as your cross our ‘flat’ state.  In total, there are 13,000 feet of climbing. That’s almost half way up Mt Everest, to put it in perspective.  Most of the climbing comes in the early and late parts of the ride, on the western and eastern sides of the state.  There aren’t mountains so no long, extended climbs, but there can be continuous up and downs on some days.  If you don’t do any preparation for climbing prior to RAGBRAI, you might be unpleasantly surprised at just how many hills there are. So here are some tips for preparing for hills, even if you don’t have hills where you live and train.

Climbing hills on a bike is both a physical and mental challenge. You need to have the leg strength to put out the additional power to get up hills. But modern bikes really help you. Many bikes have ridiculously low gears (I say ridiculous but when you are riding up a hill those low gears won’t seem ridiculous at all). Some bikes have what’s called a Granny gear, a very small chain ring up front attached to your crank and pedals.  Combine that with a very low gear in the cluster on your rear wheel and you can climb up almost any hill.  So even on fairly steep hills, if you use your gears properly, you shouldn’t need a lot of extra strength to get up hills, just patience.  Spinning in a low (easy) gear up a hill will make it easier but you go slower.  So be patient, use a low gear, and you will be able to tackle hills.

One thing to keep in mind which confuses people.  A low or small gear refers to easier pedaling (for uphills) whereas a high or large gear refers to harder pedaling (downhills).  Don’t confuse this with the physical size of the gears on your bike.  The larger the cog on the gear cluster (called a cassette) on your rear wheel, the easier or ‘smaller’ the gear ratio. But to makes things more complicated, the smaller the gear on your crank, the smaller the gear ratio. But rather than worry about that, just get familiar with what happens when you change gears in the front (left shifter) and the rear (right shifter). With enough practice, it becomes intuitive and you hardly have to think about which way to shift.  If you aren’t familiar with shifting, and a surprising number of cyclists aren’t, please get help and learn how to use your gears.  You are going to carry them along with you all the way across the state, so please use them. It will make your ride more enjoyable.

Physical training:  Because there will be some hills on RAGBRAI, you should practice by riding hills before you get here. If you live in an area where there are lots of hills, you have it made.  Simply go out and ride your hills to get used to them and to build some leg strength (and to practice shifting your gears). But there can be more to it than simply riding up hills.  There are a number of ways to ride a bike up a hill and you should experiment with these.   First is the question of whether to stay seated and rely entirely on your leg strength to get you up hills.  Contrast this with standing on your pedals to get up hills.  Many people prefer to stay seated, and with the wide gear ratios on bikes, this makes it possible.  Some cyclists don’t feel comfortable standing as this takes some practice and balance. However, learning to stand while climbing can be useful especially on steeper and longer hills.  Switching between sitting and standing while climbing also uses different muscles.  Also, when standing you have the advantage of using your body weight to help pushing your pedals around when the going gets tough.  You certainly don’t have to stand on hills, but I’d definitely recommend working on this skill.

The next question is what gear to select.  Ideally you want to maintain a fairly high cadence (pedaling speed) as you climb. Let’s say you pedal at 80 RPM on level roads. When you hit a hill, don’t bog down to 40 RPM or you will really fatigue your leg muscles. Try to keep it at least at 60 to 70 RPM. By downshifting to easier gears, you can keep your cadence up.   Each of us is different and prefers a different pedaling cadence and you will have to find what best works for you on hills, but most people pedal too slowly on hills, so err on the side of pedaling a little faster than you think you should.

Now for one of the most common questions I get:  How do I train for hills if I live somewhere with no hills?  Excellent question. Here’s something to think about. You don’t necessarily have to work that much harder on hills if you use an easier gear and go slower.  So you don’t have to become incredibly strong to climb, although strength helps for sure.  On the other hand, if you want to be stronger and faster on hills than you are, or if you are worried that you don’t have to strength to get up hills even with your granny gear, here are some tips to help.  Wind: most places in the world have wind.  We have a lot of wind in Iowa, usually prevailing from the west (which is a good thing because RAGBRAI goes west to east). Use the wind in place of long gradual climbs. Find an open road facing the wind and ride into it just like you are riding up hills.  Another option is to shift to a harder gear while riding on a flat road.  This will force you to pedal harder and can simulate hill climbing.  If you have just one or a few hills around, even if they are short, practice by riding up and down over and over again.  I tell people that the difference between someone who trains vs someone who just rides is that a person who is training intentionally tries to find hills to ride and goes out of their way to find them as opposed to avoiding them.

When riding hills on RAGBRAI, you need to be concerned about conserving strength and energy as it is a long ride.  Resist the temptation to hit hills too hard or too fast, especially on the first day when you are still fresh. Ride up hills at your own pace. If you are riding with a group that is faster on hills than you, let them go and meet them at the top. If they don’t wait for you, do you really want to ride with them anyway??  By going too hard or fast up hills, you will stress your muscles and that will come back to haunt you on future days of the ride, if not later that same day. Pace yourself, and that takes patience which is a mind game. So let’s talk about the mental aspect of climbing.

Mental Training: Much of hill climbing is actually a mental exercise.  Many people defeat themselves before they even get to a hill, and this has happened to me many times. I am tired and look ahead and see a hill and say “Oh no, I don’t want to ride up that”. If this happens, you have already lost.  One of the best reasons for training on hills is to build that confidence that you can ride hills.  It may not be fun for you, but the main thing is to know you can get up and over them.  The more you ride hills, the more confident you will become.  So when you see that hill coming up, while you may not jump for joy, you at least will tell yourself “I can do this”.   By consciously seeking out and riding hills in training, you will be preparing your body and your mind for hills.

Things are looking up!

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: . He can be contacted at



  1. Robert Weiss

    No doubt hill climbing is 80, maybe 90% mental. Once you start climbing a lot you say to yourself, I’ve made this type of climb before and did just fine. Your confidence will build and soon hills don’t bother you at all.

    A great exercise for hills is to get a physio ball and trap it between your back and a wall with your knees bent as close to 90 degrees as you can. Hold for as long as you can 4-5 minutes when you get in shape.

    This simulates the same muscles you use to climb.

  2. Sharon Behnke

    I’m looking at this as a major challenge for me because I am not a fan of hills but I also know when to stop and walk if I have to. I just want to know if there will be a SAG vehicle if I really need it if I’m half way to the next campsite?

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