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Training for RAGBRAI: Iowa isn't really flat

  • 4 May, 2009

April 2009

By David Ertl

By now you have probably heard that his year’s RAGBRAI is going to be quite hilly. In case you don’t live in Iowa, you will discover that Iowa is not flat.This year’s route travels through the southern half of the state which is actually quite rolling. We don’t have mountains, but the constant up and down terrain, combined with the distances you will be riding, will begin to wear on you. Below is a chart of the climbing throughout RAGBRAI this year.


As you can see there is 23,111 feet of climbing. This is a little more than four miles straight up! However, don’t let this scare you. In this article I will give you some tips for training for hills so that you will be able to successfully complete this year’s route.

1. To ride hills more proficiently, you need to practice (train) riding on hills. I often get questions from cyclists about how to ride up hills better, but when I ask how often they ride hills, they say they try to avoid them! Like everything else, practice makes perfect. This includes riding in hills. A lot of cyclists don’t like hills and I can’t blame them. Hills are hard and not necessarily fun, and we ride bikes because it’s fun. However, hills are part of cycling, so accept that fact and let’s work on it.

2. If you live in an area where there are hills, here some ways to practice your hill climbing ability. If you have a gradual hill, stay seated and select a low enough gear to spin up the hill at a cadence of 80-90 rpm. Push yourself a little more than usual. If you have a shorter but steeper hill, there are a couple ways to train on it. One way is to stay seated and push harder at a lower cadence, such as 70-80 rpm. This will help build leg strength. Or, you can stand up and ride up the hill standing, again pushing a fairly hard gear at 70-80 rpm. You should notice that when you are standing, your heart rate may rise more than seated. Some people prefer to climb hills sitting down, others prefer to ride hills standing. Practice both ways. Most likely you will need to use both techniques depending on the length and steepness of the hill you are riding.

3. If you aren’t blessed with hills where you live, you can improvise by using a headwind and your gears. Most likely you have windy days wherever you live. On a windy day when you may not otherwise want to ride, go out and find a level stretch of road facing into the headwind. Select a gear that is harder than you usually use, and pedal into the headwind between 70 and 90 rpm, pushing hard on the pedals. Ride a couple of minutes then turn around and spin easily back and repeat. Like riding hills, pushing hard into a headwind can build leg strength.

4. Riding hills is often as much a mental effort as it is a physical effort. As a matter of fact, some people defeat themselves before they ever get to the hill. Have you ever ridden along, turned a corner and seen a hill ahead and get a defeated feeling, “Oh no, look at that hill!”? Well, you just lost the battle before it began. If you train by intentionally seeking out and riding hills, when you get to a hill on RAGBRAI, hopefully rather than feeling defeated by it, you can tell yourself that you have trained on hills and you can handle this. You may even start to see them as challenges to see if you can get up the hills without stopping, or getting up them and feel stronger all the way up.

You may never come to like riding hills, but with some training, both mentally and physically, you should be able to successfully conquer the hills of RAGBRAI.

To read more question and answers, check out the online training chat here.:

If you would like to read more about cycling training, check out my website www.CyclesportCoaching.com where you will find numerous articles on cycling training.

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach. He coaches individual cyclists, the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and the JDRF Greater Iowa Chapter for the Ride to Cure Diabetes. He is also an NSCA certified Personal Trainer. He can be contacted at Coach@CyclesportCoaching.com .


  1. Nathan Taylor

    I am training for Ragbrai by climbing the mountains of Central and East Tennessee. Hopefully Southern Iowa will feel flat compared to a 7 mile climb with 2000 feet of elevation!.

    Just finished this century a week or so ago (http://www.nathanrtaylor.com/success/), and plan to climb to the highest point in Tennessee on Friday (Clingman’s Dome).

  2. Randy Landau

    Nope the RAGBRAI’s not flat at all.
    It’s kind of like central PA with out the Allegheny or the Appalachians. Lot’s of rollers and, though you may not get the longest, or highest climbs, you do get some pretty good grades.

  3. Heather Flory a.k.a. Salsa Bird

    The great thing about most of the hills in Iowa is… what goes up, must come down, and then go back up again! Just keep pedalling on the way down and it makes it much easier getting up the next hill.

  4. bob king

    I live in flat, flat, flat Chicago, so to train for hills I ride up and down the many parking garages here. It’s probably best to do so on the weekends when there are fewer cars, and definitely have a light.

  5. Nathan Taylor

    @Bob King

    I am going to recommend that to my friend who lives south of Chicago and is joining me on RAGBRAI this summer. Great idea.

  6. Billy

    So you’re saying that pulling into my driveway after 30 miles of Lubbock area riding probably ain’t gonna prepare me, eh?

  7. monica millikan byrne

    I lived in Iowa most of my life and it is far from being flat!!! I now live in Kansas City and feel like I am more than prepared…I seek out the hills most of the time just to get stronger,even rode some pretty big ones yesterday with the wind directly in my face!!!

  8. Dave

    I ride every day in Milwaukee. This city has three rivers that flow into Lake Michigan, and each of these rivers has some kind of valley associated with it. So there are hills, but definitely not as intense as Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, and certainly nothing like San Francisco.

    When hammering up a decent hill, I stay seated and lean forward as much as possible. And I use the momentum from going downhill or riding flat to give me a boost. That means no coasting. As much as I appreciate a nice downhill coast, if there’s another hill coming up I keep pedaling to build up a nice momentum “surplus” that I then cash in on the next uphill climb.

  9. Kathy

    If you want some good hill climb training – try the hills west of Merrill IA – 6 miles of the best, steep hills in IA…then head back east to Merrill for the reverse of the best, steep hills in IA…then head 6 miles North to LeMars IA (aka Ice Cream Capital of the World) and treat yourself to ice cream at the Ice Cream Parlor!

  10. cj

    We’ll why dont we just pat Nathan Taylor on the back.

  11. Greg Walters

    Two years ago I peddled in Ragbrai. The route took us into Northwest Iowa. The hills there reminded me of trail hiking in Colorado. False summit after false summit. Most memorable was a little stop at a place called Gary Owen. The military was there giving away free stuff.

    I thought it was the top of the hill, but if I remember correctly, it was only about two thirds of the way up.

    It seemed like over half of the people on the ride were walking their bikes up the hill at that point.

    I like hills. You just put your head down and slowly grind away at them.

  12. pteranodon

    If you are a well-trained ideal-weight rider, then pedaling downhill to get a head start on the next hill can be a good strategy. HOWEVER, if you are an over-weight and undertrained rider, pedaling downhill is a waste of energy. A better plan is to grind up the hill anyway you can (most likely in your lowest gear) and then COAST down the other side. This gives you a couple minutes to rest before the next hill. BONUS! Because the overweight rider has a lower weight to drag ratio, you can actually coast almost as fast as you would pedaling. Just get into as much of a tuck as your spare tire allow, tuck your elbows next to your body, and bring your knees in so they touch. You’ll be amazed how fast you go.

  13. Terry Henderson

    With all the tractors in Iowa you would think they could flatten the durn state out.

  14. Kathryn

    I know a lot of beginner riders push their bikes up hills. STOP! Don’t do it. When you just can’t pedal any more. Stop, get off, and rest. Your heart rate will slow down. And when you get back on, you’ll be able to pedal more easily again. These are called “Granny Stops”. In training a hill that took a Granny Stop or two early on, my not require any after some training. You can see your improvement. And it’s much easier than pushing metal up a hill. Try it, you’ll like it.

  15. Kane

    I have learned alot, just from reading all of the replies, thanks a bunch, its been nearly a decade since I have been able to go on all of ragbrai. Looking forward to it, it’s also going to be my first time with my new bicycle a “TREAK” Hybrid, It’s my transportation for the last 2 weeks and will be through the summer, so I plan on being ready for this year. GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE.

  16. Kimmy

    I’m in Utah, and we have many options for hill training. I’m looking for training advice/routes from any other Utahns that have done, or will be riding the ragbrai.

  17. Tom Morgan

    I grew up on a farm in Western Iowa 40 years ago. We rode steel bikes, single speed, kick back brakes over these steep hills on gravel roads. It gave a whole new meaning to road rash when you dumped. For fun we jumped terraces on these bikes-air borne, original extreme sports. My advice on hills-pedal till you drop, pick yourself up, pedal some more. You will always make it to the top and the going down is so much fun. I now enjoy riding in the foothills and mountains of Colorado.

  18. JSo

    I agree with what pteranodon said. There’s not really an advantage to pedaling downhill since gravity is already doing the work for you. Plus, overcoming wind resistance at high speed makes you exert as much energy as climbing the hill you just topped!

    Another helpful hint is to climb while sitting up with your hands at least shoulder width apart and elbows outside your rib cage. I’ve found that riding with hands too close/elbows in restricts breathing substantially.

  19. Dave in Spokane

    Just remember that going into, and out of, every single town town there’s a hill. Plan to climb out of them all.

  20. Matt

    “Hopefully Southern Iowa will feel flat compared to a 7 mile climb with 2000 feet of elevation!.”

    Wowza, that is some serious climb. On the toughest day of Ragbrai this year (day 2), it looks like you will be getting around 500 ft of climb every 7 miles…. so yeah, I think you will be fine. :).

  21. cycleyogini

    I looked on Geobike and saw an average grade of not more than 2% on any of the days. Are they subtracting downhills as negative grades or something? Can someone say the max grade at all? Are we looking at 7% and 11% or 3% and 5%?. I’ve been training on 7% and 11% hills so that I could enjoy RAGBRAI. I don’t feel like training on the ride ;)

  22. Ron D

    There are plenty of big hills this year. I am from Western Iowa and have rode from Council Bluffs to Red Oak, but have not been on the rest of the route specifically.

    I can assure you that there will be grades of 6 to 8% with hills (and an occasional 10%) of 1/4 to 1/2 mile long on average. On the first day just outside Council Bluffs, Green Hill is 5% for 3 miles.

    Typical Ragbrai gross elevation gain is 2,500 to 3,000 feet. The first three days this year are from 4,000 to 5,200 each.

    Advice: Unless you are in great shape, ride the hills slower than average in a spinning gear. Save yourself for the long day. Drink and eat plenty.

  23. joeo

    5 miles at 5% is 792 feet. Looking at the graph above the biggest hill is about 350ft of vert. That grade is probably around 3%.

  24. Bill Hardin

    Joeo,I have lived and ridden in Iowa for most of my life and I did my first century over 50 years ago. My job requires me to drive most of the roads I’ve not ridden and I can tell you there are no 5 mile long hills in Iowa.So if you have an elevation change of 350 feet,which is more than most hills in Iowa, figure the gradient % over 1/4 to 1/2 mile which is the average climb here. I know of several 20+% hills, at least one of which has been adjacent to the RAGBRAI route. Bill

  25. Mike Bess

    hills are no problem. just ride a trike. three miles an hour up hill never was so easy…keep in mind there is always a crowd so be carefull on the down hills

  26. Theinfamousped

    I live in Medellin, Colombia where EVERYTHING is around 8% or higher. Most hills are around 8 – 21km long with some even being 52km + ! I believe its more mental than anything, with you spinning your legs and continuously pushing uphill. So just be ready for it. None of the climbs on RABGBRAI are more than 8 min. If you ride RAGBRAI you should easily be able to have a decent cadence for 8 min, whatever speed you are going. Remember, its not a race, its a ride, so treat it like one. After a few minutes of spinning uphill, the downhil will allow you to be able to get your breath back, gain momentum, and just pedal away with whatever comes next. I´ve ridden many a RAGBRAI, and I don´t ever remember a hill being more than 2 miles.

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