by Coach David Ertl

Here is the next installment of my series on the 4 H’s of RAGBRAI: Headwinds, Hills, Heat and Humidity. This week I am going to focus on Hills and how you can deal with them.  Even though everyone who doesn’t live in Iowa assumes it is flat, once you ride here you will realize that is not the case. This year’s route has a total of 15,500 feet of climbing.  To put that in perspective, that is more than half way up Mt Everest! And we are talking flat Iowa!  Now it isn’t all uphill like Mt Everest is.  There is a lot of flat stuff in between the hills.  But the first day is the hilliest, with 4000 feet of climbing that day.  Therefore you will be well advised not to omit hill climbing from your training regime.

The hills in Iowa tend to be fairly short (half mile or less typically), but can be fairly steep.  But the thing that really can get you about Iowa hills are the repetitive rolling nature, combined with the heat and winds that often accompany them, especially late in the day when you are already tired.  Here are some tips for preparing for hills so you can roll over them when RAGBRAI rolls around.

Very often we are beat by hills before we even get to them.  You look up the road and see a hill and are immediately defeated before you even get there. Hills can be very psychological. Your mental approach to them can make all the difference.  Now make no mistake, hills are hard. You have to not only propel yourself forward but you have to propel yourself upwards against gravity when riding up hills. They make you work.  You will go more slowly and have to work hard and your legs and lungs may burn.  But if you prepare for them, you will gain strength as well as confidence.  While I won’t guarantee you will ever like hills or look forward to them, at the very least you hopefully will not fear them as much.

While I talk about ‘training’ for RAGBRAI rather loosely, when it comes to hills, your really should seek them out and train on them.  Don’t select courses that are always flat. Find some routes that have hills, or if you only have one hill, ride it over and over.  I would suggest one or two days working on a hilly course.  Practice shifting your gears on hills so that you can continue to spin at 70, or even 80 RPM with your feet when climbing.  Avoid bogging down in too big of a gear.  You have a lot of gears on your bike, don’t be afraid to use them all, even the smallest (easiest) one.  Settle into a sustainable pace while climbing, keeping your breathing under control.   If you can, practice standing on your pedals to climb. This allows you to use your body weight to help turn over the pedals but takes more energy than sitting, so stand when the hill gets particularly steep and stay seated the rest of the time.

The main thing about hills is to practice riding them. This will increase your fitness – leg strength and cardio fitness – and also will train your brain to not be as afraid of them.

And remember, for every uphill there is a downhill!

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: . He can be contacted at



m0801ragbrai - shot 07/31/10 along RAGBRAI, IA.  Christopher Gannon/The Register -- RAGBRAI Saturday  -- Tom Webb of Imogene walks his own bike, but encourages those still riding to keep going on their way up Potter Hill outside of Graf on Saturday.  Many riders said the mile long, steep hill was the hardest hill they've ever had to climb.  Many did not make it up without stopping to walk their bikes.     (Christopher Gannon/The Des Moines Register)