The Casual Cyclist’s Guide to #Ragbrai training

This year will be my 4th Ragbrai. If you’re like me, you want to train and be prepared, but life doesn’t make it easy. I can’t commute to work on my bike, and getting out on it otherwise is generally a challenge. I have that pesky work thing, I’ve got kids, meals need to be made, it rains a lot here, and I have other things I also like to do. Exhortations to ride x miles or hours per week, to add x miles or hours per week, or generally spend a crapload of time on my bike make me snort for how unrealistic that is.

First, some important points to consider:

1. Understand what you signed up for. There’s the obvious: about 70 miles of cycling per day for 7 days straight. There’s the less obvious but still clear: camping every night in a different place and using lots of porta-potties (pro-tip: they’re called ‘kybos’ on Ragbrai). Then there’s the stuff you don’t think about, or have any reason to think of on your own. Cold showers with strangers. Mushy spaghetti served assembly-line style in churches. You’ll ride school buses to get around the overnight town or walk a lot. Revelry goes well into the night. Drunk people ride bicycles. Pace lines flash past you on the left. Newbies fail at common courtesy and safety in the middle of a pack of fifty. Heat exhaustion, hypothermia, and tendonitis all happen. Accidents also happen and at least one person dies on the ride every year (usually of a heart attack). In short, it’s a special form of torture, and you’re a lunatic for doing it.

2. Accept that no one “wins” Ragbrai. There are no winners, and there are no losers. It’s a rally, not a race. You either do it or you don’t. Riding every mile is awesome. Riding as many miles as your body lets you is also awesome. It’s okay to walk up the hills. It’s okay to use Granny Gear. It’s okay to stop if you need to. It’s not okay to plan on using the SAG wagon, but it is okay to set up a ride one day because you just can’t do it and need the break. If you think you might not be able to do the whole ride, look into riding with a charter that can offer a ride from one town to the next when you need it. I go with the awesome Pork Belly Ventures, and they offer this service.

3. Food is a big damned deal. If you have any special dietary restrictions or needs, know in advance you’re going to have trouble with that. Iowa is the land of pork, corn, soybeans, and pie. If you’re allergic to anything major, or are vegan or celiac, you’re going to have to work to feed yourself. Vegetarians can do just fine, but vegans will have it rough. This is a big deal, because when you ride this much, you have to eat a lot. The rule is to eat before you’re hungry and drink (non-alcoholic beverages) before you’re thirsty. If you wait until you’re hungry, you’re going to fail, because you can’t catch up later. While you’re training, eat all the proper stuff. While you’re on Ragbrai, eat whatever the heck you want.

4. It doesn’t matter how much your bike cost. I’ve seen people riding bikes that cost them $10 and other bikes that cost $10,000. What matters is that it works and you’re comfortable on it. Admire the pretty bikes and be happy with your own because it’s yours. Or blow a wad of cash on one that fits you perfectly and has all the coolest toys. Whatever works for you.

5. There’s a ton to do and see. In every town along the way, you’ll find interesting people, pie, unexpected sights, pie, a beer garden, music, pie, entertainment, and (of course) pie. Don’t plan to blow through, sights set on the day’s finish line or you’ll miss once-in-a-lifetime stuff. Like dwarf wrestling and toilet tossing. I still lament not getting that chocolate covered frozen cheesecake on a stick in 2013, because I haven’t seen such a mad abomination of deliciousity since.

6. Accept that Day 2 will suck hard wampa butt. And by “butt”, I mean yours. Your posterior won’t be ready for that 75 miles of Day 1. The rest of you may not be ready for it either. You won’t really feel the pain until the morning of Day 2, when you have to get up, wrestle yourself into spandex shorts, pack all your stuff, and set your delicate heiny on your saddle. There’s nothing you can do about it, unless you have the ability to ride 60 miles a day all the time. If you could do that, you wouldn’t need advice for the casual cyclist. Pack your painkiller of choice now so you don’t forget it.

With that out of the way, training is pretty simple, though not easy.

1. Whatever exercise you have time for, do it. One part of Ragbrai is endurance. You can get that doing nearly anything, though I recommend something that uses your legs: walking, jogging, swimming, playing sports, whatever. If you can handle being on your feet for most of the day doing something other than standing still, you’re already in decent shape. If you, like me, have a sedentary job, find a way to get up and moving as often as possible.

2. Get on your bike as often as you can. Duh. Bicycling uses different muscles than other types of physical activity, and you need saddle time. If you can’t get out often, go for as many long rides as you can. In my experience, if you can go 30 miles two days in a row and not fall over dead afterwards, you can go 70 for seven. Why? Ragbrai isn’t just 70 miles a day. It’s 70 miles a day in 10-15 mile increments. Every 10-15 miles, there’s a town. You can always stop, take a break, walk around, sit on a different part of your butt, grab something to eat (like pie), and hang out for an hour. Nobody cares when you get to your campsite.

3. Push yourself now, not on Ragbrai. Crank up the hill. Go fast. On Ragbrai, you need to pace yourself and take it easy. And keep going and going and going. The more you push yourself now, the better time you’ll have getting back on the bike 50 miles in after stopping for a root beer float in the shade with a gentle breeze. Ride up those hills as hard as you can, don’t avoid them.

4. Train with the stuff you’ll use, but push yourself with that aspect too. I wear knee braces on Ragbrai, but not while training. I also train without padded cycling pants to get the most out of my time on the saddle. However, I train with my SPDs because I need to have the right leg motion habits to get the most out of them. In addition, I wear normal cycling gear on my torso, and use the same helmet I will on Ragbrai. If you want to use a bike computer on Ragbrai (you do, trust me), get it now and get used to it. Set up your water bottles and cages and get used to using and carrying them while riding.

5. Practice stupid crap. Put up your tent and take it down until you feel confident you can do it in the dark while its raining with wind gusts. Get used to drinking from your water bottle while riding in a straight line. If you’re going to use a Camelbak or similar water backpack setup, practice everything you have to do with that–filling, emptying, cleaning, putting on, taking off.


  1. I don’t know which is the more astounding, the fact that you’ve done this before, or that you’re going to do it again. You are one tough cookie Mz. French.

    1. Mmmm. Cookies. Aside from the hard work, it’s actually a lot of fun. That’s why I keep going back. To folks who’ve never heard of it, I generally use this description: It’s a giant festival rolling across Iowa on bicycles in the middle of summer. Nobody takes it too seriously, and I’ve only run into one douchebag in three years. Approximately 10,000 people ride the full week, and there are another 10,000 on any given day doing just one or two days.

      1. It actually does sound like fun. I love meeting people at festival like events; the attendees want to have fun or they wouldn’t be there. It’s pretty amazing that only one jerk has crossed your path though. I’ve got to figure that cyclers have a low douchebag ratio when compared to other large groups. Ooh, that could be a dissertation subject for a sociology major. Or, an FFT piece. 🙂

  2. Oh, yeah, it’s fun. 2019 will be my 18th RAGBRAI — and, yeah, we’re gluttons for punishment. But then again, there’s Pork Belly Ventures showers waiting when you arrive in camp.

    My 14-y.o. nephew was sure we were going the be the last in camp on the first day. He abandoned Aunt Cindy. He got lost in town and got to camp several hours after I did. It was a life lesson.

    1. I’ve had to stop doing the ride, mostly due to time and money constraints, but if I ever can go again, I will.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.