Consider whom I'm racing against. What are my main competitors' strengths on this particular course? What can I do to take away his advantage on those sections? The obvious example would be a race that is kind of hard, but the course by itself won't shatter the field.
If there are guys who are known to be really good sprinters I need to make sure that the race is really hard to try to either get away from them or at least tire them out before the sprint.
Or a race that finishes on a big hill. If you've got a good climber in the race, you can't let him get to the final climb fresh or he'll kill you. You need to make him work for it and attack him. Make him or his team work hard so that he's not as fresh for that final climb.
I think about my equipment. First of all, a clean bike is a happy bike. I never go to a race with a dirty bike if I can help it. A clean bike is a fast bike, and in the process of cleaning a bike you might find a potential problem, like a frayed brake or derailleur cable.
You might find a cut in a tire, or any number of other problems. There is nothing worse than driving 100 miles to a race (especially with gas at $4.50 a gallon) only to have a mechanical on the first lap that you could have avoided.
And let's face it; a dirty bike says "I don't care enough about this race to clean my bike." I can generally check that person off of my list of serious competitors. Sure, if Levi showed up with a dirty bike he'd slaughter us all. But Levi would never do that, it's not professional.
• Rehearsing mentally — The mental preparation that both Dan and Kevin refer to is so important. Most importantly, they think about what parts of the course will give them problems and how they will deal with them prior to the race.
For example, if you know you will hit a windy, crosswind section after a particular turn, use your energy to make sure you are in the right position before that turn. On the flipside, know what areas of the course that will favor your strengths and make sure you are in the right position to capitalize on them.
• The course — Take time to familiarize yourself with the course: its road surface, hills, descents and specific markers. For example you might find a marker that clues you in to when a hill is approaching or how far away the finish line is. If possible, it's always best to see the course on your bike and try to measure distances in "race" time.
If that is not an option, still try to drive the course or on a lapped circuit. Try to pay attention as you ride the first part of the race. Also, if you have not seen the course, but the finish line and start line are the same place, if possible try to ride the course backwards for a while to gain a sense of what the final kilometers will be like.
• Weather — Weather will always play a significant role in bike racing. Check out weather forecasts days before the event. Try to learn about wind directions in the area and how the course relates to those wind directions. For example, by knowing specific corners and how they relate to the wind, you can set yourself up to be in a better position after the turn.
• Competition — Do your best to find out who is in your race and identify their numbers. Try to find out who is riding well the past few weeks by checking race results. Check how many riders will compete for their team and which team will be the strongest. A lot of races have online registration that list who is registered. Of course, others may register that day, but at least you can get a head start.
• Previous years — How has the race been won in previous years and what were the weather conditions that particular year? Weather conditions are crucial, as they can completely alter how a race is won. Check out previous results and times from the promoter.
Look for race reports, as they are everywhere on the Internet. If you are doing a race that has had previous races take place, like a time trial or criterium, talk to teammates or friends about what they experienced on the course. They may be able to give you a few tips that will help you save time during your race.
• Equipment and Clothing — Work on what gearing you need before the race, know what clothing you might want to take also. Make sure your bike is in top shape and clean before you leave. Perhaps make a checklist of items that you always review on Thursday before the weekend. When you arrive at a race, the only things you should be concerned about are registration and a proper warm-up, not fine tuning your bike five minutes before the start!
The big picture here is that successful bike racers don't go into a race unprepared with an attitude of "let's see what happens." It's a thinking person's sport. They do their homework up front and spend a lot of time doing the things that are not necessarily related to the physical training aspect of riding a bike. It's that combination of the riders who are strong and very smart that win the bike races!