Before I travel to a race, I have a mantra that I've been repeating to myself since I was a Junior: "jersey shoes shorts helmet license; jersey shoes shorts helmet license." I say it a few times as I load up my bag, put everything in the car, and again as I'm driving away from my house. It's a basic list of all the things I really can't be without at the race. Everything that's not on this list I can likely borrow without difficulty or without negatively affecting my performance, (though the last thing I might want to wear is someone else's shorts.) And while technology means you might carry your phone to registration rather than a paper license, it's still good to leave on the list.
This mantra is part of a regular pre-race routine I rely on to make sure I'm relaxed and prepared for the event. That full routine involves things like packing your bag the same way every time, eating familiar foods at set times before the race, and arriving with enough time before the start to leave room for unexpected emergencies or delays. I'm often surprised at how many riders lack a set routine and don't realize how much it effects their performance on race day.
In actuality, your preparation for the race happens over the course of the week leading up to it, and reaches a peak the day before. Staying on top of life and training, focusing on effective time management, and keeping your stress levels low are keys to getting to the weekend ready to race rather than over the edge.
Two Days Before
Two days before the race will typically be a recovery day, and that means you have some additional time to take care of tasks you won't have time for the day before your event, especially if that's a travel day. This could be Thursday or Friday, and if you work a full time job, might mean you're taking the day completely off from riding in order to complete these tasks.
A clean bike is one of those small things that makes a big difference, and two days before is a great day to do it. A grease-free, silver drivetrain that doesn't crunch with dirt and actually shifts when you want it to means there's one less thing to distract you when you go to the start line. Give your bike the once (or twice) over with a bucket, brush and a mild degreaser (ideally one that won't kill the flowers or the neighborhood cats) and you'll be in business. This also means it will be running well for your opening up workout the next day, and you can be sure it's operating properly.
The Day Before
The day before the race is your last chance to take care of all the things you need to do but have been putting off, or couldn't get to on your recovery day. For me, this day is normally Friday, but if you're only racing on Sunday, Saturday might be the day you dedicate to making sure all is in order.
Many of the things you need to worry about are things you might take for granted, like cleaning your bike or doing your laundry. But these two items are crucial. It's likely you took your clothes from last weekend's race and either dumped them in a pile next to the washer, or maybe even left them in your bag all week. The last thing you want to do is be up late at night waiting for the washer to finish, or even worse, sitting at the laundromat at 11 PM if you don't have a washer at home. Make sure you start that wash first thing in the morning or even the night before so you can hang it up to dry when you wake up. Don't put your cycling clothes in the dryer unless you have to, or you get it for free.
The night before the race is the opportunity to do anything that you can to make more time for yourself on race day. So, buy or make your recovery foods and lunch supplies, fill your bottles and put them in the refrigerator, and make sure the car has a full tank of gas. If your laundry's done, pack your bag and leave it next to the door. And of course, get to sleep at a reasonable hour, which you should be able to do if you planned your day well and followed your schedule.
The Morning Of
Many riders ask me what they should eat for breakfast on the morning of a race. You might expect a scientific answer supported by a list of nutritional studies supporting it. The real answer is "whatever you eat for breakfast every other day of the week." The morning of a race isn't the day to try and make changes to your diet, even if they're improvements. You want to eat the foods you're familiar and comfortable with, and you know won't upset your stomach. Whatever you eat, be sure to finish your last meal no later than three hours before the start of your race.
When you're ready to leave the house, repeat the mantra and double-check your bag. One argument for waiting until the morning of the race to pack rather than the night before is so you can see and make sure you have everything you need, rather than trying to remember if you put it in there. But it always takes less time to double-check what you packed than pack it in the first place.
You should leave so that you'll arrive two hours before the start of a road race (three if it's a cyclocross race), and have a bottle to drink and food available if you get hungry or if it's a long drive. Planning on arriving two hours before the start gives you time to stop for coffee or gas, get a flat in the car, or get stuck in traffic without missing your race. Once you're there, it gives you the first hour to register, see if the race is on time, chit-chat, pin numbers, go to the bathroom, change into your riding clothes, put your race wheels on, and make any last minute adjustments to your bike.
Ideally, you want to be on your bike one hour before the start, give yourself a 15-30-minute warm up window, and then be back at the car to take off your warm up clothes, and make final preparations. Check in at the start/finish area 15 minutes before your start to see if the race is on time and be prepared to line up then. The first race of the day is to the start line, so don't be late. If you get hungry in that last hour, 100-250 calories of energy bars, home-made rice cakes, or any easy to digest real food is ok, just enough to keep the feeling of being hungry away, but so much that you go to the start with a full stomach.
After the race, you should have a bottle of recovery drink already mixed. Put your training wheels back on your bike, put on warm, dry clothes if you need it, and head out for another 15-30 minutes easy cool down.
Back at the car, take the time to pack your bag up neatly, with a separate plastic bag for your dirty laundry. Make sure you rehydrate on the drive home, particularly with plain water after you've finished your recovery drink. The recovery drink will be ideal in that first 30 minutes before you're really ready to eat. Try to have a normal meal within an hour, and pack food if you can, rather than succumbing to roadside fast food. It'll save time on your drive home, and keep you from having a stomach ache the whole time, too.
Even though the focus of this article is to help you with a set, regular pre-race routine, it's also important to note that in order to be a successful cyclist, you have to be flexible and able to go with the flow as well. Sometime situations out of your control will arise that might keep you from having the same oatmeal you always eat, or getting a bagel on the way out at your normal coffee shop. Realize that minor deviations, and perhaps even catastrophic deviations, won't destroy all the fitness you've built up to that point. Stay focused on your event, and make the most of any bad scenarios. Part of your plan should always include being ready to abandon it as situations change. A routine will help you be relax and prepare, but if you're too rigid it can backfire and cause you more of the stress that you were trying to avoid.