I'll go into more detail about checking your bike over completely in a later post. But first, here's a quick and easy checklist for those who don't like to read much and just want the straight poop. We'll call this "The 2-minute Check". You need to perform these checks before every race or ride, not only for optimal performance, but- more importantly- for safety:
THE 2-MINUTE CHECK
Make sure your wheels are fully in the dropouts and the skewers are tight. A lot of shift malfunctions and brake rubbing is caused by wheels not being fully inserted into the dropouts. With the bike on the ground, loosen the skewers, jostle the wheels a bit until they are solidly in the dropouts , then while applying slight pressure to the bike against the wheels retighten the skewers. Note: If you check your skewers often for tightness, you'll not need to loosen the wheel every time.
Spin each of the wheels. This is a good time to channel Elvis. Everything should spin freely and you should be ready for some takin' care of business.
While you're spinning the wheel, inspect the tire for cuts, bulges, embedded glass, nails, Skeletor's scepter, or anything else that might cause problems on the road. Then check the pressure. On race day, run at least 10 psi less than you normally do.
2. Bolts, Cables, and Bits (Oh my!)
Check to make sure all your pieces-parts are fully fastened and in the correct position.
Like your wheels, everything else on your bike needs to be secured properly in the correct position in order to work correctly and allow you to perform at the highest level. This is mostly a tactile operation, meaning you don't need to use tools for the check- you'll only need to set tool to part to remedy a problem. Here's what you do:
Straddle the bike as if you are preparing to mount it... er, uh, let me rephrase that... stand over the bike as if you're ready to start riding. Pull the front wheel off the ground a few inches and drop it and listen to what it tells you. If there are strange rattles, check them out. Do the same at the back end. Chains will rattle and cable housing will snap against the frame but there shouldn't be any strange noises. If there are rattles or dead clunks, it means there is a part loose, or worse- broken! A common little devil of a noise-maker is the threaded valve lock washer against the rim. There are other little gremlins as well. The more you have this "conversation" with your bike, the better you'll become at understanding the state of its condition.
3. Visual Inspection
Look it over. Make sure cables are running straight and smooth and look to see that cable housing is lodged fully into the stops on the frame. Gaze at your steed and think, "I am going to go fast". If- as you're looking it up and down- there is something that contradicts this mantra, fix it. Align that stem/handlebar with the front wheel. Shore up that loose bar wrap. Rub that bird poo off the top tube. Remove that seat bag (on race day).
The last thing you do is twang your empty bottle cage(s) to make sure they are fully tightened onto the frame. It should make a thwang or b-winnngg sound and not any sort of buzz or rattle. Bottle cages come loose often. It can wreck your day if that thing is flopping around down there.