Gaps are fatal. This means you absolutely have to stay on the wheel in front of you. Don’t let any gap get beyond 10 or 20 feet; even that, if the pace suddenly picks up, will saw you right off the back.
Shift gears gradually, one or two gears at a time, not all at once. Don’t enter the hill in your 53×12 and then slam it into the 39×25. It’s like a car – you don’t shift into first gear for a long hill on I-84. Instead you shift one gear down. If it gets too hard, another gear. You adjust your speed for the situation, and in a race you need to maintain speed. The hill at Bethel is easier taken at speed; you can climb the hill in just a few pedal strokes. That’s easier than spinning a 39×25 a bunch of revs.
Know how your bike handles – your first hard turn on your beautiful new bike should not be Turn One in your first bike race. Ride it on a group ride if possible. Ride it solo. Ride it on a trainer and experiment with shifting, fit, and various bar positions.
Ride on your drops regularly. I’m not saying to do it all the time, but the position should not be foreign, one that you use only when you race. It should feel comfortable and familiar. If you don’t feel comfortable then your bike may need fit adjustments or you may need to work on some cycling specific muscles. Optimal fit changes as your body alters to adjust to cycling.
Why the drops?
Braking: the drops are the best place for hard or emergency braking. Since it takes time to move to the drops, maybe half a second, you should be there if you think there’s a chance you’ll be in a tight situation. Since bike racing, by definition, can be sketchy at times, you should get used to being in the drops during races.
Control: the drops give you most control over your bike. You have leverage over the bars, huge bumps won’t shake your hands off, and you can brake 100%.
Power: the drops give you the most power. If it didn’t sprinters would sprint on the tops or the hoods. Ignore the non-sprinters sprinting on the hoods – look at the best sprinters around, like the flat stage finishes in the Tour.
Remember that if the drops don’t feel right, either you or the bike need some positional work.
Be prepared for speed. Races may average a “normal” speed, like 24 or 26 mph, but the bits that count are a lot faster. It’s quite easy to hit 32-34 mph on the first (slightly downhill) stretch at Bethel, and if there’s a tailwind on the backstretch, similar speeds there. Even the uphill sprint can hit 28-32 mph.
This means you need to be prepared to hit over 30 mph, at least momentarily. Remember that gaps are fatal, and the faster you go, the closer you need to follow. Make sure you keep the gaps closed and be prepared for speed.
This means you need to do some efforts in training to reach higher peak speeds. You’ll see quickly that being on the drops helps a lot, both with power and aerodynamics. It’s normal to get a bit sore in your glutes as well as your other leg/hip muscles.