Track cycling: Keirin uncovered

By Steve Thomas, Cycling Plus | Saturday, July 28, 2012 8.00am

Most of you will know keirin racing as an Olympic discipline, but in Japan it’s big business.

My money is on Mr Green with the huge thighs. The pacer winds his thing up and peels off. Mr Black goes for it, opening up a gap.  For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to go to Japan to watch a keirin race. Mention professional bike racing and most people will instantly think of the Tour de France and the one day classics.

But cycle sport is big in Japan too. Not the road racing variety mind, over there it’s track – and a variety all of their own, keirin.  You can forget the dizzy heights of Tokyo; the ornate temples can wait, and the sumo and sushi can be put on hold. For me, Japan is all about keirin.

Finally I got the chance to take a trip out to Japan and as luck would have it, I discover a keirin tournament just half an hour away from my base in Kyoto. Perfect!

I’d seen keirin races at track meetings and on TV, and I’d heard tales of the Japanese scene and the massive emphasis on gambling, but I was otherwise clueless about what to expect.

Keirin is big business in japan:

First impressions

Approaching the arena entrance, it becomes abundantly clear that this is no ordinary track race. The scene is awash with scruffy old men smoking and coughing, and it is more like entering a dog racing track than anything else.

As I enter a huge great courtyard, this impression is reinforced further. I am confronted by hack-like figures in hats and scruffy suits, wide boys with bleached hair and chains, and toothless old ladies scurrying around. Betting slips litter the ground like huge snow flakes, and it is totally clear that these guys wouldn’t know their Lance Armstrong from their Red Rum.

As they huddle around overhead TV screens watching replays of the action, a strange ping pong sound echoes around the area. This heralds the start of the next round of races, and the crowd hurry off in the direction of the track. Not knowing what else to do, I follow.

The racing is about to begin and I wander around in total amazement. Great high rise terraces surround the sides and ends of the velodrome, and gamblers are literally crammed into the seats there. Groups of punters huddle together comparing odds and checking their betting slips, eagerly waiting for the riders to emerge.

Keirin is big business in japan:

Trackside

The velodrome looks like something out of a fifties American gambling movie, with a massive hard-surfaced open track surrounded by high fences, and corner towers for the flag-wielding judges to analyse the action. Wheeled iron stretchers lay in wait on the corners, and serve as a testament to the extreme physical nature of the sport.

There’s a sky-high pole with a TV camera perched on top standing proudly in the centre of the track. This captures footage of the racing, which is not only screened to the massive TVs within the arena, but to off-site gambling establishments and live on the internet.

As the tannoy continues, young uniformed boys run around waving flags. Other youngsters clear and check that the track is ready for the action. The tension is slowly building, but in true Japanese style, the noise levels are deceptively calm and subdued.

The pacer is the next figure to emerge. In Japanese keirin there is no motorbike, and a keirin racer is paid to ride as a lead pacer instead. On the far side of the track I can just about make out a line of coloured blobs, the racers. A whistle blows, and one by one they walk on to the track, bow to the crowd and head towards the starting blocks. It is just as I’d imagined, only better.

The racers ride a standard retro-style bike: there’s no carbon fibre frame or disc wheels here. These bikes are regulation steel frames, spoked wheels and toe straps (so that they are easily repairable, and make everything fair for the gambling). Each rider has his race colours and number, and they all look huge – this is mainly due to their dustbin lid helmets and body armour, although the thighs on some of these guys are outrageous.

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They’re off!

To all but the well initiated, the riders are anonymous and their colours and odds determine the betting form rather than marking out individuals. Being a keirin star in Japan means that you can earn up to $2million a year. However, unlike other popular sports, the keirin racers are not seen as heroes, and due to the demands of a heavy race schedule, hardly ever get the chance to compete in regular track events.

On the track the greyhound-like riders are slotted into the starting gates and bow one final time to the crowd – good mannered to the last. The pacer mounts up and the race begins.

The action is slower and more tactical than international keirin races, penalties apply for bad riding and as a result accidents are far less common. Plus the riders are under an immense amount of pressure from the gamblers.

Mr Pink takes a tumble…

The race is well and truly on and you can see each rider’s tactics unfolding before your eyes. (Unlike any other sport in the world, riders have to state their tactics to officials before the race, and it is the job of the other riders to prevent them playing these out – foul play is very dishonourable, and can lead to suspension).

There’s a real tussle right to the line. Mr Black is pulled back. Mr Pink takes a fall and Mr Blue just about manages to secure victory. There is no arm waving or victory celebrations, such things are not permitted, just heads down and backs to the wall. The crowd reacts similarly, with sighs and groans but no shouting, cheering or swearing.

As the riders leave the track, an almost identical-looking bunch of riders enter it and circle around like horses so that you can look them over and judge your form for the next race. Then it’s back to the betting office.

As you can probably gather, keirin is massively popular in Japan and it’s all about the gambling. Keirin race meets take place at velodromes throughout the country on most weeks, meetings generally last for about three days, and depending on the grading, there are between eight and eleven races each day.

If you ever get the chance to go, take it – the incredible excitement makes keirin like nothing else in cycling.

Back to school

Less than 24 hours after experiencing my first keirin tournament, I am on a bullet train heading across Japan towards the world famous, but highly guarded keirin school. It has taken months of work, vetting and applications to enable me to visit the school, so it’s a rare privilege.

Driving through rain storms and clouds we head into the hills beneath the fabled Mount Fuji. I imagine that my visit will be a waste of time – after all, rain stops play as far as track racing is concerned – but as I discover, this rule doesn’t apply in Japanese keirin racing and training. Unless there is snow on the track, the students will be training.

The whole thing is mind-blowing and hard to take in. The campus covers a vast expanse in the hills. There are three different velodromes, a road circuit, and a straight line sprint road with a steep hill at the end of it. This is designed to be ridden at full whack on a fixed wheel (after a 200m sprint). There is also a huge spinning-style gym, a massive mirrored roller riding room, a huge gymnasium, laboratories, class rooms, mechanical workshops, dorms, offices and dining rooms. It looks like a cross between a university and an army camp, and it’s gigantic!

Making the grade

Every year the school accepts 75 students aged between 17 and 29. There are more than 1,000 applicants each year, and selection is based on a number of criteria. The first is the ability to ride a kilometre in under 1min 10s, and a flying 200m in under 12.8s. Then you need to pass various academic exams. This is often the stumbling block for most of the ‘physical’ riders.

There’s as much emphasis on the academic side as the physical. Because of this, the school  accepts five ‘non-cycling’ students each year. This means that those with great academic qualifications who can make a minimum height in a squat jump can be accepted. The only other exceptions to the standard rule are those with Olympic or championship medals.

School rules

The students spend a whole year at the school, and their days are split between physical and academic training. They all live in small dorm rooms, are allowed one personal photo on their desks, get up at 6.30am and go to bed at 10pm.

Mobile phones are banned here, and weekend passes are only earned by the top students. It really is boot camp with an added dose of discipline.

As well as basic education, the riders are educated in the art and theory of keirin racing – and gambling. Graduation only takes place after achieving set cycling standards, passing exams, and ultimately an interview – to assess mental strength and temperament. Few fail the procedure, and those that do have the opportunity to re-enter the school the following year.

My escorted tour is truly strange and fascinating. Although the rain is hurling down, riders are still lining up regimentedly for their afternoon track session. I am allowed to look around for a while, and even climb the tower above the roller room, which is used by the coaches to administer their commands.

A few riders pedal away, with their every move scrutinised by one of the 12 on-site bike coaches. While this is taking place, other students pound the tracks outside, splashing through the rain and reacting to every megaphone demand of the coaches. A couple of others have affixed a rear brake to their bikes and are headed towards the torturous road session. This is seriously disciplined stuff, yet it seems to work.

A lasting impression

The main thing I learnt about keirin from my stay in Japan is that it is a uniquely Japanese ‘experience’; incredibly civilised and exceptionally disciplined – like an ancient art like sumo, for example. There’s also so much more to it than bike racing alone.

My Japanese keirin experience has been a real privilege, and the whole sport is truly fascinating. If you ever get the chance to sample it for yourself, grab it with both hands and don’t forget your betting slip.                               

A brief history of keirin racing

Keirin was born out of the aftermath of the Second World War, when Japan’s economy was at an all-time low. In order to help regenerate local economies and to circulate money, the government decided to build over 70 keirin specific racing velodromes around the country, and to license the sport for gambling – keirin is the only sport that’s licensed for gambling in Japan. This was an attempt to raise cash for local communities.

The first race took place in the Kyushu province in 1948 and was a huge success. Shortly after this the keirin school was opened near Tokyo and the government-administered Japan Keirin Association set up an intense training and licensing system for keirin racers. Until 1967 there were also female keirin races, but these were stopped by the government.

The sport grabbed the attention of the rest of the world back in the early eighties, thanks to Japanese keirin racer Koichi Nakano, who won ten world sprint titles back-to-back between 1977 and 1986. International keirin first became a world championship event in 1980, and finally gained Olympic status at the 2000 Sydney games.

Keirin, in its traditional form, takes place at velodromes throughout Japan most weeks, while the Japanese International Keirin series lasts for four weeks each summer. A similar form of Japanese keirin has taken off  to a similar extent in Korea over the past 25 years, where gambling is the main objective.

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The ranking system

Both keirin racers and events are ranked and competitions take place on a graded basis, almost like a football league. This means that riders in the middle of the rankings are able to compete in both higher and lower grade events in order to increase their rankings.

There are S, 1, 2 and 3 grades and A1 and 2 grades, with the S class being the highest category. When a rider leaves the keirin school he starts on the bottom A3 rung, and points earned in the races determine his ranking. These rankings are re-evaluated twice a year and the classes determined then.

There are six categories of tournament, with higher ranked riders competing in the G1, 2 and 3 series, while the lower graded S class racers compete in the F1, 2 and 3 series events. There is also the end of season GP, which is the main event of the year. Events take place over a period of three to four days, with anything from eight to 14 races per day – come rain or shine!

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