Japanese keirin racing is even weirder than you think

Sir Chris Hoy documentary gives fascinating insight into a unique cycling culture

Chris Hoy riding the keirin at the Olympic Games

If you’ve ever watched track racing you’ll have come across the keirin, a curious race that begins with a line of riders being paced around the velodrome by a special motorbike called a derny. 

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In a short documentary film titled The Secret World of Japanese Bicycle Racing, Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy gives a fascinating insight into the world of Japanese keirin, the original incarnation of the sport that carries on today. 

Keirin made its Olympics debut at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, but it began in post-war occupied Japan, where it was established as a vehicle for legal gambling. 

Japanese keirin is similar to the version you’ve probably seen on your television, but the opening laps of the races are paced by a non-competing rider rather than a derny.

Keirin racing in Japan
Japanese keirin has its own unique rules and rituals.
BBC

Everything about the racing is strictly regimented, with riders competing on heavily standardised traditional steel track bikes and using kit and components that must conform to a prescriptive set of rules.

Bizarrely, while the races are real, the tactics are decided openly in advance, and riders observe various rituals such as winners handing out water to their opponents post-race.

Sir Chris Hoy on bike test rig
Hoy is seen here trying out the keirin school test setup that he first used in 2005.
BBC

The life of keirin racers is one of intense dedication to the sport, and all must attend the military academy-style Japan Keirin School. 

Hoy himself spent time there in 2005 as one of a small number of foreign cyclists to compete in real Japanese keirin racing, and the documentary revisits some of his old haunts.

Chris Hoy riding the keirin at the 2020 Olympic Games
Hoy won keirin gold at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
Vaughn Ridley/SWPix.com

He also talks to Joe Truman, a young GB cyclist who recently spent time on a similar Japanese sojourn, and who was set to compete at the now-postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The film is just 23 minutes long and it’s well worth your time. It’s available to watch for free on the BBC for a limited time, unfortunately this may only be accessible to UK viewers. 

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Incidentally, our own John Whitney visited the keirin school back in 2014, you can read his feature on the trip here.