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The Keirin Story – Part 1

Japanese Keirin

It was the second time I’d been told “You really don’t
want to go to a keirin!” The second time on my first
visit to Japan that a non Japanese local cyclist had
advised against things; “Its not like world cup track
racing, it’s not really like any other kind of bike
racing” I was told again and again, needless to say
that made the whole thing all the more appealing.

For as long as I could remember I’d wanted to witness
a true Japanese keirin race in person, and to visit
the enigmatic keirin school, and after many years of
trying I’d finally ended up in Japan; you can forget
the dizzy heights and lights of Tokyo, keep your
temples on hold, and I’ll wait for the sushi – I
wanted to go to a keirin, more than anything else in
Japan, despite what I’d been told.

Poring through web sites in Japanese really didn’t
help with my quest to find a keirin, but thankfully I
found someone who could read Japanese, and as luck
would have it there was a keirin tournament taking
place just half an hour away from my base in Kyoto,
perfect!

Japanese Keirin

Sure enough I’d seen keirin races at track meetings
and on TV, and I’d heard snippets and rumours about
the Japanese scene and the gambling side of it,
otherwise I was wide eyed and clueless as to what it
was all about when we showed up at a near anonymous
velodrome in the suburbs of Kyoto.

The first thing to strike me was that this velodrome
actually existed, and that there were 70 odd such
velodromes throughout Japan, and all owned by the
local government and set aside purely for keirin
racing – other track racing events take place on
separate velodromes, even in the same cities. As we
approached the entrance it became abundantly clear
that this definitely was no ordinary track race, it
was more like entering a dog racing track than
anything else; coaches of scruffy old men, smoking and
coughing rolled up one after another, each and
everyone of them purchasing their nominal 10 yen (10p)
entry tickets from slot machines before entering a
huge great courtyard. It was totally clear that these
guys wouldn’t know Lance Armstrong from Red Rum, it
definitely was not about the bike!

Hack like figures in hats and scruffy suits, wide boys
with bleached hair and chains and toothless old ladies
scurried around the courtyard, betting slips littered
the ground like huge snow flakes as they huddled
around overhead TV screens, watching replays of the
action before rushing off to place their bets for the
next race, and to grab a free cup of coffee before the
next session. A strange ping pong sound echoed around
the area, heralding the start of the next round, and
the crowd hurried like hungry sheep to a feed,
direction the track.

Keirin in action

The racing was about to begin, and I wandered around
gazing in total amazement. Great high rise terraces
surrounded the one side and the ends of the velodrome,
all crammed with gamblers. I strolled around the
stands, it truly was like a dog race. Groups of
punters huddled together comparing odds and checking
their betting slips, waiting for the riders to emerge.

In front of the stands was the arena, otherwise known
as the velodrome. The whole thing was like something
out of a downtown 50’s American gambling movie. A
massive hard surfaced open track surrounded by high
fences, with corner towers for the flag wearing judges
to watch the action lay in wait. In the centre of the
track was a sky high pole, with a TV camera perched on
top, this was part of the 360 degree TV coverage of
the racing, which is not only screened to the outside
screens, but also to off site gambling establishments
and often live on the internet. Wheeled iron
stretchers lay in wait on the corners, just incase the
battle got rough. As the ping pongs continued young
uniformed boys ran around waving flags, and riding
bikes around the track, clearing and checking all was
ready for the action, almost like ball boys at a
tennis match.

The tension was building, but in true Japanese style
the atmosphere was calm and subdued. Next to emerge
was the pacer. In Japanese keirin there is no motor
bike; a keirin racer is paid to ride out the roll of a
lead motor pacer. On the far side of the track I could
pick out a line of coloured blobs, almost like
smarties in a tube – these were the racers. A whistle
blows, and one by one they walk on to the track, bow
to the crowd and make their way to the starting
blocks. It was just as I’d imagined, only better. Each
of the racers was on his standard retro style bike; no
carbon fibre, mono coque, disc wheels – just
regulation steel frames, spoked wheels and toe straps
are the order of the day (so that they are easily
repairable, and don’t interrupt with the gambling –
and all is even). Each rider has his race colours and
number, they all look huge – this is mainly due to
their dustbin lid like helmets and their body armour,
although the thighs on some of these guys were just as
outrageous. The colours belong to the velodrome, and
are handed from rider to rider at each tournament. To
all but the well initiated the riders are anonymous,
and colours and odds determine the betting form. Being
a keirin star in Japan means that you may earn up to
US$2 million a year, although their are a huge number
of lower ranked riders who earn part time wages from
their prize money, but unlike in other sports they are
not seen as heroes, not recognisable in the streets,
and due to the demands of a heavy race schedule these
riders hardly ever get the chance to compete in
regular track events – although 3 keirin racers did
take a team sprint medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics,
which has given the sport something of a status
elevation in Japan.

Japanese Keirin

Like greyhounds the riders slotted into the
starting gates and bowed one final time to the crowd,
the pacer mounted up and the race started. It was
somewhat slower and more tactical, almost purer, than
international keirin. My money was on Mr Green, he had
huge thighs. The pacer wound things up and then peeled
off. Mr Black went for it, opening up a gap. The race
was well and truly on, and you could watch the tactics
being played out (before a race riders have to state
their tactics to officials, and it is the other riders
job to prevent them from playing it out that way –
foul play is very dishonourable, and can lead to
suspension). It was a real tussle right to the line,
Mr Black was pulled back, Mr Pink took a flier and Mr
Blue just took him on the line. There was no arm
waving or victory celebrations, just heads down and
back to the stables (such things are not permitted),
and the crowd reacted similarly – sighs, grins, but no
shouting, cheering or swearing.

As the other riders left the track an almost identical
looking bunch of riders entered the track and circled
round like horses, so that you could look them over
and judge your form for the next race – next stop?
back to the betting office and the coffee of course!
It was indeed like nothing else in cycling, but well
worth the visit and the anticipation.


A brief history of keirin racing

Keirin racing was born form 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 made the
decision to build over 70 Keirin specific racing
velodromes around the country, and to license the
sport for gambling, in order to raise cash for the
local communities (this is the only sport lisceced for
gambling in Japan).

The first race took place in Kyushu provence in 1948,
and was a huge success. Shortly after this the keirin
school was opened near to 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 that was 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 1977-86. The 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 4 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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