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Keirin: Part One

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Photographs: Taz Darling

“It’s one of those things, it’s a cliché, but most of the riders say it when they come back home: you go there for the money, but in retrospect now I would have gone there just for the experience. Because if you haven’t done it, as a world-level pro sprinter, if you haven’t been to Japan, then there is a little part of your career that isn’t completed. It’s like one of these things you have to do, you have to experience it, and if you haven’t been, you really don’t know what you’re missing.”
Sir Chris Hoy world and Olympic keirin champion

Pine forests extend into the distance over rolling hills, the trees shading the small wooden cultivators of shiitake mushrooms in the valleys. The farmers’ fields are full of wasabi plants, and on the coast, the fishermen dry fish in the morning sunshine. This is the Izu peninsula, around 200 kilometres south of Tokyo. A long way from the crowded stations and urban jungles, this is archetypal rural Japan: quietly secluded, calm and stunningly beautiful. For any Japanese keirin racer, your career really begins here, near Suzenji, in the Shizuoka prefecture, because the school of the Japanese Keirin Association (JKA) is right in the middle of this evergreen peninsula. As we drive up to the school gates, the sun is shining and, in the distance, Mount Fuji peers into view. It’s an idyllic setting.
The first keirin events were held in 1948 in the Kyushu prefecture in the far south of Japan. The Japanese government made keirin (translated as “betting wheels”) the only licensed gambling allowed in Japan at the time, so popularity spread quickly. Very soon, 70 outdoor velodromes were built and a large patronage was established, attracted by low entrance fees and the chance to watch an exciting sport with plenty of thrills and spills, along with the prospect of making a yen or two on the Tote. The keirin governing body decided it needed a professional class of rider and a school where the riders could learn the trade of a keirin racer, which is where part one of our story begins.
We are greeted by Satoshi Hagiwara, who works in the education section of the JKA school. He’s standing at the window of the conference room. “They don’t like to run much,” he says, noticing a platoon of green-tracksuited, white-capped students shuffling past. Satoshi explains to us that the tuition and coaching fees at the school are all covered by the JKA, although riders have to pay for their keep, which entails food, jerseys and tools, so they have to find around ¥1.2million (around £9,000) to pay for these basics during their year at the academy. They also have to bring a track bike and a road bike and also buy all their own spares and equipment. This is an important part of the professional life they will encounter after they leave, and there is a big emphasis on independence, from fixing their own bikes to managing their coaching and fitness. It’s all down to the individual, so riders get a full cycling education, from physiology to how to fix and maintain their bike. The latter is crucial, as they don’t get any outside mechanical support once they start racing, apart from wheel building and tub gluing, which is all provided at the races by a team of dedicated wheel builders backstage.
The students know they can eventually make a good long-term living from the sport of keirin. The riders often race up to their 50th birthday, and some get closer to 60 before they hang up their wheels, so it’s an easy career choice to make for the athletically gifted, despite the challenges. The keirin school has more than a thousand applicants every year – such is the high regard for this career path in Japan. Not all the successful keirin students who make the grade are experienced cyclists: of the 75 riders who enter the school each April and September, 15 are non-cyclists. These entrants are from a very varied sporting background – the only common theme is that they are sportsmen and they can break 1min 10sec for a kilometer and get under 12.8 seconds for a flying 200 metres, which isn’t easy. The age limit is open now, so anyone who is fit enough can, in theory, get in, go through the school and become registered as a professional. The oldest rider at the school when we visited was 34.
Once they have graduated, the riders will be registered in a chosen prefecture, usually their hometown or where they have chosen to live. Satoshi leaves us to lunch with a trio of riders who can speak some English, and they make space for us at the table. These three are clearly a little older than the rest of the group, certainly not high school graduates, and it seems that they have seen a little of life outside the school gates.
Kiyotaka Hara was a boxer before he came to the school, and by the look of him, what he can’t do on the track with his legs he could probably make up for with his fists off it. He’s a big guy, but quiet and approachable, and he is clearly a popular choice with his colleagues as the leader of the current graduate year. Reona Sumi was an amateur track and road rider who represented Japan at world championships and world cups. Even dressed in regulation keirin school kit, he manages to show plenty of individuality – and he can back up the cheekiness, as he’s one of the best riders in his year. Yukihiro Mukai also represented his country, but not on a bike: he was a 400-metre runner who competed at the Athens Olympics. Needless to say, he has rangy athletic build, but is also doing well in his new sport. So it’s a rich talent pool that the JKA can draw from, and these, Satoshi tells us, are the stars of the future.
For a keirin student, the working day starts at 6.30am and finishes at 8pm (they go to bed at 10pm). Boredom seems to be the main issue, although they have a full schedule and one that allows them little free time. There is clearly a level of focus, to get through it so they can get on with racing and making a living. There’s a mature and calm atmosphere amongst the riders; they live in comfortable, exceptionally tidy dormitories, with four riders of similar ages sharing a light and airy room. There’s TV and books but no mobile phones, no email and no texting. They only get to call home once a week, on a payphone. This may sound a bit harsh, but Satoshi tells me that it’s to get them used to being cut off from the outside world, as when they start in competition they will be kept in dormitories and rooms away from any outside influence. Integrity is the mantra of the professional keirin racer.
In recent years, riders from the rest of the world have been invited to race a series of international races called the kokusai keirin. They have to base themselves in Japan for what can be a few months’ lucrative racing which usually begins with a visit to the school. The relaxing of the rules has given riders from outside Japan the chance to race in the S2 class (third down from the top level). A few of the British Olympic squad have ridden on the concrete velodromes alongside their rivals from the rest of the world; currently, British riders Matthew Crampton and Ross Edgar team up with the likes of Shane Perkins and Jason Niblett from Australia, Teun Mulder from the Netherlands, François Pervis and Michaël D’Almeida from France and Josiah Ng from Malaysia.
A few months after our trip, Ross Edgar spoke to me from Japan and told me that it’s a far cry from the boards of Manchester, as the schooling they get is the bare essentials. “They’re pretty stuck into doing the things that they have always done. We get a brief overview of the rules, but as we’re all experienced racers, we’re pretty much left to ourselves, and after a couple of weeks we get the hang of it. We talk to the teachers a lot and they help us with transportation and with when we can train. We have to fit our training around the school, but we’re not here for the training, though – we’re here for the racing and the prize money.”
As for the coaching at the school, it all looks pretty straightforward. There’s a 5km road circuit which is the scene for road races, training spins and time trials; there is a gymnasium where circuit training and weights are part of the day’s pretty intensive schedule; and there are the tracks. The five tracks at the school are of various sizes: while most indoor wooden velodromes are around 250 metres, keirin concrete velodromes are usually 400 or sometimes 500 metres long – and all of them are outdoors. This means that the racing is different, because the longer straights and wider, more gradual corners and transitions (along with the elements playing their part) all combine to create a race that is sometimes closer to racing on the open road than to track racing. But the five tracks at the school are exceptional – and that’s almost as many as the whole of Great Britain has to offer.
The groups of riders are arranged into sections and marched from workshop to track to bike store to gym and to lunch. It seems somewhat regimented and military to the outsider, but the riders appear to accept that it’s a tried-and-tested formula, as Chris Hoy explains. “It’s almost military in the way they do it. You’re just one tiny little piece of the jigsaw when you’re out there as an athlete. Step on to the same programme – it’s very structured and ordered. From the outside, it looks like it could be updated a little bit. There are certain things which you question the logic behind what they’re doing, but every time you go out there, the sports scientists, the coaches, they always try and extract as much information from us as possible. But you never seem to see that make any difference to the way that they do things. They’re very curious as to what you do, but they don’t seem to make huge changes in terms of the overall programme.”
Equipment at the school is unusual, and not exactly state-of-the-art. A massive machine that nearly fills a room looks like it should monitor just about everything a cyclist’s physique can put out. Ross Edgar recalled: “It looks like it’s made out of pieces of tractors and combine harvesters. They didn’t really tell us what to do or let us see the results.” Chris Hoy adds: “It’s like something from the 1960s or 1970s, really old-school. Basically, it’s just a method of measuring power output, but it looks like they’re using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It really is overkill.”
I asked Satoshi who has tested well out of the foreign riders and he was pretty cagey, but he said that Craig MacLean had impressed. “He could get the machine up to 60km/h and keep it there for well over 16 seconds.” Satoshi also continued to say that although the training is pretty basic, the monitoring is very technical and they regularly test the riders’ VO2 max and power outputs. But as Chris Hoy points out, it’s more about standards of testing than using any groundbreaking technology. “Nowadays there are far more effective ways of measuring power, but because they have the data from all the years gone by, they want to take the same test on the rig so you can compare year-on-year and see what athletes can produce. But a lot of the riders don’t give everything on the test because they don’t really want to show them what they can do. I didn’t do that, but some of the riders are quite guarded in terms of handing out data willy-nilly.”
Further out from the main building is another gym – a huge room full of rollers and fans. It has a damp, sweaty atmosphere, and the coach’s tower gives it an ominous feel, like an exam room, so there’s nowhere to hide. Back outside, the one notable form of training was simple but ingenious, and certainly seemed to focus the mind. A starting gate sits at one end of a 200-metre straight, while at the other is a 60-metre-long hill – more like a wall – with a 30 per cent incline. The riders line up on their standard keirin machine with a gear of 49×15 then sprint from the gun, all-out to the line at the top of the hill. Not surprisingly, this is where the real stars emerge, according to Satoshi. “The guys that win the races here usually go onto to be great keirin racers.”
Other tests in the gym all monitor and assess the strength of the keirin hopefuls, some odder than others. There’s even a hand grip strength test that Chris Hoy seemed to excel at. “I did the hand grip test and the guy said something, really animated. I said to the translator, ‘What did he say?’ And he told me, ‘He said you could crush an apple!’ But you never get any real feedback from them. You do all this stuff, and they stand and go, ‘Ooh!’ And that’s it. But it was all good fun.”
Later on during the day of our visit, the final-year students were on a slightly less fun 100-lap velodrome training ride. As we arrived, groups had begun to echelon around the bankings. Groups of six or more riders swapped off, sharing the effort. A few stragglers were trying to keep up with the lap count. They all have to complete the distance, but a fast group of the best riders gobbled up the concrete as their colleagues struggled to make it back into the pace lines. There were no obvious signs of competition, but one rider is clearly struggling and has been lapped several times. The coaches shout instructions, and there’s some encouragement from the side of the track, but not much, not enough.
The pistol pops and the session ends, and the riders drift off the track as they make their laps. The last few riders join up in a pace line to complete, but the straggler is all but spent: he can’t even lift his speed enough to join the flagging gruppetto. Eventually, he’s the last to park his bike by the changing rooms. Exhausted, a hundred laps done, he crouches down next to his bike and cries. There’s no consoling arm, no audible acknowledgment of his plight, not even any eye contact with his fellow riders or from his coaches. Just solitary tears. As the other riders line up outside, in groups indicating their place in the pyramid, our dropped man wipes his eyes with a gloved hand, pulls on his cap and runs out to fall in with the rest of his class. I’m quite staggered. He is in need of a hug, a joke, a smile – anything. But like an injured animal, he’s all but ignored by everyone around him. Keirin is certainly as tough a sport as you can get, with a transparent hierarchy, made achingly clear in these moments. Suffering is something that the Japanese keirin rider does alone.
Keirin is no ancient art – it’s not sumo or judo, and there’s no salt throwing or Shinto rituals. It’s bike racing and gambling, but it’s not like the bike racing and gambling we know in Europe. I was trying to think of a western equivalent to this sport, and quite frankly I can’t. It’s cycling, yes, but it’s also made for gambling, so it’s not exactly like the organised and often fixed world of European bike racing. I suppose that the nearest you can get is the greyhound races in the UK, for the competitors’ colours and the colourful crowd. The beauty of gambling on horses or dogs is they are less predictable than human beings, who would inevitably be lured away by unscrupulous gambling syndicates. You can spike or dope a horse, but you can’t really persuade it to cheat.
I’m saving most of the details of tactics and racing and the bicycle technology bits of keirin for part two, but there are reasons I need to mention the basics of the bicycle regulations now, as it’s integral to the sport and something that is also of great pride to the JKA. The original premise of the keirin was twofold: firstly, it was to raise money to rebuild local communities and infrastructure after the Second World War; and secondly, it was to promote the Japanese cycling industry. The organisation that started keirin in Japan was know as the Nihon Jitensha Shinkōkai (NJS) which is roughly translated as the Japan Bicycle Promotion Association, so the right equipment and the endorsement of Japanese brands was paramount from the outset.
The big difference to other forms of professional cycling is that keirin riders can only use a very basic track bike, and it has to be steel, lugged construction and of a certain specification, built from regulation tubing. Keirin wheels have to be large flange, 36-hole hubs (usually Shimano Dura-Ace) built onto regulation Araya tubular rims with regulation Soyo tubulars. The bike must also have a regulation quill stem, regulation pedals with toe clips and straps, regulation saddle, regulation handlebars and a round section non-aero regulation seat post. Everything on the bike is stamped with the letters NJS, which is not a sign of quality per se, but throughout the years brands that achieve this approval are much sought-after by the fixed-gear cognoscenti. The real purpose of regulation NJS equipment, however, is to level the playing field. Riders cannot compete on technological grounds, just with their legs, which means there are some guys who elect to power their way through and push monstrous gears, as Ross Edgar found out. “All the tracks are outdoors, and you’re on a standard steel frame and standard spoked wheels. There’s no fancy carbon wheels so everybody is the same. It makes it much more of a strength exercise with the bike’s weight, and it’s flexing underneath you. I generate my speed through cadence, so it’s much harder. You need to get used to the bigger gears.”
Another peculiarity of the Japanese keirin racers is that very few try to break into the world keirin or wider sprinting circles like the cycling world cup, the world championships or even the Olympic podium (with the one notable exception of Koichi Nakano who won ten world sprint titles back-to-back between 1977 and 1986). Many think this is because they aren’t accustomed to the tactics or don’t have what it takes; the truth is probably nearer to the fact they can’t really justify the time off from racing and travelling all over the world. The world stage isn’t as big as the home one to Japanese keirin racers, so it’s far better to be at home making good money and maintaining a position in the rankings. It’s possibly similar to the dilemma that faces a Premiership footballer: club or country? And when you realise that many of these guys are huge-earning stars with flash cars and big houses, why would you travel across the world to race for nothing? It’s not just commercial gain, though – it’s also a matter of professionalism. They want to be fit and ready for the big races in Japan. Risking injury and time off away would also let down their fans and the paying public. Ross Edgar goes further – he reckons that it’s not just about logistics, it’s also about surfaces. “It’s so different to racing on the wood. The top Keirin riders come over to race world cups and we smoke them, but it’s the same for us over there on the concrete.”
And as Chris Hoy found out, the Japanese riders may not want to race in the Olympics, but they are fascinated with their counterparts from the rest of the world. “Half the time they’re very curious as to what you do in your training. You go to the races and you all stay in these dormitories and they all come round and knock on your door and usually bring along a present – a six pack of lager or food or whatever. They all drink and smoke as well, which is bizarre. It’s like a profession, like a job, so they turn up, they race once a day during a three-day event, and most of them are doing just two races a month. The rest of the time, in theory, they train hard to make sure they go well. But really, up to a certain level, it just seems to be a profession. I mean, obviously they’re top-ranked riders, it’s more than that – they really are trying to excel and trying to be top-level sports people, so they are training just as hard as everybody else. But it’s more the kind of guys who really were high-level when they were in their 20s and 30s but are still racing well into their 50s, some of these guys. So it almost becomes a hobby that pays their wages.”
The only similarities keirin has with Europe’s (and, originally, America’s) six-day racing scene are the fixed gear bikes, the beer and the smoking (riders and spectators) and the gambling, and that it is equally as baffling to the uninitiated. Japanese keirin is also very different to the Olympic keirin, because in Japan the pacer is a ballot-elected rider rather than the Derny used at Olympic level, where it’s contested by six riders instead of nine. But there is an element of formalism, tradition and discipline in keirin that sets it apart. Keirin is a profession, a way of life, and a respected one at that. Similar to other Japanese sports, and businesses for that matter, keirin is based on a pyramid structure, a hierarchy which establishes itself early on at the keirin school. But there is a fairness too: like sumo, keirin is categorised and only pitches racers from the same category against one another. The result is a level playing field, which is good for the punter and a healthy competition base with lucrative prize values, making it good for the riders too. And those riders accrue some pretty extraordinary prize money from the Tote: top prize winner Keita Ebine earned nearly ¥225 million in prize money (£1.7million) in 2009, which includes the ¥100 million (£750,000) prize for winning the Grand Prix Final in December. And keirin continues to be good for the local communities it was established to support, with the country’s 47 existing velodromes generating annual sales of 60 million tickets worth around ¥800 billion (£6billion).
The betting system is as confusing as the race itself, but to get the hang of it, some understanding of the parimutuel betting system is helpful. Basically, it is a way of determining the odds at the start of the race when the pool is closed, rather than setting the odds before the race. The machine invented to help the establishment bookkeepers with the maths was called a Totalisator, or Tote as we flutterers know and love it. You increase your payout possibilities by predicting more than just the winner. In keirin, there are seven types of betting tickets. These are from the standard perfecta (predicting first and second place in exact order) or quinella (first and second in any order) through to trifecta (first, second and third in exact order).
The race rules are pretty simple – from the outside, at any rate. An elected rider paces nine others over four laps up to 50km/h, pulling off before the final 600 metres, when it’s a dash for the line. Tactics add some complication, as riders from the same prefecture create mini-alliances for lead-outs and pacing. The nine riders are split into three prefecture teams, so any single rider is often up against more than one other. But alliances aside, it’s usually down to the individual to fight their corner. The basic race tactics break into three types of effort: senko, which is a long sprint where some riders can jump, lead out the whole way and still win the race; makari, where you wait until midway around the last lap; or oikami where you leave the sprint to the last corner. You have to declare your own tactic and gear selection before the race which, needless to say, adds to the anticipation and speculation of the regular form-studying keirin punter.
And the JKA realises that its punters are changing as Japanese gambling trends shift. Although still strong, the blue-collar support for keirin has waned slightly and now they are trying to attract new customers into the sport by opening later, adding more comfortable seats and even women-only stands. Mobile phone and online gambling has also renewed interest. It’s not just the gambling, but also the traditions of the racing that sustain keirin today, as Chris Hoy noticed when he traveled there in 2005. “What struck me at first was just the tradition behind it. I’ve only been there once, but from what other guys were saying, things just hadn’t changed in the last ten years. Even guys who had been there 20 years before, in their very early days, they were saying it was literally the same dormitories, the same décor, the same routines. There have been very minor changes over the years, but really it’s the same since day one, and you get that feel of tradition. Maybe that just reflects in the Japanese culture across the board – it’s something that they go in for in a big way.”

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