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Keirin: Part Two

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Photographs: Taz Darling

Shinjuku station in Tokyo pretty much sums up my experiences in Japan: its huge underground terminal is very colourful and brightly lit, full of people, yet nobody hassles anyone. And it’s all totally confusing which, paradoxically, I’m beginning to find strangely liberating. Not for the first time in Japan, I’m trying to recognise a station’s signage just by the graphic shapes in its written name; this one’s a little boat followed by an elephant and a snowflake. I didn’t expect to have the signs written in English – after all, I’m a long way from King’s Cross, and Shinjuku is totally Japanese. And the Japanese, it seems, have thought of everything, including a help machine that prints a ticket showing you when your next train leaves, from what platform, and how long it will take to walk there. With ticket in pocket, we easily found the station stop for Tachikawa, joining the throng of race-goers heading towards the velodrome through the special exit built specifically for crowded race days. The velodrome is a pretty grand venue, perfectly located in blue-collar suburban Tokyo and, as such, it appeals directly to its gambling public. Tachikawa is one of the biggest tracks in Japan and the favoured venue for the biggest track meet of the year, the Keirin Grand Prix Final – the FA Cup or Super Bowl of Japanese keirin – culminating in perhaps the shortest bicycle race with the highest winner’s prize: ¥100million ($1million).
The gates to the rear of the velodrome are heavily guarded. It’s a strictly no-go area for the public as the racers are kept away from all outside influence. Fans congregate outside the car park for a glimpse of their heroes as we are taken into the waiting areas beyond the gates. As journalists who are allowed into the riders’ quarters, we are checked and handed face masks and told politely, but in no uncertain terms, to stay away from the riders and try not to get in the way. Inside, Tachikawa Velodrome resembles Shinjuku station: it’s all very colourful as hundreds of officials, cameramen, riders and mechanics all go about their business without hassle and with very little noise. Riders are assembling and adjusting their bikes, flight cases and bike boxes litter the corridors, and it seems that pretty well anywhere is OK to work on replacing sprockets and chains. With all this tinkering going on, it has the appearance of an amateur track meet, not the highest prize-winning track final in the world. Top riders never fix their own bikes on the European pro circuit, so these superstars of Japanese sport seem low-rent by comparison (keirin riders are allowed no outside assistance with the basic mechanics). It’s the preliminary day for the meet itself and the riders are all here. They have to be checked by the medical staff and so all must report to the velodrome on the day before racing starts. All forms of outside communication (mobiles, BlackBerrys, laptops) must be handed over, and an in-house team of mechanics check over every rider’s machine.
The standard NJS bike philosophy, as dictated by the Japan Bicycle Promotion Association, or NJS, is to level the playing field for the racers so the best competitors ride the same kit as the also-rans. For a closet bike geek like me, this is totally enthralling. In some respects, it’s a bit like giving a field athlete a regulation discus or javelin, although a bicycle – even a simple track bicycle – is a sum of several complicated parts. In many ways, for a road racer, it takes you back in time to when a local frame builder made a racing bike for you. In Britain, it was in the days when a Manchester-based rider would ride a Harry Hall; a London rider, Condor or Harry Quinn; Leicester-based riders rode Owen Blower’s; and if you hailed from Stoke, a visit to Brian Rourke would be part of your rite of passage to the ranks of decent amateur racer. In those days, a Pinarello or Colnago was the preserve of a continental pro team, or an image-conscious amateur rider with more than one paper round.
Most keirin riders will use the same frame for a year or two, and the only element that isn’t restricted – the only area of self-expression, it seems – is the paint job. Crashes (and even changes in atmospheric conditions) mean that bikes are regularly rebuilt, and part of the beauty of steel frames is they can rebuild them should you bend one. Yoshiaki Nagasawa, who built frames for ten-time world sprint champion Koichi Nakano, explained to me that riders change their frame geometry depending on the race – sometimes quite literally depending upon weather conditions. Although they have a fair idea as to what they like to ride, respected experts like Nagasawa are essential partners to the fine-tuning of their position. As a result, the riders establish a bond with their builder at the start of their careers. So, as it once was in the UK, it’s usually a local builder who supplies frames to the riders in their prefecture. A good keirin frame is still expensive and there’s very little in the way of accepted rider sponsorship (riders have to buy all their gear too), so most of the riders will have to pay the builder full price for their services. Recognised NJS manufacturers include Level, Makino, Giro, Presto, Peloton, Bridgestone, Samson, Kilo, Kalavinka and our old friend Nagasawa. They all have to use NJS-approved steel tubes and they are made with the traditional lugged and brazed construction. And although this isn’t the ideal for the huge forces involved in sprinting, some concessions to beefy construction are made. For example, tubes and lugs can be reinforced, but the diameter of the tubes is limited and checked just like the rest of the bike’s components. Experiments with aluminium tubes and even carbon have come and gone, and the NJS has, for the time being, stuck steadfastly with the idea that components should be Japanese and the frames should be steel and made by Japanese builders.
Tyres seem to be the main area of concern for bike inspectors, and they are also checked at the end of every heat, as British sprinter Ross Edgar, who spent a season keirin racing in Japan, found out: “They are really strict on tyres. If there’s any contact, you have to change them, and that gets pretty expensive at £70 a pop.” The mechanics working from the bike store at the velodrome do all of the tyre and wheel repairs, of which there are many – it’s the only part of the bike that the riders don’t have to maintain. Soyo, the NJS-approved tyre manufacturer, provides the current range of tubulars, which although similarly lightweight to usual track tyres, are quite different to those used on wooden tracks. They have the classic Woods valve rather than the industry-recognised Presta type, and the glue looks and smells more like carpet tile contact adhesive than the gloopy stuff we use. The race tyres for standard conditions are Soyo Gold Star, which have a vulcanised integral inner tube, as well as a seamless construction that’s exceptionally low profile and helps reduce rolling resistance. The idea of track racing in the rain is pretty mind-boggling, but race in the wet they do, and the tyres are checked for flints and splits after each event with a regularity verging on OCD. What is remarkable is that all this goes on at the entrance to the arena; the gladiatorial references to preparation are all too apparent.
The NJS wheel specification is as basic as it gets (you probably train on better specification wheels). They must be 36-hole hubs built onto Araya 16B Gold rims which are super-strong and, interestingly, were once the choice of six-day riders before deep section rims took over. Some riders try four-cross spoke patterns and occasionally tied and soldered spoke crossings in the search for a stiffer wheel, but crashes are plentiful alongside resultant failures, so wheels are clearly a major area of concern. Shimano Dura-Ace Track is the favoured hub type, and the only upgrade I noticed here were colour-coded dust covers.
As with any track event, the fixed gear rules. Selection of sprockets seems to take up a considerable amount of time, but the necessary disclosure to the public of the gear you will be riding prevents you from changing once racing is underway – so if the wind picks up, you’re stuck with what you’ve got. The rest of the bike is even more basic: Nitto quill stems and seat pins and steel sprint bars, all with the requisite NJS stamp. Like tyres, chains are changed on a seemingly daily basis. Vertex supplies the NJS standard and these are adjusted carefully and then held in place with chain tugs. Tension is checked and rechecked: safety seems paramount, something that’s sorely missing from amateur racing. One of the only component manufacturers outside of Japan to receive the NJS stamp of approval is, ironically, the most European of manufacturers, Campagnolo. In 1991, the Italians introduced a keirin group, with what is pretty much the track groupset produced today, including a round, non-aero seat post and the now super-collectable 36-hole large flange Sheriff Star hubs. These days, however, Shimano rules at the keirin.
We returned to the velodrome on the final day of competition and we’re back in the waiting area again, just before the first race. The first group of lower category riders are led into a waiting room for their final preparations. Some are lost in their iPods, others just stare into space, and there’s clearly a charged atmosphere, but no interaction – just concentration and individual preparation. They stretch and shout aloud. The atmosphere has changed in an instant. It feels immediately charged, and the waiting area falls into silence. As they are called to the gate, the racers wait behind the doors of the entrance to the track. It’s peculiar to say the least and stops you in your tracks. It feels more like the Coliseum than a velodrome. The differences in preparation compared to world and Olympic events is remarkable, something that Sir Chris Hoy, a champion at both, found particularly intriguing during his spell in Japan: “I hadn’t experienced anything like it before – the atmosphere and the waiting room, the noise and the Japanese guys. You really feel you’re a fish out of water. No matter how many international keirins you’ve done, it doesn’t prepare you for a Japanese race. You sit in the waiting room, this very strict routine that everyone adheres to – the customs, it’s bizarre. You’re sitting there and they’re chucking stuff about, shouting, and you’re thinking, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ You’re used to just having your teammates with you, or your coach with you, the same routine, but this is different. There are no coaches, there are no helpers, you’re just on your own. Whichever area of Japan you’re from, your other riders are supposed to help you. So they pick you up at the end of the race, take your helmet and your jersey, and if you won the race, then you get this bag of drinks that you then hand to the other competitors. It’s just little routines that they’ve done since day one that they still do. It’s cool that they still maintain that – there is still tradition.”
Each keirin meeting is a series of races spread over three days, culminating in a final on the last evening. The detail is pretty involved, but needless to say all riders will compete each day, even if they are last in every race. The racing itself is a tactical struggle, but the big difference with Japanese keirin is that the riders have to disclose what tactic they are going to use in the following day’s race as well as the size of their gear. Regular punters digest this information carefully; they know what each rider is capable of and they will be able to predict fairly accurately the chances a rider has of achieving a win or a place. The routines of tradition continue at the Tachikawa velodrome. Before entering the fray, the riders bow numerous times: to their fellow competitors, to their bikes and, finally, to the waiting crowd. It’s captivating stuff. Onto their stage, and the riders seemingly merge into one, with blobby helmets and anonymous plain-coloured jerseys. It levels the playing field, too.
As we said in part one of this story (1 19), the basic race tactics break into three types of effort: senko, a long sprint where some riders can jump and lead out the whole way to the line; makari, where you must wait until midway around the last lap; or oikami, where you leave your sprint to the last corner. But for something that has apparent organisation and prearrangement, it’s actually bedlam out there.
This is where body armour comes in handy. All the professional keirin racers wear shoulder pads and back protectors. This may seem a little over-the-top, but it’s sensible, as Edgar explains: “It’s a long-term career for them, so they want to protect themselves from serious injury. If they crash, they need to get up and get racing again.” And get up immediately, too, as a fallen rider must complete the distance to register at the finish. One crash I witnessed at the Keirin Grand Prix was the stuff of gladiators, with a grimacing and battered competitor limping around the track to a standing ovation. But when European riders race there, it’s not real hostility. It’s just the way the racing is – serious and certainly full contact, as Edgar discovered: “Some of the riders think we are there to take their money, so not all of them will talk to you, although we [non-Japanese invited riders] generate a lot more interest and money in the racing. But they can get quite aggressive in the races – it’s pretty physical. It’s full-on and the racing’s not easy. In international racing, you’ll get disqualified for any contact or barging, but here it’s part of it. Sometimes they really get stuck into you and it can get a bit dangerous. It’s especially dodgy in the rain because they like to give you a bit more contact. I’m only 73 kilos, so when some of the riders are 10 kilos heavier than you, it’s hard to come out on top. I like to keep it clean and stay out of trouble. They’re never nasty, the Japanese. They are so polite. They can be pedantic too, though – I like to have a laugh, but you can’t always joke about stuff with them, mainly because it takes you ten minutes to explain exactly what you meant.”
At the Tachikawa velodrome, the elite riders are arriving in the waiting area. They cruise nonchalantly on the rollers in the warm-up room. Olympic silver medallist Toshiaki Fushimi, the eventual Keirin Grand Prix winner Keita Ebine and the rather tough-looking veteran Shinichi Gokan all stand out from the average riders, and their signature warm-up kits and immaculate bikes set them apart. Then there are the shorts, which denote the riders’ ranking. Plain black shorts with a green stripe and white stars belong to the A-class, which has three categories. The next group, S-class, wear black shorts with a red stripe and stars. The elite SS riders have all-red shorts with stars and a special badge – these are the top nine men who have won either the most money, the most points or the most events on the circuit. They receive their shorts before the grand final and keep them for the following year. In this competitive atmosphere, it’s the elites who seemingly have the higher ground, and their presence isn’t lost on champions as accomplished as Chris Hoy. “There’s no real hard-and-fast rule as to who is and who isn’t, but it tends to be the ones who are faster and higher up the pecking order [who] tend to be a little bit less welcoming.”
Back on the track, the action is hotting up. As day falls into evening, the races increase in value, the tension builds and the shorts become more colourful as the big-name competitors prepare for their events. Riders returning to the waiting area are increasingly pumped-up, knackered and bashed about. But as I take a seat in the main stand (and try to work out the finale of a race I just lost on), I’m struggling to understand the tactics. There are some similarities with road sprinting in keirin: they have their designated lead-out men, like those road specialists who take on the pace with 1,000, 750 and 500 metres to go, and – as Mark Cavendish will tell you – give the sprinters every chance of a clear run for the line. But in Keirin, as in road racing, there are the unknowns: crashes, switches, being boxed in or held up, forced wide or just running out of kick.
Nine riders take to the track – three groups of three, each an alliance of riders from the same prefecture, and each of the trio having a particular strength as lead-out, protector or finisher. It gets interesting, as the three-man alliance usually means that the following rider in the team is intended to block and protect the wheel of the one in front, so the battle for wheels is fairly unbridled and crashes are pretty regular.
Like professional road racing, it is the team rather than the individual which gets the win and shares the spoils. The tactical decisions are made beforehand, so there’s not much room for improvisation, but the most exciting part about keirin is that all the riders are trying to win, regardless of their standing and chosen tactic. And the riders must have alliances in place, as Hoy discovered. “The racing is very much done in lines. You usually get three lines in each race – three groups of three – and in each line there is going to be someone who is being set up for the win, and there are two working for that person. That’s why it’s difficult for a foreign rider going out there. You’re not actually riding on a level playing field – you’ve got two or three guys trying to win and the rest trying to stop you winning, so it becomes stacked in their favour. In theory, we should be able to win these races because we’ve got more power and more speed, but it doesn’t always work that way.”
It looks like a team sprint combined with a madison at the same time, so unsurprisingly I’m pretty clueless as to what’s going on. The alliances aren’t always clearly defined, and only the regular punters seem to know the riders and their strengths. As races come and go, and I revisit the Tote in countless futile attempts to land a placing, the screen shows us how much money is being placed on the final showdown: in the region of $13million – a not dissimilar figure to what I feel like I have lost this evening. As night falls and the final approaches, fireworks and fanfares welcome the big hitters to the track and the big stars of keirin are introduced to the crowd. There’s more bowing and ceremony, and once the racing is underway, the sprint for the line is a confusing muddle of cheering and flashbulbs. I didn’t expect to win my bet (my rider finished last), but I did notice in the replay that he laid it all on the line senko-style for the winner, so in a sense I felt like I shared some of the spoils. And I was getting the hang of it. I wanted another go, but it was too late: the prizes had been given and the Tote windows were firmly shut.
A graduate rolling out of the Keirin School is set for a potential 30 years or more of professional sprinting, possibly the longest career of any professional sportsman – certainly that of any cyclist. They need to maintain an average to remain in the professional ranks, but racers in their 50s are not uncommon, and a bumper pay day like the keirin final makes for a pretty comfortable living. This arm of cycle sport bears little resemblance to the professional peloton, yet the prize money is tenfold – perhaps why riders from Europe aren’t invited to stay for long. However, inevitable change is affecting keirin and it seems this way of life is under threat. Hoy recognises that keirin and sports in general in Japan are going through revisions, although the authorities are working hard to blend the influx of new riders with the tradition of the Japanese Keirin Association.
“I think it’s just interesting for them because it’s an event which they invented, so they’re seeing guys from other parts of the world coming in and trying to beat them at their own game. It’s very similar to sumo wrestling, because that was always a Japanese-only affair, and it was very closed to the outside world. However, since they opened it up, it’s often the eastern Europeans who are the best guys now – it’s not the Japanese who are dominating. I think there is a concern from the Japanese riders’ association that if they open the keirin up completely to international riders, then it would become dominated by foreign riders, so they’re very protective of their profession. That’s very understandable and you understand why they’re that way – they just want to protect what they’ve got.”

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