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4 Aug 2021

Cyclist visits the Japan Keirin School for the inside line on why the Japanese keirin is so much more than just a sport 

Words: Josh Cunningham

Japanese keirin riders are in many ways the archetypal martial artists. They must display the virtues of a Samurai warrior, the fighting spirit of a karate master, and the rituals of a Sumo. The difference is that their weapon is a bicycle. 

‘They take it so seriously,’ says British track cyclist Matt Crampton. ‘It’s so much more than just a sport there.’ Crampton took Bronze in the keirin at the 2008 World Championships, and as a result gained himself an invitation to ride in Japan during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. ‘There are opportunities to race in Europe, but keirin doesn’t carry the same significance here as it does in Japan. For a sprinter it is one of the great experiences – to go out to Japan and live, train, race and immerse yourself in the culture.’

Keirin, which although it has no exact translation, is thought to be a rough aggregate of the words ‘bike’, ‘race’ and ‘wheels’ – originated in the city of Kitakyushu in 1948. In a post-war economic slump, the government built 70 velodromes across the country and made keirin racing one of only four sports that the public could legally gamble on, in an attempt to reinvigorate local communities. Keirin, then, has always been more than just a sport. For Japan it was a vehicle for growth; for spectators an opportunity to make a quick buck. But for the riders, keirin would become a way of life. 

All of Japan’s 2,600 or so home-grown keirin riders are obliged to complete a year’s study at the fabled school in Shuzenji. Founded in 1950, the Japan Keirin School provides an education for aspirants that, according to its online application form, covers ‘Spirit of self-control, honesty, affinity, skill, along with the knowledge necessary for a healthy physical and mental professional athlete.’ 

The school has an annual intake of around 100 Japanese students, aged between 18 and 22, selected from over 1,000 hopefuls via a series of physical and mental assessments. It doesn’t matter whether an applicant has even ridden a bike; the school maintains it can turn anybody with the right attributes into a keirin rider. 

Even invited international stars such as Crampton have to attend the school, although they get away with a three-week crash course before being allowed to compete. ‘It was mostly classroom stuff, as there are a lot of strict rules,’ says Crampton. ‘You have to look a certain way; you have to race a certain way; you have to learn the system of how people bet on you. Then there’s mechanics, technique, and practical stuff with mock races. We even practised crashing, as there are rules for that too.’ 

And that’s just the theory-based side of the education, as Australian Shane Kelly, an Olympic bronze medallist in keirin and seasoned veteran of the Japanese circuit, reveals. ‘For the Japanese guys it’s pretty full on,’ he says in regard to the monastic boarding students. ‘They have a 6.30am roll call, followed by drills and chores before breakfast, then a whole day of various forms of training.’ Hill climb efforts and exercises on the track precede lunch, followed by classroom work, a roller session, and simulation races in the afternoon. 

‘They then have dinner and another roll call at 10pm before lights out. It’s so regimented it’s almost militaristic. I would have loved it.’ 

Come graduation day, students represent their home prefecture (the Japanese equivalent of a county) in graduation races before crowding around to watch each other’s graduation speeches. These orations are often highly emotional and passionate, with riders giving thanks and telling of how they will honour their families. Some have been known to break out into song in the past, and an elaborate few have even slipped in a marriage proposal. 

Money talks

Many of Japan’s 45 keirin stadiums are vast arenas, able to cater for thousands of spectators with huge grandstands and large trackside screens, but apart from big events such as the season-ending Keirin Grand Prix at the Tachikawa Velodrome in Tokyo, they are often eerily deserted. Half of the elderly male attendees choose to watch on screens below the stands, and many don’t even turn up because of the extensive TV coverage the sport receives. That’s because keirin spectators aren’t necessarily interested in bike racing – they’re interested in gambling, and their local bookies is far more accessible than a trip to the track. 

If a rider commits shikaku (a misdemeanour such as causing a crash, or even being tactically naive) while racing, they are punished with disqualification, a forfeit of prize money, bans, and are sometimes sent back to school – not for safety reasons, but because of the impact on bets. The powerful influence gambling has on the sport doesn’t end there, with keirin meets often timed to coincide with the pension release dates of the ageing demographic, and doping being prohibited primarily because of the potential impact it might have on odds, rather than on moral grounds.

Keirin bets are said to total over ¥1.1 trillion (£6.5 billion) annually in Japan, but a rider’s winnings can potentially outstrip even those of the most fortunate punter, with some riders taking home up to £100,000 at a single meet, and sometimes in excess of £1 million a year.  

‘Keirin is a career, not just a sport,’ Crampton confirms. ‘It’s a full-time job, where consistency and professionalism mean everything. As you go up the levels, it only gets more serious.

‘You have to nominate a tactic that matches your riding style. The two staples are the senko and makuri rider. A senko rider’s strength is endurance – they ride on the front and hope nobody can come round – whereas a makuri rider will sit on and sprint from behind. But there’s also oikomi riders, who wait for the final 100 metres before sprinting. There are usually about three of each in a race, and although they wouldn’t discuss anything with each other, you would have three lines of riders, with rider types working together for their own interests. It’s full contact too, and riders make use of that to protect their line… it can get pretty dicey.’ 

A rider will always be aiming to win, but without the support of an adopted ‘line’ their chances will dwindle, and a line that includes varying rider types will have the best chance of eventual success when the final lap rolls around. But formation isn’t the only consideration when placing a bet – the serious gamesters will also deliberate over thigh circumferences, form guides, starting positions and, for the truly dedicated, even blood groups and star signs.

Down to business

There is a formulaic, functional feel to a Japanese keirin meet – one that aligns perfectly with the nation’s stereotype. ‘When you go to a race meet you’re on lock down,’ Crampton says. ‘Any device that could provide outside influence is taken off you as soon as you go through the gates, to stop you interfering with the bets. The riders stay in a big dormitory, four to a room, with a big communal dining area. It’s great because it lets you focus, get on with your job, and for us internationals also to have a chat, a drink and integrate with the other riders.’ 

On track, it’s not quite so amiable. ‘The pressure builds for long periods, and you’ve got to be quite mentally strong – especially in the few minutes before starting. You warm up, go to the waiting room while the other races are going on, then do your parade laps while everyone places their bets. Then we wait,’ Crampton says. 

There’s an enclosure in which the riders are held, and while their bikes are inspected there will be various forms of leg-smacking, salt throwing and shouting in rituals intended for both psychological effect and religious benediction. ‘Then we come out onto the track, bow, get our bikes, bow, look at the crowd, bow, look forward, bow, and finally strap in.’

The image of nine keirin riders is a distinctive sight. Clad in colourful logo-free jerseys and mushroom-like helmets, the only decorations are their race numbers, with a stripe of colour on their shorts indicating racing category. Bulging body armour not only makes their upper bodies slightly more proportionate with their colossal legs, but protects them against the inevitable crashes that the feisty racing style causes. 

Alongside tradition, the frequency of crashes is one reason for the dated steel bikes, due to their robustness, but Kelly offers an alternative explanation: ‘There are trillions of Yen going through the keirin betting system, so everything has to be standardised to create a level playing field. Everyone has the same wheels, the same tyres, the same everything, and it must be approved with the the stamp of the NJS [Nihon Jitensha Shinkokai – the governing body].’ The only variable is a rider’s choice of frame which, although it must be steel, can be constructed by one of a handful of designated frame builders. 

But where heritage restricts development in the men’s sport, the rules are more fluid on the women’s side. Out of action since 1964, ‘Girl’s Keirin’ was reintroduced in 2012 and, because of the relative lack of protectiveness over the rules, women are allowed to use carbon frames and disc wheels – a difference that may cause initial distress for the ageing men’s spectatorship but could be key to the sport’s sustainability. 

Born of post-war regeneration, but with cultural DNA that predates its inception by centuries, Japanese keirin is an entity unto itself – a unique mixture of contrasting themes that blends aggression with respect, raw power with spirituality and an athlete’s passion with a gambler’s indifference. But throughout its patchwork of obscurities, Japanese keirin is threaded with bike racing familiarities, and perhaps it’s the way in which they combine that makes the sport such a fascinating enigma. In fact, we’d bet it is.