Bradley O'Grady - Girl's Keirin

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All Images: ©Mark Morinishi

The Japan flag flutters on a bitterly cold Friday night in mid-December, lit by the piercing floodlights of Yokkaichi velodrome. On the outskirts of this long-time port-town, among its hulking chemical plants and national road routes, a group of dispatched keirin professionals are busy in the proverbial zone on their final day of racing of a three-day event.

This ‘nighter’ race in Yokkaichi is one for the A-class riders, or those from the second professional tier of Japanese track racing. Alongside them however there are fourteen female riders contributing to the backstage atmosphere — getting warm on the rollers, oiling limbs and tinkering with tyre pressures to bide the time until they’re called to race. On each of the three days at Yokkaichi there are eleven scheduled races, with two per day for the riders representing the Girls’ Keirin brand.

It is a brand. After the betting sport’s inception post-war female competition had its place within the closed world of keirin racing. While archival race records might be hard to access, the plight of women racers was forever honoured in the 1956 movie Onna Keirin-ō (女競輪王). But by the time of the the golden age of keirin in the 80s and 90s high-level competitive racing for ladies had disappeared. With keirin’s business model failing, the NJS or JKA as it is now more commonly known, wanted to bring the sport into the present, give it a new dimension and most importantly appeal to new and hopefully younger markets. Thus in 2012 female competition was restarted. As opposed to the old-school appeal of the men racing on their traditional steel bikes, the aesthetic is brighter and sexier with sleek carbon machines running on a rainbow of disc and tri-spoke wheels matched with jersey colours. And not a pair of black bibs in sight.

The bikes are closer to those we see in modern track racing as dictated by UCI and Olympic standards. The bumping, blocking and sweeping which makes up a big part of the men’s racing is removed and so the riders choose not to wear excessive armour. As with the more traditional bikes, the frames and components raced must be sourced from a select group of suppliers, for fair play and to protect business at home. Prestigious names like Bridgestone and Kalavinka endure on the downtubes of most of the bikes. A lot of the male riders will choose muted colours, but the ladies seem to be allowed more creativity with their paintjobs. 22-year old Makibi Takagi, a rider whose wins in 2016 have led her to be confirmed for the prestigious Grand Prix at the end of December, is riding on a neon-pink Anchor frame adorned with hearts. “It’s customised”, she says proudly through a smile.

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Another mission of the Girls’ Keirin is to send a top female rider to Tokyo 2020. Takagi is one of those that has been approached. She didn’t start life as a bike rider. “I made my keirin debut three years ago and before that I spent one year at keirin school. Before keirin I didn’t do cycling. I played handball at high school and junior high school.”

Makibi expands on why she became a keirin racer. “I once saw a documentary on track racing on TV and I simply thought I really want to do that. It featured some of the riders I’m racing with now and it was inspirational. I always wanted to be a professional sportsperson when I was at high school and when I saw keirin I saw a way to realize that. I wanted to be paid and couldn’t get paid through playing handball despite my level.”

Many of the other female racers didn’t come from cycling either. “People come from all backgrounds. One of the girls was a professional comedian before keirin. Some are school teachers, some are athletes. Kanako Kase has raced with the Japan national track team before, but she was also a government employee at city hall.” Those behind the Girls’ Keirin seem to be working hard to draw in talented athletes to the sport, athletes who are willing to leave their studies or careers behind for the rigorous and disciplined but lucrative world of keirin racing. 

When talking about her experiences at the keirin school in Shuzenji, Makibi says “It’s a very disciplined lifestyle. Strict. You must be on time for everything. We live in the school away from the town. It’s isolated. All training and education during keirin school is strictly separated by sex. The girls don’t train with the guys. There were 20 students enrolled in my grade but two dropped out so only 18 graduated to the professional ranks.”

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While there are a few thousand male keirin professionals in Japan there are only around one hundred female pros. There has been a steady increase since 2012 but as Makibi states only a limited number make it through to graduation and professional racing each year.

As for the men “Our relationship follows the normal senpai (senior) and kohai (junior) system and that’s that. It doesn’t matter whether a rider is a man or a woman. It’s based on where you train and who you share your home track with. Within the sport there might be some who don’t like the idea of the Girls’ Keirin but everybody has always been very kind and very supportive.” Around the track there is no obvious difference in treatment for or by either sex, only mutual respect and of course understanding. As is culturally expected, all riders will help each other with bikes and equipment post-race.

On day one of racing in Yokkaichi Kanako Kase and Makibi Takagi take first place in races six and seven of the day. They’re two of the favourites for the final day — Kase the most decorated female track racer and Takagi the current highest ranked rider. On day two Kase gets another first place, but Takagi is pushed out to a disappointing fifth from seven in her heat. Her win on the previous day is enough to take her through to the final.

On Friday, as the A-class riders roll in from their final races, the girls step out for their presentation lap in regulation wear provided by the Yokkaichi track, so as to stop any betting tips being signalled. Upon their return they band together in a small trackside waiting room, a room where the walls must have stories of some vicious rivalries and exchanges over its years in use. A few token stretches, dynamic jumps and squats. Some choose to cut off completely and close their eyes while they wait, shutting out the purgatory before their judgement on the track. They’re ready. The tracksuits are peeled back and the shouts of self-encouragement start. The familiar battle cries of this unique culture. The riders are ready for one and a half kilometres in the pain cave.

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Announcement — all bets are off. The riders enter to fanfare from a gate across from the main stand. They’re on wire-spoked wheels. According to Takagi “We didn’t use the disc wheels because a problem was found and if one is bad nobody else can use them because all of the equipment must be equally matched.”

The pacer is circling as the riders push their bikes into the blocks. A ceremonial bow before mounting. Last-minute stretches, shouts and slaps of the muscles show off each rider’s pre-race ritual. The pacer comes around the bank and passes the riders to the sound of the gun. Takagi, on the inside wearing the white number one jersey, immediately takes front wheel. She’s one of the favourites and this indicates to racers and punters that she’ll be working for herself and attacking from long-distance in the senko style. The arena is silent but for a few shouts from fans. The female riders make up a much smaller pool of racers than the men but clever marketing and merchandising which includes collectibles, trading cards and rider-specific goods combined with online coverage and friendly social media profiles has led to Girls’ Keirin having a surprisingly large fan base. This is typical within popular culture in Japan whereby celebrities are idolised and supporters are fanatically loyal to their heroes.

Makibi is still on the front, tucked in behind the pacer and regularly looking over her shoulders for moves. The line is strung out but perfectly straight as the riders enter the third paced lap. Halfway around and the bell sounds counting down to the final lap. The pacer slides off left and immediately two riders swarm in front of Takagi. The purity of the long attack has been compromised. She stays on their wheels as they fade and with the help of a bit of a draft and some power pushing she comes around them and on to the bank at the third corner. First place now. Later than planned but this is her power move. She buries it. Head down. A few looks up to gasp for air and measure her energy against the approaching finish line. She gets it. By a couple of bike lengths.

The fans gather in the post-race presentation area, all there for Takagi with their branded towels and pin-badges. The word in Japanese is otaku, those obsessed with something so much that it becomes a part of their identity, from popstars to plastic products. Takagi arrives on stage still in race gear, her pink sneakers pointed inwards, cutting the unmistakeable silhouette of a track racer. She addresses the crowd. “After yesterday’s performance I wanted to do much better for the fans. I did my best today. Other riders tried to block me so the senko didn’t quite work out. Thank you for all your support and all the bets you placed. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Yokkaichi. I’m very glad so many of you came out to support us. I have a little more time until the Grand Prix at the end of December so from now I’ll do my best to train hard.” She accepts her flowers and is swarmed again this time for photo opportunities at the front of the stage.

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Takagi is clearly popular with the fans. The male riders don’t often share in the same experience. She talks about being a keirin celebrity. “It makes me glad it makes me happy. When I go to a keirin track I’m not familiar with people will be calling my name, I like it. So many people have supported me throughout my short career I feel like I can’t stop or I’ll let them down. For that reason I can’t always make my own decisions.”

It’s late. The riders want to go home after three days in lockdown at the track’s secure accommodation. Some will fly out tomorrow morning some will rush for the last bullet trains tonight. Makibi Takagi is one of those. She wants to get back to her family in Tokyo. She doesn’t bother cleaning her bike, just disassembles it and passes it off to the courier service. The JKA puts this on to ensure riders can travel without stress and exertion. She heads to the pay office to collect her winnings in a chunky cash envelope, with a detour for autographs for some of the track staff. Outside the fans await a few more words. She’s happy to talk and pass out some of her trading cards.

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“Life as a keirin racer is a lot of fun. This year I’ll be going to the keirin Grand Prix for the first time. I’m a little nervous but of course excited too. Right now I’m ranked number one I think” (the ranking is based on cash prizes and race positions throughout the year). She vowed to keep the exact sum of her prize money a secret but said “It’s a little less than the men win in the A1 class”. That puts it at around £2,500 for a few days of work.

Takagi is an easy-going girl who appreciates the cuter things in life. Through three days of racing she has been sporting a set of intricately decorated acrylic nails. “I always do my nails and race with them. It’s my trademark. I always hope I don’t chip them”. It is surely a tough task considering all riders are expected to do their own bike assembly and maintenance. She is polite and balanced in her speech. She seems to like a lot of the things most girls her age do in Japan in terms of TV and music, an interesting point considering she has spent her early adult years in the conservative keirin system. She remains grounded and perhaps the same person she would’ve been without the fame and racing.

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Fast forward to late December 2016. Makibi Takagi and six others line up for the Girls’ Keirin Grand Prix, the biggest race of the year and held in Tokyo. She finishes fifth. Racer Mai Kajita who has represented Japan takes first place and an obscene amount of prize money. As a very driven 22-year-old she will surely come back stronger in 2017. If she rides to the same level she’ll be straight back into the Grand Prix line-up for next year. Perhaps the international scene beckons. The day after the final at Yokkaichi and a long journey home to Tokyo she was back on the bike just outside the city pushing motor paced hill climb efforts on a track gearing. A very driven 22-year-old.

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For more on the unique history and nature of Japanese keirin racing see Conquista 10 - available here

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