by Matthew Bailey. Images @veloimages
Held on December 30 every year, the Keirin GP is contested by the nine best riders of the season. With prize money of Y100m, it is the sport’s most important event.
In 2015 Brian Hodes travelled to Japan to document this event for Conquista. The following feature about the history of keirin, illustrated by Brian’s photos, first appeared in issue 10.
Nine musclebound, helmeted, fluourescent cartoon superheroes nervously prowl a shuttered concrete tunnel. Like sumo wrestlers, they throw handfuls of salt onto the ground, to purify it and drive away evil. Eventually they emerge, one by one: each bows, then mounts a steel-framed, fixed-wheel racing bicycle before slowly circling the vast, almost deserted velodrome. Arriving at their start gates, the riders ceremonially dismount, line up, bow as one, then remount. They are released from their gates as a tenth cyclist, dressed in orange and purple, passes them. After some jostling, they form a single file behind him as he paces them over several laps, from about 25km/h up to 50km/h, before pulling off shortly before an ornate brass bell is struck repeatedly, signifying the last lap. Suddenly, riders burst to the front, fight for position, collide and crash, in what looks like chaos but is in fact a fantastically complex strategic, tactical and physical battle: 40 seconds of intense drama, at speeds touching 70km/h. Despite his effort, and his triumph, the winner displays no sign of elation, or indeed of any emotion, as he crosses the line to a chorus of hysterical abuse from a handful of spectators at trackside.
Welcome to Japan. Welcome to keirin. And welcome to the Keirin Grand Prix 2015, the climax of an entire year’s racing, where, on December 30 last year, winner Kohta Asai took home a cheque for ¥101.6m. Yes: a cool $1m, for winning a bike race.
The very existence of keirin is remarkable, partly for its being the only notable form of cycle racing to have its roots outside Europe, and partly because Japan had no particular history or tradition of bicycle sport before World War II. The source of its peculiar rules, with the speed (and so the tension) gradually wound up, under the control of a pacer, before competitors are released to race over the last lap-and-a-half or so, remains obscure: but keirin’s birth can be dated precisely to the passing through the Japanese Diet (and approval by the occupying US forces) of the Bicycle Racing Act 1948, which allowed betting on bike races as a way of raising money for local governments to fund post-war reconstruction. At around the same time, similar laws were passed to permit gambling on uniquely Japanese forms of racing involving the traditional horses (keiba), cars & motorcycles (autorace), and powerboats (kyotei). The American occupiers wanted to resurrect Japan’s economy in a way consistent with the country’s new, pacifist constitution, and encouraging industry via gambling, and in particular the bicycle industry via keirin, offered not only a source of public funding but also a way of profitably and peaceably repurposing the huge precision tooling capacity Japan had developed for wartime munitions manufacture. And it worked: starting from almost nothing at the war’s end, by 1950 Japan was producing over 1,000,000 bicycles a year.
The first keirin meeting, held in Kokura on November 20, 1948, was a spectacular success, attracting over 55,000 of the city’s 180,000 people, and raising ¥20m in a single afternoon. Unsurprisingly, within four years there were fifty-four velodromes located all over Japan, over six thousand registered racers, and thirty-eight local federations with tens of thousands of employees.
As keirin grew, some of the proceeds were reinvested directly in the bicycle industry, with surprisingly far-reaching economic consequences. Familiar names such as Shimano, Suntour & Maeda owe their early development in large part to subsidies from keirin: more importantly, so do global titans such as Honda, Matsushita, Panasonic and Sanyo, all of whom started out making bicycle accessories before going on to greater things.
Today, approximately 75% of the money staked on keirin races is returned to punters. Whatever is left, after prize money and other operating expenses are accounted for, is used to subsidise medical care, sports, social welfare, and cultural and educational programmes.
To this day, keirin remains one of Japan’s largest professional sports. Every year, around 2,500 professional riders compete at ca. 1200 events across 47 velodromes, with total annual attendance of around 20 million, and about $7.5bn in bets placed at velodromes and over 70 off-track sites. Yes: seven and a half billion dollars, every year, bet on bike racing.
Keirin racing is therefore an enormous sport, an enormous industry, and an enormous part of post-war Japan’s social and economic history.
Keirin has been familiar to Westerners at least since its first appearances in the UCI World Cup in 1980. However, the Japanese sport is very different to the “international” version sanctioned by the UCI. For one thing, Japan’s velodromes are huge - tracks range from 333m to 500m in length, and are thus able to accommodate a full field of nine riders at a time - and were built (quickly and cheaply) using earthworks in bombed-out cities, rather than the expensive wooden banking common in Europe. Keirin is therefore overwhelmingly an outdoor sport (only 2 tracks are covered), and races take place almost every weekend, all year round, in almost all weathers (riders receive a bonus for racing in the wet; only typhoons and snow on the ground stop play altogether).
To facilitate this, the tracks have a grippy, abrasive, skin-shredding all-weather surface, explaining the protective body armour worn by most competitors, which gives them their cartoonishly muscular appearance. No armour is permitted below the waist: instead, the riders smother their (often hairy) legs with baby oil to try and keep the dirt out of any wounds. Riders hit the unpleasantly sandpapery deck a lot, partly due to the extremely aggressive nature of the racing. Twenty-four hours before each race, each competitor must publicly commit to one of three standardised race strategies, senko, makuri or oikomi, essentially determining from where in the bunch, and from how far out, he will attack. Since competing riders know each other’s strategies in advance, a small number in each race can effectively collude with each other against the rest of the field, which they do by forming “lines”. These are the key to race strategy, because it is much harder to overtake a coordinated line than just a single rider. The rider who has nominated a senko strategy must attack 400-800m before the finish line; one who has nominated makuri must stay in line behind senko, but will protect him by blocking attacks from the rear, changing his line and often using physical force. The makuri rider often plays the most important role in deciding the outcome of a race. The oikomi rider must stay in line behind makuri and will protect him in turn, at least until makuri and oikomi are permitted to make their own attacks - at 300m and 150m out, respectively - whereupon all collusion evaporates. So, if each of the riders in the leading line of three does his job, he will end up racing for the finish line against only two other riders, instead of the whole pack. (Note also that, while launching a sprint from as far out as 800m might sound unwise, senko riders win with surprising regularity, simply by riding clear of the melée behind them.) Further, riders tend to coordinate with others that they know from their home velodrome, or from their many previous races together. Such experienced, practised lines present a formidable obstacle to would-be overtakers, and so not every rider in any given race is able to execute his nominated strategy. However, it is unwise to get too discouraged. Anyone who does not race hard to the finish risks the dreaded sakuki: an ignominious disqualification from the entire meeting, and consequent loss of prize money.
The presentation of the sport is heavily influenced by horse racing, and not only in the parimutuel form of betting. The riders’ garish satin jerseys and helmet covers strongly recall jockeys’ silks (colours were standardised in 2002: numbers one to nine wear white, black, red, blue, yellow, green, orange, pink and purple respectively). What is more, before racing commences, detailed guides to riders’ form are distributed to punters, featuring such useful information as their recent results (broken down by race strategy), gear selection, disqualification history, thigh measurements (a particular obsession), and even blood type and astrological sign.
Meetings take place over 3 days, Friday to Sunday: riders arrive on Thursday for a process known as zenden, comprising registration, medical & equipment inspections & on-track training. There are typically 11 races a day, each usually of around 2000m, for six different ranks of rider. In a typically Japanese flourish, redolent of martial arts, a rider’s rank, based on his performances, and updated twice a year, is visible from the design of his shorts. Each rider races once a day, progressing to more or less important races on subsequent days depending where he places.
Reflecting the huge amounts at stake, the authorities’ fear of gangsters (whose involvement was reputedly significant in the early years) and the obvious potential for mischief, riders are permitted no contact with the outside world during a meeting. They hand over their communication devices - phones, tablets, Bluetooth headsets, the lot - and sleep in the velodrome dormitory for the duration. Anyone found with a forbidden gadget can be suspended for two years. The dormitories even have opaque windows to prevent signalling to outsiders. There is a similar explanation for the highly formalised entry and apparently emotionless performance of the riders: any unexpected gesture before, during or after a race, even a celebration on crossing the line, could represent communication with spectators about strategy for this or subsequent races, and so can lead to a heavy fine. More serious offences, such as accepting bribes, can lead to prison sentences of up to three years.
The absolute insistence on clean, fair racing with identical conditions for all is reflected also in keirin’s charmingly old-fashioned equipment. Only parts and accessories supplied by an approved manufacturer and bearing a stamp from keirin’s regulatory body, the NJS, may be used: since the rules have barely been updated since the sport’s invention, this means hand-made steel frames, chrome accessories, webbing toe straps and wheels with thirty-six wire spokes. Even the tools used for repairs and maintenance - which riders are required to perform themselves, in addition to building their own bikes at meetings - are standardised and stamped. The combination of vivid colours, open-faced helmets, faux-muscular torsos, bulging sprinter’s thighs and retro-styled machinery give the whole event the appearance of having leapt from the pages of a 1950s science fiction comic.
Non-Japanese riders were invited to compete for the first time in 1982. Overseas competitors have included Sir Chris Hoy, Craig MacLean MBE, Olympic gold medallist Jason Queally, and UCI World Champions Shane Perkins and Francois Pervis (whose victory in 2015’s UCI final in France, despite the differences between Japanese and international keirin, will be recognised by aficionados as a subtle masterpiece of makuri riding, holding back the pack while leaving a gap to the unwitting senko, then attacking with immaculate timing as the leader tired). Invitations are extremely highly prized, as Japanese keirin racing offers track cyclists one of only very few opportunities worldwide to make a decent living from their sport. An average Japanese rider is said to make about $100,000 a year, and in 2014, keirin’s top-earner Toyoki Tayeda took home over ¥220m, or about $2m. International riders do less well, essentially because their licences only qualify them for the lowest rank, the least lucrative races, and the least elaborate shorts. However, things have improved for the foreigners. It used to be said that nothing in keirin was predictable, except that an international rider would never win, as the locals would line up to prevent it. Perkins and Pervis in particular have put the lie to this old cliché, winning many races, being invited back to ride year after year, and so developing successful careers.
International riders do have one advantage over the locals: they are required to spend just a couple of weeks at the formidable Keirin School before being permitted to race. By contrast, those domestic riders who are lucky enough to be admitted - only about 90 a year make the cut, representing just 10% of applicants - spend fifteen hours a day, six days a week, for eleven months, training and studying for their race licence. The scale of the school is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that it possesses four velodromes of its own: one more than, say, Scotland. The curriculum covers physical training and bicycle mechanics, but also the history, rules, strategy, theory and economics of the sport, and above all impresses upon riders the great responsibility arising from having such huge amounts of money wagered on them. After graduating, riders are still required to attend regular training camps, and many return to the Keirin School to train and teach newcomers. This lifetime commitment to the brotherhood, together with the ascetic, highly regimented existence of the students and the isolated mountaintop location gives Keirin School more than a hint of the monastery. However, the monkishness of its graduates should not be overestimated. Professional riders are known for their hard-living habits: smoking and heavy drinking are common, and not all the bulges under the multicoloured jerseys are muscle, artificial or otherwise. Many love to show off their racing scars, and revel in their reputation as hard men in a dangerous sport.
Lest the cycle racing enthusiast get carried away, it is important to recall that essentially all of these unique features of keirin - the format, the lengthy training & licences required, the appearance, the nature of the equipment, and the sheer size, popularity and importance of it - flow from its status as one of the few events on which the Japanese can legally place a bet. A link on the website of the Japanese Keirin Association encourages people to "take part": a cycling fan hoping to learn when he can ride the velodrome himself, and perhaps even try out some NJS-approved equipment, will be disappointed to find he is led only to a page explaining how to complete a betting slip. The overwhelming majority of spectators are interested in gambling, not in bike racing per se, and are there to see the results, odds and payouts, and not the sporting spectacle. For this reason, almost all the attendees forego their seats to watch the racing on TV screens located behind the empty stands. The handful who do watch from trackside rarely cheer a winner, but often scream abuse at losers from behind towering, multilayered chickenwire fences, installed at all velodromes after disgruntled punters caused riots at early meetings.
All this gives keirin a seedy, disreputable air, meaning that for all its size and historic importance it exists only at the margin of Japanese society. Foreign tourists enquiring at their hotel about local events will be met with a polite show of (bogus) ignorance. In 2002, local authorities in Nara prefecture were accused of corrupting public morals by using a government newsletter to announce the times of forthcoming races at the local velodrome. No such public outrage had previously been expressed about the fact that the same local government had owned the same velodrome, and organised and profited from racing there, for the previous 52 years. Clearly, taking the punters’ money is one thing, but publicly acknowledging that keirin exists is quite another.
Almost all spectators are male, working-class, and middle-aged or older: the sort of people who, in the UK, might spend their afternoons at the greyhound track. This audience is shrinking as it ages, and the sport’s image problems represent a significant obstacle in its attempts to appeal to a younger crowd. In particular, keirin almost completely failed to capitalise on the Japanese “fixie boom”, during which thousands of young hipsters discovered cycling for the first time (and bicycle messengers became immaculately cool) by riding fixed-wheel bikes that are obviously close (if urbanized) cousins of keirin’s machines.
Matters are not helped by the fact that the riders also aren’t getting any younger: the average competitor is 35, and many compete into their 50s, partly because experience and a sophisticated grasp of strategy can compensate for any decline in athletic ability, and partly, it is sometimes said, because the Japanese respect for their elders means younger riders often allow older ones to ride the more attractive and less demanding oikomi strategy.
Some progress has been made, however. Perhaps the most significant step was the introduction of keirin to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, which has dramatically raised the profile of the discipline, albeit in its “international” form. This in turn partly explains another key initiative, namely, the resurrection in 2012 of professional women’s racing, under the name “Girl’s Keirin” (the new title, down to the positioning of the apostrophe, is pure Japan). Women raced at the very first meeting at the Kokura velodrome, and over a thousand competed professionally between 1949 and 1964, when the organisers abruptly cancelled the women’s sport, citing as reasons the waning interest of punters and the increasing difficulty of providing accommodation separate from the men’s. Now the women have returned, bringing some intriguing and popular innovations with them.
Firstly, where men’s keirin is designed to generate unpredictability and uncertainty, and so attract the punters’ action, Girl’s Keirin has adopted the UCI rules, with the goal of producing athletes who can compete internationally. Male riders must maintain a certain volume and standard of racing in order to retain their licences: every six months, the sixty lowest-ranked riders are forcibly retired, never to return. Consequently, few will interrupt their season to train for and compete in international events, even the Olympics (though there is an occasional exception: Koichi Nakano’s extraordinary ten consecutive UCI world sprint titles from 1977-86 suggest that the cream of keirin riders could be competitive on any stage).
Secondly, for similar reasons, the NJS restrictions do not apply to some of the equipment in Girl’s Keirin, meaning carbon frames and wheels are permitted. These give the women’s version of the sport a distinctly more international, modern and colourful look. This, plus the youth and relative glamour of the riders (and a few questionable poster and television advertisements: “it’s not about faces - it’s about big thighs!”), has helped Girl’s Keirin appeal to younger Japanese, where the men’s sport has so comprehensively failed. The authorities have even had some success in attracting professional women athletes from other sports to keirin, and a couple of stars appear to be emerging. While it should be remembered that the number of professional female riders is still measured in dozens rather than thousands, it is surely significant that almost half the students at Keirin School today are women.
In any event, it would not take much to extend these experiments to the men’s version of the sport: indeed, it might be suggested that failing to do so before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, and so missing the opportunity to enter a strong Japanese contingent in one of the nation’s few signature Olympic sports, would be negligent to the point of actionability.
The Keirin Grand Prix itself is another relatively new phenomenon. The most successful racers of the season come together for one last 3-day meeting at the very end of the year, and ultimately compete over the unusually long distance of 2800m for the big prize of ¥100m. The nine finalists are granted the sport’s highest “SS” rank, and thus the right to wear the fabled red shorts, for the whole of the following year. There is also a Girl’s Grand Prix, and a Young Grand Prix for the best riders to have entered the sport in the last three years.
Japan was the great exporter of the 20th Century: could it do more to bring its own unique form of bicycle racing to the rest of the world? “International” keirin has been a huge hit at the Olympics, and routinely features in many other major track racing events, including UCI meetings, major European six-days and the UK’s popular Revolution series. More-or-less-Japanese-style keirin events have been held at the velodromes in Manchester & Herne Hill in London. More substantially, the first events in South Korea precisely following the Japanese format (i.e., with Japanese rules and outfits, and with gambling allowed) took place in 1994, since when a vibrant scene has developed, with a dozen or so velodromes and hundreds of registered riders. More speculatively, the potential for introducing keirin racing to China, an unimaginably vast nation of habitual cyclists (and one where gambling, though banned, is a national obsession), is positively dizzying.
Keirin’s numbers and audience, while still impressive, are shrinking. Its profile and reputation are at an ebb. Worse still, it faces serious and increasing competition - both from other sports (notably football and baseball) and from other forms of gambling (keirin is dwarfed by Pachinko, a sort of vertical pinball without flippers, which attracts over $250bn of gamblers’ money a year; and the long-running debate about the legalization of casinos was merely deferred, and not derailed, by the government’s decision not to introduce a proposed bill in mid-2015). Consequently, it is hard to say what the future holds for this extraordinary sport. But if Conquista had to bet, our money would be on fluorescent, foreign, and - increasingly - female.
To read more about keirin, see 'Kinda Big in Japan' by Katusha-Alpecin's Nathan Haas - exclusively in Conquista issue 20.