Kinda Big in Japan

Words: Nathan Haas / Images: The Peloton Brief

We covered the spectacular events of the 2015 Toyko Keirin GP back in Issue 10. Brian Hodes shared a gallery of beautifully colourful, vibrant images, accompanied by the words of Matthew Bailey, who penned such an impressive thesis on the subject he was subsequently approached to write a book about it. True story.

Towards the tail end of the 2017 road racing season Nathan Haas and Laura Fletcher travelled together to Japan. Their trip would combine some racing for Nathan with sightseeing for them both. Here we present our favourite of Laura’s photos from their impromptu visit to the Kyoto track, alongside some insight from Nathan on their introduction to all things keirin.

We love the contrast of these pictures with our previous look at keirin racing. If the Keirin GP Final in Tokyo, with its $1 million prize money for the winner, is something akin to the Monaco Grand Prix, then surely the events hosted on the Kyoto track more resemble a wet Wednesday evening at the greyhound track in Doncaster. Both are genuine representations of this revered institution, but where Brian brought us the glitz and glamour of the big-money GP, Laura focuses on the gritty day-in, day-out reality of Japanese keirin racing.

Katusha-Alpecin’s Nathan Haas picks up the story…


It’s the night before the Japan Cup Criterium 2017, at the team presentation in Utsunomiya, which is the capital and largest city of the Tochigi prefecture in the northern Kanto region. I've been invited to join the ‘Criterium Special Riders’, a composite team, traditionally comprised of an invited WorldTour star and four Japanese keirin specialists, two each from the ranks of S and SS.

 Since I’ve won the Japan Cup twice I’m kinda ‘big’ in Japan. I’m not joking. They love their cycling there. That’s a serious race, and I’m really proud to have won it twice. And because of that achievement I’m surprisingly well known there. Not wanting to sound at all arrogant, I have only genuine affection for the way Japanese cycling fans have taken the race to their heart.

Our team is invited on stage where a Wattbike awaits. I know exactly what is coming, but I'm game, despite being at the end of a draining season and tired from the long travel. I jump onto the Wattbike, complete with flat pedals and toe straps, which are alien to me. Yep, I'm cast in the role of the comedy stooge, but I go all-in for a short, intense sprint effort. Let me tell you: I managed 1,200 watts. Frankly I'm embarrassed, for myself and for my representation of elite road racers the world over.

My new Special Riders teammate Yudai Nitta steps up. He’s a golden boy of Japanese keirin and a real powerhouse who has represented Japan on the track at the Olympic Games. Nitta is hotly tipped to be one to watch in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and duly smashes out an incredible 2,600 watts. The crowd love it. I've never seen anything like it, even the top WorldTour sprinters, such as Andre Greipel or Marcel Kittel would not be capable of such raw power. It served as a reminder that these athletes are very unlike your typical road racer. Totally different animals.

Japanese keirin riders are ranked in the categories C, B, A, S and SS, C being the lowest. To the amusement of the crowd my measly 1,200 W was likened to that of a rider in the category C3 – the absolute lowest and the rank reserved for the 60-year-old racers. It’s all delivered in good humour.

The night of the team presentation, we were invited for dinner with my new teammates. The Japanese are renowned perfect hosts and we visited a top restaurant where we were treated to the finest wagyu beef, cooked to order at the table. With us that evening was Benoît Vetu, the Frenchman who is now coaching the Japanese keirin riders towards the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, where they hope to medal. Vetu has already experienced success, guiding China to women’s sprint gold at the 2008 Beijing Games.

I was keen to understand more about this fascinating version of cycling and the superstar that is Nitta. Since Nitta speaks little English, Vetu translates. Nitta mentions he’s a little disillusioned with his season so far as he’s “only” earned $1.6m prize money.

“Only? Wow. And how often do you race?”

 “Every few weeks.”

Also present is Tatsuakira Yamamoto, head of race promotion and organisation at the Japan Keirin Association. I enquire if there would happen to be any keirin racing we could go along to as spectators. Yamamoto asks where we will be over the next few days. “We are heading to Kyoto next!” I responded enthusiastically, excited to visit the ancient city.

“Oh,” replied Yamamoto, sheepishly.

It turns out the Kyoto keirin track is one of the oldest and most basic in Japan and it’s not going to be hosting the top ranks of SS riders any time soon. The highest ranked racers in Kyoto will be level B. Not exactly the Champions League-calibre stars Yamamoto would like to show off to his honourable guests.

I remain just as excited, if not more so. For me, the prospect of seeing an authentically Japanese local keirin meet is more attractive even than a star-studded top-level event.

And so it was organised that we were given AAA passes to the Kyoto keirin a few days later. We received a fully guided tour, and the organiser even arranged for a translator to join us from Tokyo for the day, a 19-year-old college student. 

Laura was granted special permission to take her camera behind the scenes into the inner sanctum of the riders’ area. There are very strict rules about what can and cannot be done inside the riders’ zone. I am warned when I take out my phone, even only to check the time, and reminded to keep it in my pocket, as phones are forbidden. Only the fact we are there as honoured guests means it had not been confiscated prior to entry.

The holding area for the riders doesn't differ much from the holding area for the gamblers. One could call it traditional, others would see it as being in need of massive renovations. From a rotary phone isolated in a corner to the cathode ray tube TV screens, all echo the era of the steel bikes that are still regulation for the sport of Japanese keirin. Not a piece of carbon fibre in sight. The equipment though doesn't change the concentration and focus of the riders. As they spin on free rollers, eyeing each other up, a keen wash of empathy comes over me. It reminds me of warming up for a Grand Tour time trial. Whether it’s 2 km or 60 km, commitment and mental clarity for the task at hand remain the same.

Gambling is of course a hugely significant aspect of keirin, with a reported 1.5 trillion yen (more than $13 billion) bet every year. For such a lucrative industry this seems to be a pretty old-school method of placing a bet. It's a handful of men, some fuelled by sake, gathered in front of the screens away from the trackside seating in the betting halls. The exclusively older, male audience all filling in the traditional low-tech paper betting slips with a pen. This is archaic.

Later, as we sat in the otherwise empty stands, as avid viewers actually enjoying watching the races, I pondered why the venue is empty of spectators and pose a question to his translator, who is momentarily distracted, peering at the screen of her iPhone.

“Keirin seems to be dying, where is everyone?” I enquired.

“I’m sorry…” the translator glances up from the keirin app on her phone, which had distracted her momentarily. “I just won a LOT of money on that race!”

She explained that keirin is not dying, far from it. The end of year Grand Prix remains a 50,000 sell-out and is broadcast live to the nation. The sport remains popular – it’s simply that there are new ways to consume it. With live TV coverage in betting shops across the country and online betting in your pocket, even if few of them make it to the track to spectate in the traditional sense, huge numbers of the Japanese public are never too far from keirin. It pleases me to hear this. I hope for generations to come the local population and international visitors such as us are able to marvel at the contrast of the grit as well as the glitz of the national treasure that is the Japanese keirin.