Twelfth century Japan. Following a period of political upheaval and an unprecedented surge in power and influence, the samurai class ascends above the Emperor to cast its now iconic shadow over society. For centuries, the shogunate rules the land. Through civil war and ruthless military dictatorships unique aspects of culture, religion and philosophy continue to blossom.
Sixteenth century — Japan encounters its first Europeans. The Portuguese offer trade opportunities, one caveat being the Christian mission. A conflict of interests ensues and in the seventeenth century the strict sakoku (鎖国) policy of isolation and seclusion is enforced. Until the mid-nineteenth century only specific foreign merchants are permitted contact with their domestic counterparts. The Dutch are the lucky ones.
Nearly one hundred years later Japan is a nation where hearts, minds and economy have been crippled by world war. As GHQ looks into funding reconstruction through sports betting, keirin (競輪) racing is born.
As is now customary, every year a select group of the finest international track sprinters are invited into the sport’s exclusive world to compete in a special calendar of racing. In 2016 the kokusai (国際, international) keirin includes two former world champions in Shane Perkins (Australia) and Theo Bos (Netherlands), and a silver-medallist at the Rio Olympics in Matthijs Büchli (Netherlands) — three riders separated by roughly ten years and at different points in their careers. From October 26th through October 28th these three superstars graced the open-to-the-elements banks of Nagoya keirinjou, the near 50-year-old track racing complex in the west of manufacture-centric metropolis Nagoya.
With the Japanese economy booming keirin racing experienced its own golden years in the 1980s, bets placed on races rising year on year until the middle of the decade. Simultaneously Koichi Nakano rose to become one of the most successful domestic racers of all time, also finding the strength to dominate UCI track events between 1977 and 1986. 1980 was the year keirin became a UCI sanctioned event, and riders had already travelled to Europe from Japan in exhibition. It was in 1982 that the first foreigners raced a keirin season in Japan, ending another period of isolation. Aiming to spread international goodwill and increase competition at home, the NJS or the Japan Keirin Association (JKA) as it is more commonly known now, pushed through short-term residences and racing licenses for foreign riders.
The average Japanese rider must endure a gruelling year-long, sixteen-hour-a-day monastic programme of training and education at the reclusive keirin school in Shuzenji, before ever being allowed to compete. Although the imports must of course honour the culture and mechanisms of keirin, a sentence to one year in rural Japan for an international-class sprinter has never been realistic, and to this day no foreign rider has directed their career through the classic system, instead being expected to attend a shorter keirin crash-course as part of a potentially lucrative two-year contract.
That’s not to say they are on the outside when it comes to training and racing however. Riders are grouped by region, and within any group Japanese social roles dictate there must be senpai (senior/superior) and kohai (junior/subordinate). On every day of racing, just as their predecessors will have done, Perkins et al. will be unstrapping helmets and armour and wiping down bikes which aren’t their own. All riders too must have an understanding of the particular racing techniques and language specific to the sport: senko (先行) — to attack as soon as the pacer leaves the track; or oikomi (追込) — to stay with the leaders and attack them as late as possible to the line; and even ganbaru yo (頑張るよ！) — a popular and forceful call to push it to the limit from punters pressed against the perimeter fences.
Matthijs Büchli is the youngest of the international riders in Nagoya and a character off track. Despite his Olympic success at a young age he is humble. In his interactions with the Japanese riders he shows respect, as well as an urge to study and understand. He is happy to fulfil his role as kohai.
The Culture of Keirin
Growing international exposure since the 1980s; invites extended to not only foreign racers but foreign journalists too. Yet keirin is still an enclave that exists outside of the mainstream in Japan and in the wider world of cycling.
The racing and the rules aren’t aligned with any international organisation such as the UCI. There are a lot of professionals racing in Japan, but only a few will ever bother to look outside of their world towards international recognition. These days, a good road rider might globetrot from contract to contract and still struggle to retire comfortably. Over a longer career, the average keirin senshu (選手, player) will hope to earn more than an average domestique in Europe.
Keirin racing is a high stakes affair thanks to the intrinsic gambling. Thus during any racing event riders must leave daily life behind and go away into regular lockdown periods of three to four days, completely cut off from the outside world. In this time, their interactions are limited to the competition, the officials and the punters. Shane Perkins is lucky enough to have been coming to Japan for more than seven years. The high stakes were at the forefront of his mind when he started out.
“The money making aspect was one of the things that I thought about a lot when I first came here. That somebody could bet their car or house on me winning and then lose it. You can feel guilty, but there are people betting on you so you must give 100% every time. You can’t sit up. Imagine you’re on the other side of the fence and you’ve bet on a rider and they’ve not committed. You’d be pretty upset.
"That was an easy one for me though because I’m very competitive in nature. Even sometimes when I’ve been sick and haven’t hardly been able to climb on the bike I’ve still committed. I see the finish line and obviously that competitive streak comes out. I’ve been on the back end of some bad language however, even when you win and they’ve bet on someone else they have a go at you, but it’s part of the sport.
"It’s good sometimes when they do that because some riders do forget what they’re here for and that they must commit 100%. It’s a business over a sport. It’s great how the JKA have set it up at each velodrome though because from the amount of money that is put in from betting, the tracks give back twenty or thirty percent to the community.”
Matthijs Büchli talks more on the business factor and its impact upon the approach to racing.
“We have a different approach to the Japanese. We train for the Olympics and three or four other races in a year that are really important. For them this is not a race or a sport, it’s a job. Every night they drink and a lot of the guys smoke. They train hard but I don’t think they care about winning so much or whether they’re fifth or fourth, they just want to have a good time. It’s a payday. They do this all year for twenty or thirty years. Maybe they cannot have the same focus as we have. We won’t do this until we are 50.”
Perkins agrees “the main thing for us is obviously winning the big international races. Not to say that winning isn’t the main thing here, but what you’ve got to remember too is that for a lot of the keirin riders it’s just a job. It’s really odd for us to look at it. Some of the riders I’ve raced against have been in their sixties. I’d love to be able to keep riding my bike like that until then. It’s a cool job. I’d love to do it full time and they earn really good money.”
Both Perkins and Büchli acknowledge how keirin’s business nature overrides its competitive and sporting aspects in their purest form. As Büchli said, Japanese riders typically have longer careers and blossom later, also in part because they aren’t necessarily allowed to ride completely for themselves until a level of seniority has been reached. In comparison to the 23-year-old Dutch rider, Nagoya local Kodama-san is in his early forties now. A good example of an A class keirin racer, he has competed for more than twenty years and plans to do ten more. Outside of keirin he races local and national amateur criterium, cyclocross and MTB events. He also oversees a growing bike company. For some, the money helps them develop any external business interests they may have. For the best, the money is reinvested and spent on professional development.
Keirin in Japan isn’t watched by the prying eyes of the UCI or of any external regulatory organisation. Over four days at the track in Nagoya there were no signs of testing, only riders going through their mandatory health checks. Without interview and investigation it’s impossible to speculate on that subject, but it is worth noting that if anyone were to be caught the financial implications would be massive. Bets would have to be refunded and prize-money reallocated. From a strictly sporting point of view, it wouldn’t be worth it for any rider on a national or international programme to try.
Kokusai (国際, international) Keirin
All of the international riders in Nagoya have been to Japan and raced a keirin season before. 33-year-old Theo Bos has been back for road races, but prior to 2016 hadn’t raced on the track in Japan since 2007. Decked out in full Dimension Data kit, he came to Nagoya fresh from the Japan Cup Criterium in Utsunomiya, Fabian Cancellara’s final race. He talked briefly about the race and his future.
“I don’t know how it looks for the coming years. I have some ideas but I’ll probably only be on the track. Next year I’ll come back to Japan. You can race and earn some good money. Last weekend the Japanese guy Beppu won.”
At that point Perkins pipes in saying it was a fix. Bos argues “I did 370 watts normalized power, so I guess it’s not fixed. That’s pretty high. I lasted three laps. Maybe it is fixed but it still went pretty fast! No, it was Cancellara’s last race so for Beppu (a teammate of Cancellara at Trek-Segafredo) it was really important. Something he’d trained for. It’s incredible how many people come and watch, it’s one of the best races of the season for that. It’s fun and it’s a good atmosphere.”
For Perkins, Bos and Büchli their latest Japanese adventure commenced in September 2016. With start money, a fee per finishing position and overall prize money, the riders have been stacking their Japanese yen. Since September Bos has taken overall victory and a fat envelope of cash in the city of Beppu, and Büchli in Omiya. Perkins won in Tamano, an event notable for being the first G grade meeting where foreigners were allowed to compete.
Their usual race meetings (F grade) feature a mix of S and A class riders, or riders from the top two tiers of professionals. G grade races are far less frequent, far more prestigious and far more lucrative. Perkins also won in Yokkaichi. He’s the most experienced of the foreigners in this unique world and has rarely missed a beat in 2016, finishing first in every race from qualifier to final, bar one.
It’s not always easy riding for Perkins though. He was pushed to the line by most of the field in the semis at Yokkaichi after having being boxed in and taking a shortcut down the bank and across what we know in Europe as the Côte d'Azur.
Perkins recalled “the tracks are good like that here. You can go off at the bottom and still be safe. I was trying to help the guy in my line (during a race riders form lines, or groups, based on relationships such as being based in the same region). The guy that was following me wanted me to go on the inside which I don’t normally do. It didn’t work out and I won’t be doing that again. It was dangerous. It wasn’t ideal and that wasn’t one of my best races but I still got out then and took the final the next day.”
Since 1982, cult heroes and international legends from the archives of track sprinting have raced in Japan. But it is Shane Perkins who has the honour of being the most successful foreign rider ever and he continues to be re-invited season after season. He is building a legacy in Japan, now working within the newly-established Dream Seeker programme alongside domestic stars Yudai Nitta and Kota Asai to develop track cycling in Japan ahead of Tokyo 2020.
For the duration of their stay the international riders will live and train in Japan, only travelling abroad for big races or family matters. They share accommodation. Büchli said “we are in a house near the keirin school with three guys. Perkins, Denis Dmitriev (Russia; not present at the Nagoya race meeting) and me. It’s really good because we know each other very well. It’s not so different from when you are a student and have housemates. We all have a room each but we are cleaner than some students, and we eat more healthily.”
They have each other, and they have support from the keirin school and the JKA, but every keirin rider is essentially self-managed and the foreigners must follow suit. Perkins talked about being away from professional support and his family.
“We do it all ourselves, there are no trainers or mechanics with us. Sometimes we’re based here for six months, we have residence. Once my family was here with me for 4 months. I’m on my own this year because just before I came we moved states in Australia and the kids are at school. We live near the keirin school but prefer not to be there every day although that is our main training hub so all the work we do is based there — gym, track etc.”
As for the racing schedule “it’s not decided by us so we just follow the schedule which the JKA give us. Sometimes we’ll have three racing sessions a month sometimes we’ll have two. We have obligations around World Cups and stuff like that so it changes all the time. I’m following a full training programme because of my World Cup targets so keirin races are recovery for me after coming off a big week of training.”
Büchli also talked about going solo: “I’m not so much in touch with my trainers now. I was here last year and it was before the Olympics so I had to have some contact with my coach but now he lets me do anything. I write the schedule. It’s good to have some distance, I like being on my own.”
The riders are also a long way away from their equipment suppliers, and must ride a steel bike handmade in Japan to JKA standards. Bos is on a Nagasawa.
“I chose it because of the name. It’s a classic name and a classic bike. I don’t think at the moment it’s the best bike there is because it’s a bit heavy but I always wanted to have a Nagasawa. When I raced before we were allowed to use international brands so I raced with a Koga. It’s not allowed anymore so I thought if I have to have a Japanese bike then I want to have this one. It’s cool. It’s a popular bike for fixed gear riders so I’m happy to have one. I’ll keep hold of it. I keep all my track bikes from the past.”
Perkins chose his bike for different reasons: “You haven’t got much choice. They’re all steel so it just depends on who you want to make it. I originally had a Nagasawa. He’s a well-known frame builder and they’re pretty nice bikes. Pretty expensive but known around the world. He makes his own tubes as opposed to using the new style of tubing so after a couple of years I went to Presto for a stiffer frame and a lighter bike, and now I’m using Bridgestone.
"They do what I ask so it’s good. With these bikes you’ve got to be a little bit gentler. With the carbon bikes you can just basically let it rip. They’re pretty stiff and the power goes straight through. I’ve broken some of these when I’ve crashed in races.”
Büchli adds “I’m on a Bridgestone. This is the only guy that speaks some English and he’s always around so you can talk to him about what’s best. Easy choice.”
Keirin in 2016
Keirin in Japan is split in to two classes — A and S, with around 4,000 registered racers. The elite foreign riders are permitted to ride alongside the higher-rated S class racers. The average race meeting features eleven races per day, with nine riders per race competing over three days, culminating in a final with some healthy prize winnings on offer. To prevent scheming, the foreign riders are separated until the final race on the final day. If they make it through the qualifiers and the semis on days one and two.
Keirin riders are well-paid and the best can make an obscene amount of money. Every year the top nine riders have the chance chance to battle it out at the Grand Prix in Tokyo where the winner takes home one billion Japanese yen, the equivalent to nearly £750,000 at the post-Brexit exchange rate. Track riders outside of Japan don’t get those kinds of opportunities, even road riders struggle. The prize money for the 2016 Tour de France was less at around €500,000. Unfortunately the foreign riders can’t ride in the Grand Prix, but they can still influence upon it. Every win they take denies a local rider points in his quest to make the annual top nine. Shane Perkins talked about how good the prize money has been to him.
“The only reason I’m able to keep riding competitively is because I keep getting invited back here, simple. To be able to keep riding my bike and ride internationally because I’m able to make enough money here to support my family and keep on doing what I like doing. It’s turned into a bit of a double-edged sword now though because our funding system has changed in Australia. I get access to about $20-30,000 dollars of funding for direct athlete support. I used to get that even when I raced in Japan. Now if you earn an average of over $60,000 over four years, so if you have one good year here and say the next year you earn nothing, they won’t give you anything. Tax hits that number too. When you get invited of course it’s a good chance to be a part of this and it’s a good chance to make some money. But for me I really enjoy coming here. I’ve made a lot of friends here.”
Shane continued to talk about his current relationship with Cycling Australia: “I was going to retire last year. The national team didn’t renew my contract even though I was still beating a lot of the riders. I was one of two guys that had won a medal at the World Cup that season, and I’d been in the team since I was 17. I’ve been in there a lot longer than some of the riders and even some of the staff members. Obviously I have a lot of experience and knowledge so they asked me to mentor some of the younger riders, which I did. But after they didn’t renew my contract I thought about retiring. I kept riding and still won the national title.
I never went to Rio. After they came back a lot of people in Cycling Australia got in touch to say they should’ve taken me. It’s water under the bridge for me now. Tokyo 2020 is a big goal, a nice way to top off the experience in Japan. It depends though, I might not be riding for Australia but I could ride for another country. That can work out if there’s a mutual benefit, say I want to ride and a country comes to me and says we need you. Of course I want to ride for Australia but they might not pick me. It’s bizarre because I’ve been in the team for such a long time, now all of a sudden I’m gone. After Rio people contacted me saying they feel like they’d lost a team mascot. Obviously I had an impact, maybe they needed someone like me in there to keep everyone together. The sports director has now left.” Australia did not get anywhere near its track cycling medal target for Rio.
Shane also spoke on his namesake Shane Sutton: “I’m really close to him, I was named after him actually. Thing is he’s pretty raw. He doesn’t just say what’s on his mind he’s a bit better than that, but at the same time he will kind of just tell you how it is and it’s up to you how you take it. Sometimes you need to be gentle but I think in the sport we’re in it just needs more people like him to tell you this is how it is as opposed to sugar-coating things. Then the athletes don’t know where they sit. He makes sure the athletes are ready and that’s the most important thing.”
Zenkenbi (前検日, day before)
The riders must arrive to the keirinjou before 12 p.m. on the day prior to the racing actually starting — for registration, checks upon bike and body and to enter isolation. In Nagoya on October 25th the atmosphere is relaxed, with a little anticipation outside for the arrival of Perkins, Bos and Büchli. They pull up in taxis at 10:30 a.m., having rode an early-morning bullet train from their share-house in Shuzenji. There are a few keen fans with gilt-edged placards hoping for autographs and photo opportunities. Of course the riders oblige, they seem to revel in the novelty even, signing their names with a Japanese character translation underneath.
Perhaps their lingering outside is an attempt to delay what’s next. Once walking through the heavy glass doors and into the facility the riders will be among only themselves for four days. Before settling in, the first thing on the agenda is the surrender of all electronic devices, to prevent any gambling shenanigans.
The track complex in Nagoya is old and isn’t afraid to show it. The interior of the riders’ facility creaks in all corners, and the crusty and faded carpet gives no cushioning to tired feet. Modern computer systems hulk out from the yellowed walls and across wobbly desks. Nagoya keirinjou is in an unassuming area of Nagoya, now underdeveloped in comparison to the rest of the city. Outside, retirees mingle and welcome other punters, who on preparation day aren’t there to watch the racing or meet the riders, but make use of the facility to bet on other races happening around Japan on the same day.
Back inside, Shane Perkins fills out his paperwork. In Japanese. Suddenly a gasp comes out of the office the officials have commandeered. One of the staff has dropped Shane’s phone and smashed the screen. Panic stations, but Perkins urges calm. He’s got a busy few days and he is working into his ritualised journey to focus.
Downstairs, an overload of exotic frames hang from the walls and the ceiling, glitter paintwork glistening and their chain-rings inspiring knee pain. After arrival, the riders must unbox and put together their bikes. The JKA officials have wheeled out their machines which test geometry, weight, durability and overall race-readiness. It takes more than an hour for the patiently waiting riders to all have their bikes checked. It’s a time-consuming environment that the riders must do their best to relax in. Next there’s a health check and after that it’s time to train in a room full of fixed steel rollers lined up side by side, where riders chat between intervals. As he pulls Mike Tyson’s autobiography from his duffle bag, Perkins admits he likes to chill on preparation day.
“The whole process is relaxed. If every time you went to a track and it was really sterile, you would not be able to do it. It’s good. You get to see the other riders, talk about the year, and have coffee. You’re in this place for three days.”
Walking through the facility is an assault on the senses — from the bike room with its bright lights, colours and testosterone through to the corridors where the smell of curry, lubricant oils and tobacco linger. In a large room which resembles a post-earthquake evacuation centre, riders are lined up on thin mattresses, their belongings strewn around them. Personal effects include dirty magazines, body armour and canned coffee. Some of the senior riders in the corner open a small bottle of whisky. Probably to beat a cold. Others sleep or roll out their aches and pains. At the back of the room a Shinto shrine protects a document containing all of the riders’ names.
The approach to training and conditioning is simply different in Japan. In baseball, young and upcoming hitters are made to swing their bats thousands of times and run sunrise to sunset in the name of work and routine. Keirin too has its quirks. A key part of the training programme is the strengthening of the feet. Riders sometimes train in soft-soled shoes with regular cleats attached. It reduces power transfer but apparently makes you stronger. The Japanese also make use of traditional tengugeta (天狗下駄) to improve balance — a wooden sandal on top of a single horizontal wood block. Such traditional approaches and levels of discipline are comparable to those present in the world of martial arts, but also typical for sports clubs in Japan from school to professional level.
Perkins pops in to the cafeteria for a complimentary lunch of Japanese curry, more of a soul-warming tangy meat stew than a spicy central Asian dish, before taking an afternoon nap.
“Normally I try and eat curry and rice for lunch but it’s out of our control so sometimes it can be noodles. I like it so much because I can’t really eat like this back home. If you’re preparing for an international race there are some things in terms of nutrition that can be challenging to cover during a racing schedule. You can’t just go to a supermarket and get what you want.”
On day one of racing, to fanfare the warriors ascend in gladiatorial style from beneath the centre of the track. A deep bow follows. The padding under the bright colours of the jerseys makes them look more like NFL players than bike racers. There is a distinctly ceremonial atmosphere to keirin racing. The bell at the finish line looks like something seen in a temple and riders must offer a presentation lap to the crowd and the commissaries. Büchli talks on entering the track.
“You can’t have interaction with the crowd. You can’t lift your hands and even sock height is scrutinized. If you have high socks it could be considered a signal. Last year a few times I had my socks too high for the presentation lap and I had to change.”
A class will race in the morning, S class in the afternoon. The punters arrive even earlier to study the odds. With each race they drop their pencils and are pulled to the fences around the track. As the pacer slides away and the race heats up the riders’ orders, grunts and heckles are audible. In race 8, Bos finishes first. In race 9, Büchli takes a disappointing fourth. In race 11 Perkins grabs another first place finish. The betting is on Büchli’s mind.
“I did really bad. It means any bets they place on me they have nothing, they lose. Normally if you have bad condition and you get fourth you’re like ok, bad condition. But I have only been first this year and I have good condition. The reason I got fourth is because I wasn’t thinking. I lose money because of this. They lose a lot of money and all just because I was sleeping so I feel bad.”
On the second day of racing the track in Nagoya is drenched in sunlight. Punters make their way from the betting halls to the grass banks on the south side of the stadium for a more comfortable view of the racing. In race 9 Büchli gladly makes amends for his fourth place yesterday, opening a big gap with a sprint from distance to ensure his investors he is riding hard. Perkins and Bos also take first in races 10 and 11, Perkins pushing out a supreme display of power followed to the line by just one of the Japanese riders. Results mean Perkins, Bos and Büchli qualify for the final on day three, where they will compete against each other.
Conditions on day three are in stark contrast to yesterday. Dark clouds and heavy rain have transformed the bright green track into a dark and reflective ring of death accentuated by the necessary floodlights. Bos assures himself that riding in the rain is fine.
“I’ve ridden long 200 kilometre road races in the rain. Of course it is a little bit scary here but the track is almost sandpaper so you have a lot of grip. Just don’t crash. You can see some Japanese riders have a lot of plasters already on their legs, from previous crashes. They also put on a lot of oil so they slide better, and body protection. I wear no armour, just a base layer and the jersey. We don’t take risks we always go wide around.”
Race 11, the final, is a slow start. None of the riders take up a position directly behind the pacer. For the winner it will be their biggest payday in a couple of weeks. For earnings and prestige it comes down to this race. Mistakes have been afforded but Perkins, Bos, and Büchli have all fought their way into the final race. Their domestic opponents need to amass more prize money and more points for a shot at the Grand Prix final in December. The three foreigners are in their way and any resentment they are shown is understandable. In a sport where respect and seniority prevail, with a life-changing sum of money on the line after a year’s hard work and a lifetime of commitment to the sport, to be denied by a nomadic racer from abroad would be a setback.
Blocking is allowed. Keirin racing is aggressive and dangerous. Those wearing padding might even expect to go down. It’s anticipated in the dressing room that two of the riders, both going for the Grand Prix, will actively block, swinging up and down the track to do so. Riders 1 and 5, white and yellow, won’t be afraid to sweep across the racing lines and put their bodies on the line.
The pacer peels away. Büchli, Perkins and Bos find themselves a little off the back of the group. It’s safe, but as the gap widens a sudden acceleration up ahead nearly catches out Bos. He pushes hard to get back on to Perkins as Büchli goes to the outside on the strike of the bell for the last lap. Number 5 swings out as expected, but Büchli has enough distance and momentum to move past cleanly, carrying Perkins over the field too. On the home straight Büchli loses steam, allowing Perkins to come through late for the win. Bos comes all the way from the back to take second and Büchli drops to third. Money in the bank. Bos breaks down the race.
“I tried to win. They went really fast suddenly and I didn’t expect it. So I was on the gap and I had to go chase I think half a lap but in the end I came back. I also tried to protect Shane and Matthijs a bit by boxing the Japanese riders in and waiting for the last corner. But they go really fast. Slow start though. If you wait too long you get disqualified and then the race is over, no prize money, nothing. Matthijs was waiting a long time and I said at one point okay just go now. Otherwise penalty. Maybe we already got a penalty but it’s ¥10,000 or something. Still a loss of money. I think Shane won more than one million yen today. It’s a nice job and it pays well and it’s good fun.”
The day closes with a formal trophy ceremony and a few words from Perkins for the crowd. He declares an international one, two, three is the perfect result.
Bikes are cleaned and broken down, devices are returned and the riders are released, free for the evening to take in the delights Nagoya has to offer.
The international riders will continue racing in Japan until late December, a couple of them obliged to race on Christmas day. Before his career ends Shane Perkins wants to be World Champion again; Theo Bos is interested in the Revolution track series in Europe; and Matthijs Büchli is targeting the world championships in 2018 in Apeldoorn in his home country.
Keirin has some international exposure now. It has featured in the Olympics since 2000. Despite having an incomparable system continually developing track sprinters, Japan does not dominate at Olympic level as could be expected. Among many other reasons, it is hard for riders to leave behind a steady income stream for a season or two to focus on Olympic racing. The whole racing culture too is at odds with what international track competition represents. With Tokyo 2020 around the corner it will be interesting to see how this changes.
Keirin as a business is in decline. As Japan has developed in the post-war period, track racing complexes have been left behind on the edges of industrialised towns and cities. A majority of the punters are pensioners and there is a stigma which looms over every keirinjou and sticks to those who gamble on races, deeming them unsavoury members of society. For those looking to get involved, a quick Google search offers an opportunity to read the rules and learn about betting options, rather than inviting interested parties to try out their local track.
In a country which values and rallies behind its athletes and celebrities to the point of obsession, the right rider could single-handedly push keirin’s profile and its profits into the mainstream with success at international level. At an off-season criterium local to Nagoya, 22 year old sprinter and fifth in the points race at Track Worlds in 2016, Eiya Hashimoto indicated his intention to attend the keirin school as of next year. He’s a talented rider with age on his side and for those reasons it’s hard to comprehend as to why, with such international pedigree, he would need to prove himself at keirin school. But tradition and the system maintains. He may come out on the other side of graduation with his sights set firmly on Tokyo 2020, or he might simply be happy to pull a living doing the sport he loves for the next 30 years. Either way, it’s a year in isolation.