The Japanese word keirin means ‘bicycle race’. But in Japan, a bicycle race means something different than it does in English. “Keirin racing is so different from any kind of bicycle racing I’ve ever seen or experienced,” photographer Narayan Mahon told Bicycle magazine. “The racers are so immersed and there are such rigid rules. It’s very pure and honourable.”
The Japanese cycling style of keirin has been around since 1948 and resembles Western-style horse racing in many respects. Spectators bet on the riders and – as in horse racing – there are odds for payouts. It’s estimated that as much as $14 billion passes through the keirin wagering system every year, across the nearly 50 keirin velodromes around Japan.
Like a lot of other activities in Japan, keirin is very formalized. Each of the nine riders in the heat wears a number and a matching jersey and helmet cover. Traditionally, numbers 1, 2 and 3 are white, black and red, respectively, and are reserved for the favourites. Other numbers and colour combinations tell the spectators which racers are new or long-shot bets.
The nine racers, who ride brakeless fixed-gear bicycles, gather in numerical order outside the warming building, bow to the instructor, get on their bikes, and roll around the infield exactly two bike lengths apart, to allow the bettors to evaluate them before wagering. The racers then bow again, this time to the starter, before getting on their bikes and then they wait while the pacer, a cyclist in an unnumbered purple jersey and helmet covered in orange stripes, mounts his bike.
When the electronic gun is fired, the bikes are released from their holding devices and the pacer takes off as well. Within a lap, the racers are on the pacer’s wheel, jockeying for position. The race is over 2,000 m long (or five laps of a 400-m oval). For half this distance, the racers must stay behind the pacer. The object is to secure a good position going into the final two and a half laps without exhausting yourself before the final sprint.
This kind of racing takes discipline and stamina. That’s why the racers live in seclusion when not training and why would-be keirin riders go through the strict and strenuous (and mandatory) 10-month indoctrination and training program of a keirin school before they are allowed to race.
One school, the Japan Keirin School, is located atop a steep mountain near Shuzenji (like a monastery), two hours from Tokyo by a bullet train. Its gate is guarded. The school comprises dormitories, classrooms, a gym, a building filled with rollers for winter training, two difficult hilly road loops, a testing lab, a bike shop and three world-class, all-weather velodromes.
The best Japan keirin racers can make more than $90,000 a year, pretty good money for bike racing, and they can compete for 20 years or longer. There are three kinds of keirin riding styles. The most respected is the senko, a rider strong enough to lead the entire last lap and win. Then there is the makuri who makes a powerful move through the final turns to win. And, finally, the oikomi who comes around in a quick burst on the final strait to nip the leader at the line.
Keirin became respected internationally in the 1970s and 80s when keirin racer Koichi Nakano won 10 consecutive pro-world-sprint championships. As a result, a form of keirin – using a motorcycle (or other mechanical) pacer rather than a bicyclist – was introduced at the 1980 world championships. Keirin became an official event at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
In this (international) version, the pacer starts at 30 km/h (19 mph), gradually increasing to 50 km/h (31 mph) by the final circuit. The winner’s finishing speed can be 70 km/h (43 mph) or more – which is fast in any language.