During the early days of cycling, as far back as 1880, track cycling was popular in America and in Europe. By 1893 cycling had a large enough following to permit a World Championship. Just three years later bicycle racing made its way into the first inaugural modern day Olympic Games.
By the 1920s indoor track racing had become one of the most popular spectator sports, drawing enormous crowds. Track racing reached the peak of it’s popularity in the 1930s in the United States, when 6–day relay races were held in Madison Square Garden in New York, from which the track discipline “Madison”, a relay cycling race, still takes its name. Interest in bicycle track racing declined during the late 1930s and early ’40s, principally due to the rise of soccer and motor sport, and bicycle track racing lost its former position as the number one spectator sport. It enjoyed a revival in Europe after the Second World War, due to the reintroduction of 6–day racing, and in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the European public’s interest in track cycling gradually rose, though never again to the same level. However, far away from the traditional cycling nations and little known to the rest of the world, bicycle track racing is enormously popular.
Keirin, meaning “racing wheels” or simply “bicycle race”, originated in Kokura City in November 1948. It has become a Japanese social institution attended by around 57 million spectators every year, who place bets amounting to 1.15 trillion Yen (¥) annually. Keirin compares most closely with greyhound or horse racing in the West. Races are held almost every weekend at 50 tracks around Japan. The events are usually held over 4 days; entry costs only 100 Yen (90 Cents (¢)), there are 11 races per night with 9 riders per race. The crowd is mainly made up of older men who gamble on the races, there are very few women spectators. There are seven different types of bets, combinations of the placing of two or three racers. Picking the winner of a Keirin race is a complicated matter; the punters have to examine the background of each rider who is participating in the race. Blood group, astrological sign and thigh measurements in addition to starting position and seasonal form are only some of the factors taken into consideration when placing a bet. Form and information about the athletes can be studied in special newspapers, and for the punters having successfully analysed the riders is part of the reward when they win. Paradoxically most people don’t watch the races “live” but watch on the TV screens, even though they’re at the track.
After the riders come out of the tunnel, “the racers gate”, they ride slowly to the start, fix their bikes in position in the starting machine, and bow once before getting into the saddle. There are usually nine racers but six, seven, or eight competitors can start. They are clad in brightly coloured jerseys and helmet covers, to make them easy for the crowd to identify. The colours were standardized in the year 2002. The numbers one through nine wear the colours white, black, red, blue, green, orange, pink and purple respectively. The races are usually 2000m (5×400m), although some tracks are 333m or even 500m long. The track is steeply banked at each end making for a very dramatic racing atmosphere. The race starts slowly, the riders jockeying for an advantageous position behind the pacemaker, who goes off the track after 3 laps and a bell rings opening the sprint. During the last two laps the pace rises, and the riders begin a furious battle, fighting to get into gaps. In the final sprint for the finish line the racers reach speeds of up to 70 km⁄h.
There are four standard strategies in Kerin:
- Senko: leading with high speed from the front.
- Makuri: passing from behind in the final straight.
- Mak: sprinting past from second place.
- Oikona: coming out from behind the leaders back wheel to win.
All this is however only theory. There are a lot of tactics involved, and some riders will work together in a race to gain an advantage, so observing ones opponents is of utmost importance. A certain amount of pushing and shoving is tolerated by the rules and as the speeding riders manoeuvre in the fight for the best position spectacular crashes are not uncommon. The surface of the track is hard and rough to provide good traction even in the rain, so the racers wear plastic body armour under their jerseys to prevent serious injury should it come to a crash. The races typically require photo finishes, the riders who win going on to compete in higher-staked races the next day.
A Keirin pro will race 80–100 times a year, prize money can be upwards of 100,000 € for the winner of a large keirin event, the top riders earning up to 1.5m € a year. The riders all use similar steel framed bikes, specially built racing machines. They have some choice over the gear they ride, 12–16 teeth on the sprocket and up to 55 on the chainring, but only frames and components approved by the Nihon Jitensha Shinkokai (Japanese Bicycle Association) NJS, are permitted to compete at Keirin races. The bikes are checked before each race by the “Kencha” the technical inspection authority. No flat spokes, disc wheels, carbon fibre, or aluminium frames are approved, meaning a whole industry of frame shops dedicated to building high quality racing frames has grown up around Keirin.
There are 4000 registered Keirin riders in Japan. The average age of the riders is about 35. It is not uncommon for a keirin racer to compete into his fifties, the oldest Keirin racer ever, Uemura San was 60 years old when he retired. In 1969 women racers were taken off the Keirin registers. Women’s racing was stopped due to a lack of interest which resulted mainly from the lower level of performance, in comparison to men’s Keirin. Prospective Keirin competitors must attend the Japan Bicycle Racing School at Shuzenji, in the Izu area. The only Keirin School in Japan was founded in 1968 and is dedicated to teaching the academic and practical skills the students will need to compete. The 10% of applicants fortunate enough to be accepted then undergo a strict, 15–hour per day training regime. During the 10–month period of training and study, the students aged between 18 and 22, learn the rules and tactics of the sport, bicycle mechanics and physiotherapy as well as riding technique, and endurance. The goal is to achieve harmony of heart, body and technique. The Keirin competitor is trainer, manager, mechanic, and racer. Those who pass the graduation exams, and are approved by the Japan Keirin Association, are then registered by the association as competitors and are eligible to take part in Keirin events. Every year 150 new riders are admitted, first to a four-month stint in the newcomer’s league, following which they are assigned a ranking. Rankings are adjusted, based on a competitor’s performance, every four months.
There are three S, four A and two B groupings:
- S1 with 130 riders.
- S2 & S3 with 150 riders each.
- A1–A4 with 2400–2500 riders.
- B1–B2 with 1460–1560 riders.
Only S level riders are eligible for the Grand Prix events, “Normal” events are the province of A and B class riders. The riders of the S class wear shorts with a red stripe and white stars, the A class a green stripe, the Bclass blue. Formerly the A and B class riders wore shorts with simple white stripes, the stars reserved for the S class athletes.
Although the Keirin stars are national heroes, they and their sport are little known outside Japan. One exception was Koichi Nakano, an expert sprinter, who won the World Championship Sprint title for ten successive years from 1977 to 1986, bringing himself much recognition, and attracting the interest of the outside world.
International Keirin races have been held in Japan since 1981, and the international series has become a popular event in the Keirin calendar. For the international series, held annually in April and May, the top international track racers are invited to compete against the local stars.
Until now the only countries to hold Keirin events outside Japan have been Korea, where events have been staged since 1994, and some South America nations.
Keirin was adopted as an official discipline at the Track World Championships in 1980 and as an Olympic discipline at the games in Sydney 2000. At these events the riders are paced by a motorized cycle known as a derny. Other than this the races are identical, just as exciting and unpredictable as the original. Keirin has become an established international track cycling event, enjoyed by fans throughout the world.