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Tales from the Peloton

An evening at the Keirin, Ikimasu yo!

Story and photos by Peter Power

Bicycle racing in Japan started in 1898, and on that evening, "gaudy ladies from the red-light quarters came together to the racing site and presented a grand spectacle which was more impressive than the competition itself". Things have changed a little, on the 27th of September 2002 at Hakodate there were no 'gaudy ladies' upstaging the cycling; indeed, there were very few women, the crowd was mainly made up of aged men intent on gambling away their last yen on the races.

The bow.
Click for larger image

If you are in Japan Keirin is certainly worth a visit. Keirin is a Japanese social institution which compares most closely with greyhound racing in the west and is probably is the cheapest form of entertainment you can find in Japan. Five minutes before the start of each race the music starts. At the Hakodate city track (on Hokkaido, northern island of Japan) the music was sounding suspiciously like 'Eye of the Tiger' from the 'Rocky' films. The old ladies who are employed to sweep the track shuffle back into the tunnel from whence they came and the uniformed officials run out onto the track with a bounce in their step, mount their cycles and ride the 50m to their designated positions on the track.

The 'fighting gate'.
Click for larger image

The music increases in volume and the lights around the 'fighting gate' come on - a blaze of neon! Out come the riders - they look like extras from a Japanese cartoon - bright colours and lots of padding. It's odd to see grown men dressed up like children in superhero costumes. No one cheers, no one seems to notice, they ride slowly round to the starting gate and fix their bikes in position, bow once and climb on board their bikes. The riders all seem to ride the same bikes but they have some choice over the gear they choose.

They start slowly with little jockeying for position until the pacer goes off and then all hell breaks loose. The races typically require photo finishes and after the finish the old men watch the TV screens intently to see if they've won while the riders circle the track once and ride back in through the 'fighting gate' to their little hotel.

Cartoon superheroes
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There are 4000 registered Keirin riders in Japan and almost every weekend they race at over 50 tracks around Japan. For a lover of cycling the entertainment is amazingly cheap (as long as you resist the urge to gamble); entry is only 100 yen (A$1.50). There are 11 races per night with 9 riders per race. The events are usually held over 4 days. The riders who win will compete in higher-stakes races the next day.

In the first race which was held at 3:30pm the winner made 81,000 yen (A$1200 US$671) and the loser 40,000 (A$600), and in the last race of the evening at 8:20pm the winner made 328,000 yen (A$4800 US$2719) and the loser 162,000 yen (A$2400). Gambling: I'm no expert. I lost the 500 yen I bet and learnt that there are better ways of picking the winners than choosing pretty colours. A true keirin aficionado in addition to a rider's form takes into account a number of esoteric factors which were described in Cyclingnews by Nagako Furusawa:

Not that big a crowd...
Click for larger image

"Picking the winner of a keirin is a lot more complicated to the extent that punters have to examine the background of each rider who is participating the race. If there are several riders who originated from the same province, or who graduated from a riding school in the same year, they will collaborate with each other for wind-protection, etc. Also, the riders' positions at the starting point has to be taken into account. People conclude their bets by carefully reading potential collaboration among riders, and seeing the starting position, as well as analysing the course and riders' specialty. This complication makes them feel most rewarded when they win."

No wonder I lost my money!

A few interesting facts:

  • The average age of the riders on this night was about 35+ (probably 20 years younger than the average age of the spectators)
  • The races were 2000 m (5 X 400 m) (but this depends on the track, some tracks are 333m)
  • Entry to the keirin track is 100 yen (A$1.50, US$0.83)
  • Most people don't watch the races 'live' but watch on the tv screens, even though they're at the track.
  • Screaming at riders who have lost you money doesn't seem to happen (although yelling "Okada, good luck" seems to be acceptable)
  • There are seven different types of bets
  • In 1969 women racers were taken off the keirin registers
  • 644,000 bicycles are left abandoned in Japan every year
  • In 1997 Japan had 1452 bicycle related fatalities, as many as Germany, France and Italy combined.

Images by Peter Power

Related stories and links:
Nagako Furusawa's Cyclingnews keirin story
The Japanese Bicycle Promotion Institute
Mike Gladu's Keirin info page
Official Japanese Keirin Association site

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