Track racing in Japan
Back in 2007, RIDE Cycling Review published a feature by Ben Kersten about his experiences while racing the Japanese professional keirin circuit. It’s racing, but not as we know it in the west. The competition is tough and the tactics rather brutal but that’s all part of the tradition. At the heart of this style of track racing is one key element: gambling. There may be some entertainment involved but that’s not what the locals are really interested in… Here is a flashback to RIDE #38.
Keirin school – by Ben Kersten
Flashback from RIDE #38 (volume 04, 2007)
Cycling is big business in Japan. The road market is expanding at an exponential rate but the large velodromes, cartoonesque outfits and frantic frenzy of keirin racing are what most people associate with bike riding in the land of the rising sun. It’s all about betting. Big money can be made but mistakes can cost participants dearly.
The knowledge most people have of keirin racing is based largely on hearsay. This was what I suggested to Ben Kersten when we sat down to discuss this story, an insight into life on the Japanese circuit. The Japan Keirin Federation – with the rare right to allow gambling on its competitions – now offers places to foreigners for a limited period of what is an everlasting season. Once a rider has his licence, he’s able to participate until a ripe old age. “There are a couple who drive a Bentley,” said Kersten about his rivals in Japan this year.
“Another favourite are high-end Mercedes. Some of them have the big family vans and, although they could afford the Merc, they need to throw their bikes in the family unit. There are some riders who make over the US$10 million mark for their career earnings, and they’re 35 so they’re still going. And they’ll earn a steady income because you can race until you’re 65. The same quality of rider could be earning 100 grand each year if he kept going until he’s that age.”
Money speaks loudest in this kind of cycling. There’s plenty of it and it all hinges on one primary concern: gambling.
Your earning capacity is on public display. Like the dogs at Dapto, riders are all listed on a detailed betting form guide. “A lot is noted,” explained Ben of his allotment in the annals of a six-week history of racing. “On the list are your wins, last three places and averages after riding from different positions, gear ratio and the positions you rode in the last three races. For some riders they’ll just have a report on their condition.”
The nature of the contest means that it is possible for the invited foreigners to win but reputation or good form don’t factor into the results like in track racing as we know it. “If you tell them they’re athletes they just laugh at you and say that they’re businessmen,” said Ben of his Japanese colleagues.
“Racing simply happens to be their job. Their process of getting ready for a race is like doing research for work; it’s not about athleticism to them. They have to earn their wages so they have to get dressed for work and then get on the rollers… for the seasoned campaigners it’s all tactics and little passion. It’s based on a knowledge of the other riders, not on how good they are. If you lined them up for a one kilometre sprint we’d probably beat them by 800 metres, but in a race we struggle to get around them. It’s their domain.”
Kersten joined eight other foreigners during his first foray into the wild world of the keirin midway through 2007. It was an elite group of Western sprinters. This year’s promo poster boasted Dutch pair Theo Bos and Teun Mulder, Frenchman Mikaël Bourgain, Scotsman Craig MacLean, Germany’s Stefan Nimke, Poland’s Damien Zielinski, Spaniard José Escuredo, Andrei Vynokurov from the Ukraine and Aussie ‘Benny K’.
It’s a formidable collection of talent and they are recruited because of reputations gained at the highest level of international racing – Olympics Games, world championships and World Cups – but they are still required to attend a school to be educated in the many curious rules of keirin.
This is the fourth time Bos has been enlisted. He’s a star of sprinting but not even his immense physical ability and tactical nous ensure success against the locals. “He’s a pin-up in Japan,” said Ben about Theo. “How can you not love him? He deserves all the accolades he gets because he’s pretty amazing. But I saw him finish last in a race on the first day. It was a reminder of how difficult the keirin is. It’s reassuring to see that even if you’re Theo Bos, you can still get into trouble.
“We’re learning a new race; it’s nothing like the keirin we’re used to. The only similarity to the event of the same name that’s contested at the Olympics is that there is someone slowing the race down for a while at the start.
“You’re allowed to be physical and force other riders out of your way and use all the track, from top to bottom.
“They stay in formations of three for betting reasons. If you get next to one, the other two will help to take you out in order to protect the guys in front and behind. It’s like they’re connected – you can’t break them up – and they’ll do anything to stick together. It’s perceived as a misdemeanour to try and break the formation so you’ll get in more trouble than he does.”
Kersten outlined what is taught at school. There are many rules and most of them relate to ensuring gamblers don’t believe they’re being ripped off. On the track, however, there’s only one objective: get to the line first. Stray from that mission and it’s shikaku for you. This is a penalty to avoid at all costs!
During his stay Benny K enjoyed some success, earned a bit of money, learned some of the local lingo, ate a lot of fish, met people from all over the world, was educated in a new form of racing and, because of a moment’s lapse in concentration, copped a shikaku in his last race. In this Q&A, the 26-year-old explains why he’s turning Japanese…
Can you discuss your experiences in Japan and explain some intricacies of the culture of racing on the professional keirin circuit?
“I’d been hoping to go for a few years but I had been committed to racing the ‘kilo’ in the hope of going to the Olympics and the season for foreigners always conflicted with other events. Until I decided to give up the kilo and do the keirin, the Japanese federation wasn’t too interested in inviting me. Because of the Commonwealth Games last year, where I showed a bit of promise, I got a start in 2007.
“Before I went information about my program was vague. I was offered a contract, given five dates with five races listed and told to bring a suit. That’s about it. There’s no need to take any riding clothing because you have to use what’s provided.”
We’re told that there’s a large crowd and a lot of gambling… can you explain the atmosphere at the velodrome?
“I went to Hiroshima first and I was let down by the size of the crowd. The riders explained to me when I arrived in Japan that, although there’s a huge following, the spectators are not necessarily in the grandstands. The velodromes are large and have a seating capacity for about 20 or 30,000 people.
“There might be one or two thousand people at a race but most watch on screens in the betting shops. They want to bet on so many races a day so they opt not to restrict themselves to one velodrome. You hardly ever see them. Riders are there to race, not necessarily entertain. It was an anticlimax.
“The people who watch don’t even appreciate you as an athlete or your ability to win a race. They only like you on consistency and the chance of winning money because of you.
“The odds are based on the position that you race – from the back or the front – so they don’t really care if you ride from the back and win, but simply whether you ride from the back. They don’t care about winners but it’s pretty dangerous if you lose! If you’re really good with odds to match and you don’t win, it becomes really threatening for the athlete.
“People don’t go out and try to kill horses if they lose but they feel a cyclist is more responsible than a horse. So if a rider has lost a race because he did something stupid, then he’d better lay low for a while.
“I think a few riders have been maimed before but I’m not sure. They don’t tell you that but it’s alluded to, perhaps just to keep the visiting riders honest. In my last race I was given a shikaku; I made a mistake and the organisers asked me not to go outside for that night… not until people forgot about me. I’d stand out walking around town with my big thighs!
“I asked, ‘What happens if one of the big honchos loses a race? Do they get bashed?’ They explained that people get angry until you win again, then they just forget.
“They have big wire fences around the track like in the movie Running Man. There are people at the track rattling the fence yelling, ‘Go Home!’ They don’t exactly cheer for you when you win but they are angry when they lose money. It’s not a glamorous crowd with pretty people in suits and fancy hats.”
What was the situation with the disqualification, the shikaku?
“I was on the front coming into the last lap, waiting for the attacks to be launched. Instead of coming over the top, they moved up next to me and pushed me down to the inside of the track. We’re taught that, if someone pushes you out of the sprinters line, you’re allowed to continue on the inside until you get your line back because they stole it from you.
“I was riding on the inside, heading backwards to go back around, then remembered the rule so I went underneath and won the race. I was told that, after the guy pushed me, I waited too long; they actually measured it on video and it was a 10th of a second… too much.”
So your shikaku was essentially a hesitation penalty?
“After I was shunted off the track, I should have kept going but he pushed me and I waited momentarily. I thought he had me beaten but then I remembered that I was allowed to go back up. While that mouse was running on the wheel inside my head and I’d figured it out, too much time had elapsed.
“It’s important that you never concede a race. Even if you know you’re beaten, the rules dictate that you must always strive for the best place. If you can’t win, you should try for second, or third… it’s all important. Betting extends beyond the winner so if you surrender, it looks like a set-up.
“You need to make it seem like you did everything possible to win the race. If you’re coming second-last and you put your hands on top of the bars or sit up, you’ll be disqualified and lose all your money. For example, if you’re coming fourth and sit up and come fifth as a result they’ll kick you out. You’ll have to go back to school for a week and receive a fine.”
Can you explain the structure of an average racing program?
“There are day and night keirins with 11 races in a session and they take place every 40 minutes. They start at 9.00am and finish in the afternoon, and the night racing kicks off at 1.00pm and goes through until the evening. We only race once a day but all 11 events are categorised into divisions. The old guys start and the last events have the best riders competing.
“Every day is a final with good money and you can move up to higher levels. You can be in a final on the last day but it’s in race one, so there’s not much money. You’re always in a final but which level depends on how you’ve ridden in the previous days. The top three from each race move up a level while fourth and fifth go to the next race. Some guys have never gone beyond the fourth or fifth final but that’s their lot.”
There’s an urban myth that someone like Ryan Bayley can go to Japan and return with enough money to buy a house… is that the case? Is there an appearance fee or are your winnings all of what you earn?
“You don’t get any money for turning up but the federation paid my fare to get there. I had to pay for my accommodation but the contract stipulates that you’ll have a guaranteed five races and there’s a minimum payment for competitions, so even if you come last in every race you can still earn decent money.
“The keirin circuit is funded well enough for everyone to get paid but it’s not as lucrative as it used to be. I made a bit of money, maybe enough to buy myself a decent dog house… well, honestly, it’s possibly a deposit for a house but it’s certainly not like that myth. It’s not as though I can now retire thanks to my earnings in Japan this year.”
What about the seasoned regulars on the circuit, at what age do they start to consider hanging up the bike?
“You have to have an average point score within a certain range in your career to continue competing. You get a couple of points if you win and none if you lose, and every week it might change a couple of points. If it falls below a certain level you get kicked out for life. This might happen as a result of injury, taking a break or successive losses. That usually happens in the case of the 60-year-olds; if they lose regularly in the lower tiers then they can’t gather enough points and that’s normally why they retire. I got my butt kicked by a 48-year-old one day.”
Can you describe the quintessential Japanese keirin rider?
“He smokes about two packets of cigarettes a day, maybe is an alcoholic, is often pretty fat; many have hairy legs and some drive a Merc to and from work.
“A lot of them have big legs. When you see them training at the keirin school many of them appear to be fit. In the early days they’re like Adonis because they’re training 10-12 hours a day so they’re fit and ripped. They leave the schools with big legs but they never train again and lose their fitness.
“Most of them have bellies and in the baths at the track you see so many who have scars all over their body. They crash often yet they just laugh and booze up after the races.”
Cycling is plagued elsewhere with the temptation for doping but the professional riders don’t seem concerned about the same issues as their European counterparts. What are the testing protocols like at this level of racing in Japan? What is the Keirin Federation’s stance on drugs?
“Every so often they come to a track and tell the riders that there will be testing. If the riders want to go home, they’re free to do so at that time. They give the test subjects plenty of notice so it isn’t too strict and it never has been. It’s not an Olympic sport in that capacity so the people who are out to catch drug cheats – the IOC and the national federations – aren’t too interested in the Japanese keirin because it has nothing to do with those organisations. As a result I don’t think anyone is chasing them around to do drug tests. It’s like they’re in their own little world.
“I heard one story about the gambling in relation to drug tests where if a positive result was recorded all the bets would have to be redone. And it doesn’t just concern the rider who wins but the second-place finisher, and so on down the line… which would be complicated for all the betting. Therefore they don’t want anyone to get caught.”
What happens to a keirin rider if he is caught using any sort of performance-enhancing products?
“I don’t think there’s ever been a positive result in the keirin in Japan! I believe they share a similar system to what we know as normal – two years or life suspension for a first or second offence. All of the punishments are for gambling, not drugs.
“If someone got caught for drugs it wouldn’t be such a big deal but gambling means jail time. If they’re caught engaging in illicit bets, they have to serve a prison sentence. In the manual you get at the school, there’s 100 pages about illegal gambling. The section on doping simply says, ‘Don’t take drugs’.
The colours seem designed to make the rider anonymous…
“Before the race riders receive their numbers. Numbers are colours because people recognise them more easily. There are nine colours and nine riders and there’s nothing on the jerseys except a number. The helmet is covered to match; they’re like scooter helmets, big with padded ear straps. It makes sense when you see that there’s one crash in every three keirins. It’s pretty bloody dangerous.
“I’ve never really been scared on the bike and I’ve only ever crashed on the velodrome once before. I blew a front tyre once and came down as a result so I’ve had good luck.
“The Japanese counter for the craziness by wearing an unbelievable amount of body armour. It comes in all shapes: carbon-fibre spine plates, elbow and shoulder pads, knuckle plates in their gloves and hip pads. They are inserted in suits so racers look bulked up and padded like motorcycle riders.
“Keirin racing has been around for over 60 years and while cycling in Japan is growing, I don’t think the keirin is doing too well. The format has never changed. They are now seeing attendance numbers drop and that’s why they are considering innovations like international riders and carbon bikes.
“I was watching some footage and I asked, ‘Is this one of the international races? Are Craig McLean or Theo in this?’ They told me it was 30 years old but I couldn’t see anything different to what is today. The bikes, the colours of the jerseys, the tracks, helmets… everything! It’s great to maintain tradition but maybe something different is needed. How can you be compelled if you’re just watching the same thing over and over?
“It’s cycling but not as we know it. They ride things that look like bikes, but the differences are vast!”
What body armour did you wear?
“I didn’t buy any. I had a long sleeve jacket that I put under my jersey. During the first couple of races I thought I didn’t need armour, but then people were crashing around me and I realised I needed some! I ordered it but it didn’t go through so I raced another event at which point I had two to go. I figured: if I crashed in those, I’d probably have to go home anyway.
“I felt really sleek without any armour while I was racing all these Michelin men. Another reason they wear armour is because the track is sprayed with this sandpaper-like material so races can be held in the rain. Racing is only stopped for earthquakes, typhoons and occasionally lightning. If you crash you lose all the surface skin.
“They go through half a tub of baby oil on their legs every time they race; you’re allowed to wear body armour everywhere except on your legs. They have to be bare. To overcome this they just coat themselves in oil so if they land they at least slide and keep some of the dirt and grime out of their legs.
“Their legs are dripping wet. It’s not like they have to rub it in and you need shaved legs, they just drain it all over. They put a plastic bag on their hand and just smother it around. Half of them shave but they don’t have much hair anyway.”
So how is it riding against these armoured former Adonis-like warriors who are lathered in oil and stoked up on cigarettes and booze? How is their form on the bike?
“The tracks are very good and despite the restrictions on equipment the times are fast. Guys sometimes do 10.5 over 200m while using old square-box rims and cheap single tyres. It feels a little bit different but it’s not too bad at all; it’s actually quite good except for the fact that you end up with no skin when you crash. It’s ingenious except for that.
“On the bike the local riders adopt quite a bizarre position. They essentially choose to have their bars up under their chin. The stem would be about 20mm shorter than what I’m used to so their hands are directly underneath their chin. They drop their head right down low to keep an eye on their rivals through their legs because it’s illegal to turn around and have a look behind. They just flick their heads up and down.
“If the foreigners did it a bit they let us get away with it. If a Japanese rider did it a few weeks in a row, he’d eventually be disqualified. They don’t like it, especially in the last lap. When we did it they got the shits, although if you win that’s okay.
“If you do it and don’t win then it appears as though it has cost a few pedal strokes and that’s when people get angry.”
Did you try riding in the position that they have adopted?
“It’s too hard! I did try to do it once but I think my bike was a little too short for me because I didn’t order it correctly. I was halfway to that position! When they get out of the saddle their hands are in their lap, so when they get over the front of the bike the front axle is about 20cm behind their chin. If someone touches them even gently they’ll often just crash.
“You’ll see one rider move in front of another, and despite not clipping wheels the one at the rear will fall. They go down all the time. It happens really easily. One guy will go next to another and may clip his foot and the next minute the other guy will be in the fence just because his rhythm was broken.
“I found out that the position is beneficial when a rider is trying to weasel his way through a gap; their hands are where their heads are and they’re head butting. If they head butt their way through a gap, their bike is already through it.
“The way we’re used to riding in the West, we have to get our bike half a metre through a gap before we can get our head in there. The Japanese open up gaps with their heads! If there are two bums in front of a rider, he can get his head in over the front wheel and move the pair to get through. They teach them this in school. When they’re warming up they’re doing head butts and shoulder shakes. Everything they do is designed specifically for this original form of keirin racing.”
It was a long stay. How did the locals receive the foreigners?
“It was mixed. It feels like you don’t fit in and they’re rude but it’s just some things, as they say, get lost in translation. They’re in awe of a lot of the guys and many of the Japanese riders come to our room with presents and ask for autographs.
“Sometimes it shocks you when they do it because it seems like they don’t want you to be there but it’s just that they don’t know how to communicate. As a result it’s hard to try to keep a level head – I was paranoid about what people were thinking, especially coming into their life and taking over.
I really think they enjoy the novelty. A lot of the top riders say how much they appreciate having us there because we make them train and race harder, considering they do it every day. They enjoy the chance to race with us and, for the time we’re there, it takes their job and sport to another level.”
What are the rules about the actual bike itself, is there any room for innovation or does modern technology simply not apply in the keirin?
“You have to have a steel bike with the traditional frame design. The diameter of each tube has to be 22mm and must be a certain thickness. You can have your own angles. You must use a steel stem and bars although no oversized versions are allowed. You can use an aluminium seatpost, steel saddle rails and single strap pedals. It’s all very old school. They give you the wheels you need, and they’re just square-box rims. They check them every day, and if there’s anything wrong with your tyres they change them so it’s all in good condition.
“It weighs about nine kilos. That’s not ridiculous but my custom-made Look bike was a little bit heavier than it normally is. I had a really strong bike made for the races.
“You can choose the crank length you want. I use 170mm cranks for racing because of my ‘kilo’ background. Just by being around other riders that are on smaller cranks, I might try and use ones that are 2mm shorter this year.”
What gear do you race with? Does it change with conditions?
“You’d think so, but it’s difficult to change gears for races so I found that I stayed on one ratio – for both warm-up and racing – for three months. I rode a 100-inch (52×14) gear. It’s pretty large but you’re sprinting for a long way; I usually attacked at around 700 metres to go. It’s impossible to spin a small gear that far at the necessary speed.
“You have to nominate the gears you’ll be racing the night before and the scrutineers check things such as bolt tension prior to the competition. The next morning you have half an hour to get on the track. If you want to fuss around selecting ratios you have to do it quickly and be ready so they can tick your bike off and submit it for the gambling form guide.
“The gear you select may be too big or too small but it’s not worth the rigamarole of swapping. We raced in a typhoon one night which is almost unheard of anywhere else in the world. It’s strange to adapt to such conditions and details like gear selection aren’t the main concern. You find a magic ratio and leave it on. At the end of the series I tried to take the cog off and I couldn’t move it; I’d raced on it for three months!”
It doesn’t sound even remotely similar to the keirin racing format we see at the Olympics despite sharing the name…
“The keirin did start out closely resembling what it was in Japan when it made its Olympic debut. It used to be eight or nine guys in a race but it’s not really feasible on a 250m track.
“On a 500m track it works well; six riders over that distance would be quite boring, more like a derby. Nine guys on that size track is a realistic proposition. On an indoor track, if you’re ninth with two and a half laps to go, it’s simply not possible to get to the front.
“The UCI keirin started off allowing riders to move up and down and I don’t think there was ever a race where someone didn’t crash; now it’s very rare and a lot safer. They originally tried to replicate it but it’s been adapted. An Olympic sport that’s as dangerous as the keirin isn’t right.
“What the UCI has done to the keirin would be like putting lanes on a BMX track and asking riders to just try and get around as fast as possible, making it like a time trial. They’ve turned this BMX-type sport into a time trial.”
The Japanese version sounds more like rollerball than cycling?
“Exactly! You can get a guy who commits an offence but just gets kicked out of the race and retains his licence. They can just come up to you and put you through the fence and you’ll lose that race. They’re immune to getting in trouble.
“You can move up and down the track at will. It doesn’t matter if you cause a crash – especially if you win the race – but you’ll get a $100 fine and have to sit the next race out. If we raced like this at a World Cup, we’d get a suspension. If we made a career of racing like they do in Japan we’d lose our UCI licence. To the keirin pros it’s just Game On! Their attitude: ‘I’m a keirin rider, I’m dangerous.’ The older guys on the circuit are proud of how crazy it is.”
I’ve heard about the centres in places like Utsunomiya, where the road world championships were held in 1990, that sound like cycling theme parks. Did you see anything like this?
“I don’t know if it’s a franchise, but next to where I stayed at the keirin school was a cycle sports centre where people come from all over Japan to just ride in the mountains and on any one of the five tracks. They come for training camps, particularly students. The various universities in Japan race each other so they come to the centre for training camps. There’s also an amusement park just for bike riding, so every ride is cycle-powered. There’s a roller coaster that hangs out over a cliff edge and is completely pedal-powered.
“Maybe it would induce some vertigo because you want to get around quickly. It wasn’t peak season and there weren’t any big queues. I think it was a novelty, maybe a bad idea or investment but there was pedal-powered stuff everywhere.”
Did the rollercoaster resemble Sydney’s Dunc Gray velodrome, an engineering masterpiece that, once built, essentially turned into what is an under-utilised government investment?
“I think it was definitely from the same pool of ideas. I think the gymnastics that takes place for local kids in the infield most afternoons is what pays the way for the Sydney track. But it’s unfair to compare the centres in Japan to what we have here simply because of the difference in population size. Over there people would go to a velodrome in much the same way as they would visit a golf driving range.”
How would you sum up the keirin experience? Have you found your calling? Are you going back? Are you tempted to become a 65-year-old pro cyclist?
“I’m not quite sure. I don’t think so, though. I don’t think that money is worth that much to me. I’ve had a pretty buckled career and I’ll enjoy not having a hectic schedule. I imagine I’d retire from cycling at around 35. I know it’s different over there because they pretty much are retired but they race six or nine minutes a month and they’re earning all this money so they’re not really racing. I don’t think I could race and not do it wholeheartedly.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
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