A blur of colors fly past me as the sound of the large bell in the center of the track finishes echoing the alarm of the final lap. The crowd cheers as the racers push to full speed around the banked track, my view illuminated by the light marking the finish line. Cheers, shouts and screams erupt as the racers push to the finish and zoom within feet of me - my angle unlike the rest of the spectators.
Despite knowing relatively nothing about the sport or the riders participating in the Keirin race, I somehow found myself getting a rare look from the inside out. My friend and fellow Taiken contributor Bradley O’Grady received press passes from a cycling magazine in Europe to conduct interviews with the foreign riders. With my press badge in hand, and cameras strapped to my body I was completely overwhelmed and the races hadn’t even started yet.
Keirin (競輪 / ケイリン) is one of three legal forms of gambling in Japan, and involves racers sprinting around an ovular track on specialized bicycles. Racers follow a pace bike for a couple laps, slowly increasing their speed from about 16 miles an hour and about 31 before the pace bike splits off. The final lap is signaled by the ringing of a large bell and the riders hurl their bikes to a top speed of about 41 miles per hour for the final 700 yards. Seeing this from the stands is amazing, but from the inside of the track it was almost surreal.
The rain reflected the traditional kits (or bikers jerseys) colors in a picturesque way. Their helmets matching the plain jerseys and their bikes all having similar if not exact proportions and styles. Hearing the buzz of chains and cogs spinning was rhythmic and sounded like an orchestra; that is until the push to the finish line finally broke the rhythmic cadence.
Many things about that day were new and unexpected, but a few things really surprised me. Keirin racing was invented in 1948 as a way to gamble and I was surprised at how extremely traditional the races remained.
The sempai and kōhai relationship shows as younger riders help wheel the older riders bikes off the tracks, and even clean them after races. This shocked me – I would never want anyone I was competing against touching my equipment.
Many riders have devoted their whole lives to the sport and it isn’t uncommon to see riders having decades of race experience behind them (For example one of the most decorated riders retired at the age of 51). However one of the things that shocked me most was the general health of these athletes. Some had the muscular body type I expected from a professional athlete, some were fit looking, yet some had large guts. Amongst the coffee cans and other litter were also bottles of sake, beer and cigarette cartons.
There is obviously a lot of money tied up and generated through the sport and because of this the sport takes extreme precautionary measures to prevent any form of cheating. They take the riders phones away upon entering 3 days prior to the race, and return them after the final race is over. The riders can not leave the facility after check in until the conclusion of the final event three days later; eating only what food the venue cooks and entertaining themselves with books and newspapers, and naps. Lots of naps.
A rider told me that they must walk onto the field in a certain way, their hands never leaving the handlebars of their bikes as this could be a signal to someone in the crowd. A story circulated of a rider being disqualified due to his sock length not perfectly matching the strict rules and regulations. The Nihon Jitensha Shinkōkai, or NJS, takes all measures to ensure a fair race.
The living quarters were equally as a traditional. Yes, you guessed it, just a giant room with a tatami floor with people hanging their clothes above them. I was not able to take pictures of this area but imagine an emergency evacuation site; except full of vibrant race attire.
Enter the three foreign riders who are granted access to compete with the rest of the Japanese riders. Immediately seeing the two new foreign faces, and being sensory deprived of fluent English except for a select few translators, they came over to introduce themselves to us and strike up a conversation. This sounds casual, but there was nothing casual about these guys. They are world champion cyclists, and one recently won silver at the Rio Olympics.
Because Bradley was conducting interviews we were able to mingle with them, drifting in and out of interview questions and casual conversations. They broke away eventually to prepare for their race. We took photos from different angles and filmed, even being able to enter the center of the track to take photos of preliminary races.
The final race. Rain pounded the track, it was getting dark and the lights illuminated the riders jerseys. I crouched about 50 feet away from the start, hearing the screams and cheers of the crowd. The race began with a slow start with each lap the riders gaining speed. Then the final lap gong, and the racers shot out. The colors blurred, the screams intensified, and I snapped photos as three of my new friends swept the podium.
After the race the riders boxed up their own bikes after the other members cleaned them off. Fortunately they took a liking to us and our knowledge about Japan so we headed into the city to enjoy some wings and beer. The conversations were fun and the status of the athletes we were with went totally unnoticed in the restaurant. So we swapped stories and finished the night with answering some of the typical “what should we do in Japan” questions.