Keirin Culture

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It’s an Olympic track discipline mastered by a certain Sir Chris Hoy. It’s also a Japanese betting institution, introduced in 1948, that’s now worth millions of Yen. Here massive Keirin know-all Gary Williams gives a quick intro to a Japanese white-knuckle obsession.

Image: Cog Magazine/Yohei Morita

Going to a watch Keirin in Japan is a bit like going to the dogs in the UK. Gambling is very popular and the 57 million spectators annually place bets of around 1.15 trillion Yen. There are seven different types of bet. The top payout for a correct “San-Ren-Tan” – correctly picking the first three riders over the line can be up to 900000 Yen. The returns on most bets are rather modest, as the stakes are not very daring. Picking the winner of a Keirin race is a complicated matter; Blood group, astrological sign and thigh measurements, as well as seasonal form, are only some of the factors taken into consideration when placing a bet. For the punters, having successfully analyzed the riders is part of the reward when they win. It is the aspect of luck and the possibility that anything can happen that attracts people to Keirin. Of course there are favorites who are stronger than other riders. But there is always a chance that through a crash or tactical error an outsider could sweep by and take the win.

Image: Flickr/Anders Numerius

The nine racers are clad in brightly coloured jerseys and helmet covers to make them easy to identify. The numbers one to nine wear the colours white, black, red, blue, green, orange, pink and purple respectively. The races are usually 2000 m (5 x 400 m) and the track is steeply banked at each end making for a dramatic racing atmosphere. The race starts slowly. The riders then jockey for position behind the pacemaker whose job it is to control the speed of the pack until he goes off the track. A bell then rings to open the sprint. During the last two laps the pace rises and the riders begin a furious battle. Fighting then ensues to get into the gaps, as they wind-up for the sprint finish, reaching speeds of up to 70 km/h (about 45mph). The race can be won or lost in the last few centimeters and there is little in cycle sport that comes close to the white-knuckle excitement as the nine racers sprint for the line.

Image: Paul Keller

From a tactical point of view Keirin is much more complex than a traditional Track sprint, and perhaps more comparable to the sprint finish of a road race. There are three standard strategies in Keirin;
1. Senko – leading with high speed from the front
2. Makuri – sprinting past from second or third place on the last lap
3. Oikomi – coming out from third or fourth place with a short powerful sprint.
As there are 9 riders they usually work together in groups of 3. If there are several riders in a race line-up, for example, or from the same province or graduation year they may collaborate. A well functioning group can still beat the strongest rider in the field. Although each group is working together to win, each rider is looking for a chance to be the first across the line. It is this seemingly paradoxical situation that makes Keirin so unpredictable.

Image: Flickr/Mario Office2000

Only frames and components approved by the Japanese Bicycle Association (known as NJS) are permitted for competition use at Keirin races. Since the public is betting on the outcome of these races no rider should have any mechanical advantage; these stipulations go right down to the type of tire they should use. The riders all use very similar steel framed bikes made by one of the 36 frame-shops in Japan licensed to produce professional Keirin racing frames. Beautiful craftsmanship, meticulous attention to detail and the use of the finest materials are trade marks of the master frame-builders.


Image: Paige Patterson,

For many years Keirin was a sport in which only male athletes participated – women’s participation having been reduced to trackside cheerleaders. But this was not always the case.  In the 1950’s (the golden era of Keirin) female racers were even more popular than their male counterparts because of their glamorous image. In the 1960’s Women’s Keirin gradually lost popularity though as the distinction between strong and weak racers was simply too big. The result was considered too predictable and no longer interesting for gamblers. Although women’s Keirin still had its fans the big bets were being placed at the men’s races and the events became less frequent. The last women’s Keirin race was held in 1964 and at the end of that year female racers were taken off the Keirin registers. In 2008 a girls Keirin “Venus series” was introduced as a showcase series of three demonstration races without betting, this was followed by a six race series in 2009. After the success of the Venus series it was decided to reintroduce women’s pro Keirin in July 2012. In women’s Keirin there are only seven starters, the races are shorter and unlike their male counterparts they wear skin suits, standard racing helmets and ride carbon-framed bikes.

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