japanese keirin: big thighs, big guys and very few non-japanese eyes

crankpunk once plied his trade in Japan – Saga-ken on Kyushu Island, near Fukuoka, to be precise. racing on the island wasn’t very popular and soon i was cranking up highways in a minivan with 8 teammates in stinking punkheat and no air-con for up to 16 hours at a time up to the regions of the Nagano area to race (Japan is a long country). trust me, getting to the start line an hour before the off, having your FD fall off due to a crappy mechanic on the first lap, then driving 16 hours to get back at 6am on a monday and starting work at 9 was not exactly what you’d call a blast. still, 4 hours drive to a race these days is a breeze…

what is quite popular on Kyushu, as all over Japan, is keirin. the word itself, if written in the Chinese characters, translates as ‘complete wheel’, though more often it’s written in katakana, the phonetic alphabet used for foreign words. the next town over from me, Kurume, had a keirin track which some Japanese guys on my team used on the first sunday of each month, when it was opened up to the public. i headed down there with my road bike one sunday, having only ridden  track once before in my life many years ago, and i was hooked. it wasn’t so much the actual riding round the track – there were 200m, 400m, 1km and 4km mini-events that we raced in – but the actual smell and feel of the place.

open to the public all day for a small fee, the stands were littered here and there with the odd drunk passed out in the morning sun on the benches. a few track officials were always there to make sure the place was used properly – it was an outdoor concrete track – big guys with barrel guts in their 40s and 50s, thick shoulders, fat sausage fingers with rings on them, all ex-riders. there were always three or four of the pro keirin guys also hanging around, chatting to friends or doing some training in the back room.

lumpy legs abound in The Complete Wheel

these guys turned up in huge Toyota Crowns – the de rigueur vehicle for mid-level yakuza (Japanese mafia) as well, it seemed, of track cyclists – or tricked out Benz and Beemers. they invariably had dyed, soccer-player style hair, gold chains, bodies that looked like they could be dropped from 50m and bounce three times and legs that wouldn’t look out of place in a redwood forest. they were always affable enough, but they ruled the place. you sensed this power. they were like made guys, they’d been through the keirin school, paid their dues, done their time, and now they were reaping the benefits.

some of them train their asses off. there was a hill near my house that was a steady 5% for a good 6km, where some of the keirin riders would be mid-week, dressed in their star-motif shorts, black shoes without socks and mushroom track helmets, sprinting up it – on their fixed gear track bikes. and what bikes they were, all regulation-specific, chromed out, clean, bright and tight.

for some it truly is a sport and they want to rise up the hierarchy. it’s their livelihood and there is a lot of prestige to being a keirin warrior. others though they looked out of shape, pot-bellied and tired. the back room with its high-tech roller machines would almost always be stinking of cigarette smoke, and i’d see guys drenched in sweat lighting up.

keirin, like much of Japanese life and certainly the betting sector, has connections to the yakuza. some races may be fixed, maybe not, but – if Sumo is anything to go by – chances are it’s rife. some guys just seem to be going through the paces – not surprising if their careers are stunted.

one day i did the 1km trial on my road bike and clocked 1’08”. as i came off the track one of the officials said to me “hey good time for a road bike. that’s good enough to qualify for the keirin school.”

‘huh’, i thought. ‘that might be fun.’

i looked into it though and realized pretty soon that the obstacles standing in my way were not insubstantial. first of all i’d have to laser off all my crankpunk tattoos – of which there are a few – as no rider can have ink (as well as no piercings). secondly, i’d have to become a naturalized Japanese. thirdly, i’d have to take the written test in Japanese. the whole system is designed, effectively, to keep foreigners out (as my black American friend Saperi discovered too), much like Sumo was in years gone by. they relaxed the rules in Sumo to breathe new life into the sport and now foreigners dominate. the keirin officials saw Chris Hoy smash it in the international races and that must have confirmed their thinking. it doesn’t feel right but such is life.

still, none of that ever dampened my attraction to keirin, and in truth i was never likely to be able to handle my own against guys with left legs thicker than my torso. when it’s run properly it’s one heck of a spectacle, informed by that Japanese obsession with order, as well as including the brilliant kit, incredibly clean bikes and crashes that leave tears in your eyes…

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

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