In Photos: Japan’s Ultra Competitive Cycling Culture
Keirin—derived from a Chinese compound meaning “racing wheels”—began as an initiative designed to help Japan finance reconstruction following WWII. The first events, held in 1948 in Kokura City (the intended target for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki) were such an immediate economic success that other local governments quickly followed suit. Today there are at least 45 velodromes throughout Japan, where 3,800 registered riders compete for large purses and, in the process, earn—and lose—money for the spectators, who seem interested in little else but placing wagers.
The same basic strategies found in most international cycling races apply to keirin—competitors jockey for advantageous spots in the peleton, choosing how and when to take the lead—but its rigid system of rules sets it apart from other cycling events.
The Japanese Keirin Association was founded in 1957 to standardize all aspects of the sport. The rules, of which there are many, primarily ensure fairness for the bettors. Perhaps not so strangely, a few of those rules are designed to prevent criminal involvement: for instance, to be accepted into the Japanese Keirin School—a must for any professional racer, though only 10 percent of applicants are accepted—a cyclist must claim no Yakuza (Japan’s famed organized crime organization) ancestor, and competitors are sequestered at the velodrome for a few days leading up to each event.
Which is not say that this rigidity makes the races themselves any less thrilling: After the start of each race, six to nine cyclists clad in padded, colorful uniforms fall in line behind a pace-setter, who gradually picks up speed and eventually turns off the steeply banked oval track to leave the competitors to fight it out over the last 600-700 meters at upwards of 40mph. Accidents are not uncommon (hence the padded uniforms and stretchers placed around the track), and the shouts of racers can be heard above the ringing of a large bell as they near the finish line.
A selection of these images will appear in a one-day keirin-themed exhibition organized by Bike Cult Show in New York on June 18. Go to PreferredMode.com for details.
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The winner of the day's races takes a victory lap
The winner of the day's races takes a victory lap.
Stretchers are positioned at intervals around the track
Stretchers are positioned at intervals around the track.
More bettors can be found inside the velodrome watching videos screens than watching the live races themselves
More bettors can be found inside the velodrome watching videos screens than watching the live races themselves.
Different racing strategories are emplyed; some use the steepness of the banked curves to gain speed, others draft behind other cyclists, and some prefer to stay in the lead to avoid having to jockey for position. Number 6 won this particular race.
Different racing strategories are employed; some use the steepness of the banked curves to gain speed, others draft behind other cyclists, and some prefer to stay in the lead to avoid having to jockey for position. Number 6 won this particular race.
Mascots announce the arrival of the racers witha dance routine
Mascots announce the arrival of the racers with a dance routine.
A competitor on his way to the track
A competitor on his way to the track.
A cyclist warms up before the next race
A cyclist warms up before the next race.
Cyclists in the walkway leading to the track
Cyclists in the walkway leading to the track.
The competitors lined up behind the pacer toward the beginning of the race.
The entrance to the Urban Bank velodrome in Kawasaki, Japan.
A cyclist prepares for an upcoming race
A cyclist prepares for an upcoming race.
Racers warming up at the velodrome
Racers warming up at the velodrome.
An array of keirin track bikes
An array of keirin track bikes.