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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