Portfolio is our collection of stories, photos, insights and behind-the-scenes bits from within women’s cycling. Collecting the culture of the ride and sharing circles of cyclists that might go missed otherwise, these are posts written by women. Australian Olympian, Olivia Gollan profiles Japanese Keirin racing, inspired by a former professional teammate, Miho Oki:
There is a betting ring in Japan focused on a world of women’s cycling that is largely unknown to those of us in the west. It’s a world of high financial stakes, very cool kit and, in beautifully bright Japanese style, loud and colourful bikes.
It was Miho Oki who rode 3 Olympic Road Races for Japan and was the first professional Japanese female cyclist to race in Europe that prompted me to look deeper into the world of Keirin. As a teammate, Miho was worth her weight in gold – particularly because she had a tremendous ability to self-deprecate. “It was like rodeo”, she would laugh after bouncing her 48kg frame over 120km of killer cobbles in the north of Holland. She now works as High Performance Adviser for the Japanese Cycling Federation, is a member of the Women’s Sports Committee at the Japanese Olympic Committee and is also a trainer at the Japanese Keirin School.
I knew about Japanese Keirin racing because I had read stories of Australian track men like Shane Perkins, Ben Kersten and Gary Sutton being invited to the exotic and lucrative Keirin racing circuit. I’d recently watched the exquisitely stylised documentary, Ryokou on Shane’s experiences. Then in my extensive research (Mostly Google.) I found that in 2012 women started racing Keirin in Japan – not the mainstream Olympic sport but rather a form of racing where Keirin school is compulsory, athlete mobile phones are confiscated for days during competition, and a racer must declare their tactics to the punters, or race organizers, before the start of every race.
But hang on – what is Keirin racing? And why is track racing different in Japan?
Keirin is a track cycling race where between six to nine riders race over about 2km. It is a relatively new Olympic event, first raced by the men in 2000 and the women in 2012 – you might have seen the motorbikes on the track in London and thought WTF? But Keirin has been a big part of Japanese culture since it was introduced in 1948 as an initiative to rebuild after the war. The race starts with a pace setter (typically a motorized “derny”) who starts slowly but gradually increases the speed until peeling off with about 600 or 700 metres left to race. Usually the riders are travelling at about 50km/hour by this point and have hopefully maneuvered into their favoured position. Once the “derny” is gone the race is in full flight and the riders fight to take line honours.
In Japan the basic principles remain but there is one looming difference. Keirin racing is big business because it is a legal gambling industry that has a strict rules, tradition and culture. A majority of the revenue earned from the gambling goes back into public infrastructure. However, over the past 5 years the money being thrown at Keirin in Japan has declined and in order to attract a younger generation to the betting ring, Girl’s Keirin was re-established in 2012 to grab the interest of the punters. The form is not argued. The expectation is the same regardless of your cycling history.
World Champion, Kaarle McCullough went to Japan with a plan to race and earn a few dollars. Despite being a highly accomplished international competitor in the discipline, McCullough was run through a week of intensive schooling and then a four-part test before she was allowed to race. The test included a bike building time trial – she had to pull her bike apart and put it back together in 20 minutes. “It was stressful!” said Kaarle, “particularly because the bike had to be upside down and it had to be put back together following strict protocol.” She also had to pass an interview with the head of the JKA, as well as written and medical exams.
The Japanese girls undergo eleven months of training at the school that from all accounts seems to involve a tough regime of physical and theoretical training, “We would arrive for breakfast some mornings and the girls at the school would have already completed a 2km run! I can barely run away from the dog,” joked Kaarle. After they graduate, the racers are then qualified to race Keirin for a living. “They only have to come back to the school if they incur fines,” McCullough explain, “for every mistake they make in a race they earn 10 points and if they earn 90 points they have to go back to school for a week. As an international I could be fined 100 000 Japanese yen so I was pretty careful not to make any mistakes.”
Riders typically wear “amour” under their skin suits for protection as the racing is close and aggressive. The padding is a bit like skateboarding knee pads but worn on the shoulders, back and elbows. Kaarle also invested in some trademark Keirin pants with brightly coloured stars down the sides. Each rider draws a starting lane and with that comes a coloured jersey and a number that is loudly emblazoned on the side of their helmet and jersey.
What struck Kaarle most about the actual racing was how honourable and prestigious it is to win from the front. “There are three ways to win a Keirin in Japan,” she explained. “You either ride senko, which means you attack with 600/400m to go, or makuri, which means you attack from second wheel with no more than 300m to go, or you ride oikomi and attack with no more than 150m to go.”
“I couldn’t believe how determined the girls were to win from the front. I managed it once and everyone was very impressed, but I didn’t make a habit of it. I actually tried to teach them some of the merits of waiting till the right moment. But the punters love a win from the front because it shows strength and courage.”
Kaarle said, “the big concrete velodromes are quite eerie places with tall wire fences and not many people around. There are generally only close fans of the riders at the races but there are big betting rings where the crowds gather to place bets and watch the races. If you win on the last day you go and greet the crowds and meet lots of fans. We also visited the central betting building in Tokyo which is eleven floors high – the top floor has very wealthy gamblers sitting in leather chairs being waited on and the bottom floors are filled to capacity with the lower classes trying to get a bet on their favourite riders.”
The women follow international competition rules in Japan to keep things safer: while the men are renowned for shoulder barging and head butting through their racing, Girl’s Keirin is a bit more ladylike- in good weather the women use colourful disc wheels and tri-spokes provided by the JKA –the same colour wheels as the lane colour they draw.
A Keirin race meet goes for 4 days and the racers must go into isolation for this period, relinquishing all mobile phone and internet access to avoid contact with the punters and any temptation to fix races. The first day is spent checking bikes, having medicals and training. The next two days are qualifying races and the fourth day is kept for the final. Racers are paid a wage for the four days and then prize money on top of that – with a bonus paid for winning all the races.
“It is really important to race as hard as you can till the end of the race – the punters don’t like you to sit up under any circumstances,” explained Kaarle. “We saw videos at the school where spectators threw stuff on the track to ensure a restart after a crash.”
Coming back to my teammate, Miho, her role at the Keirin School includes media training and manners off the bike. She explains that “those girls who are earnest, diligent, motivated and prepared to listen to advice honestly are doing well and becoming successful.” Miho also said that since racing started in mid 2012 it is “so far so good with Girls’ Keirin. There are 80-85 races per year and Japanese rider, Yukari Nakamura, won 7 000 000 Japanese Yen (around $80 000AUD) at Girls’ Keirin GrandPrix (the race with the highest prize money) in 2013.” Nakamura is a 32 year old former school teacher realizing a lifelong dream of being a professional athlete and cashing in on her success.
There are now 57 professional Women Keirin racers in Japan and the school is aiming to have 30 more graduates every year. As Keirin is the second most popular gambling sport in Japan, there are plenty of opportunities in the 47 velodromes across Japan. Miho hopes that “with the start of Girls’ Keirin, female athletes from other sports will keep moving to cycling and the female cycling population will increase.” Kaarle is also of the firm belief that with a growing number of professional female cyclists in Japan the country will have more talent to bring onto the world stage.
Though initially culture shocked by the whole experience of Keirin racing in Japan, Kaarle loved the warmth and open heartedness of the riders she came to know. “They were so welcoming and I was really struck by how dedicated they were to improving their performance. But their competitive spirit didn’t take from their openness and genuine desire to connect with us. I had to buy an extra suitcase to bring home the gifts I got from the girls. I am definitely looking for an invite back.”
It’s easy to be mesmerised by this faraway land of Girls Keirin. The school sits on top of a secluded mountain that gazes over a snow clad Mount Fuji. The four outdoor velodromes drown in the type of crisp air that stays cool in your throat when training hard. It makes the growth of women, boldly racing off the front, a bet worth making.
Olivia Gollan rode the 2004 Olympic Road Race for Australia and raced professionally for Menikini-Selle Italia and Nurnberger Versicherung. She retired in 2008 and is currently supported by Liv/Giant Australia to run a regular women’s bunch ride.
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