The Japanese Keirin races are more than just a speed test- they are a battle of will and strategy. Riding under the pressure of the crowd and the promise of a long, lucrative career, the stakes are high. Armour clad and perched on a regulation steel frame, cyclists are pitted against one another in a dangerous, lap race that’s over in the blink of an eye. Since they were sanctioned in the post-war years, high-speed, betting sports have firmly gripped the attention and purse strings of the Japanese population. Drawing in a zealous mix of racers chasing speed and spectators chasing thrills, Keirin sits alongside other iconic Japanese betting sports such as horse racing, Kyōtei (speedboat racing) and Ôto-rêsu (motorbike racing).
Originally engineered around the theatrics of gambling, details of the riders profile and planned tactics are printed in newspapers the evening before the race, prompting fans to place their bets. In more recent years however, the once illicit undertones of Keirin have undergone a subtle cleansing with it’s inclusion in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. With its admittance into the roster, the Olympics has raised this once taboo sport out of an ignominious beginning and re-positioned itself as a spectator sport in its own right. Notorious for it’s grueling training schools and the physical fortitude of it’s riders, the sport has captured the imagination of cyclists and enthusiasts worldwide. Speaking to 2016 Olympic silver medalist, and track champion Matthijs Büchli and photojournalist Jasper Clarke we lift the veil behind the hidden world of keirin racing to reveal an existence defined by seclusion, discipline and hope .
Jasper Clarke, photographer
In Japan you could have been an office body one minute, then taken the entrance exam, got into the academy, and then be racing six days a week.
Shrouded in mystery and whispers of punishing training schools, Keirin’s model of intensive and isolated training sets it apart from international sports. Although the Japanese races are televised throughout the country, little is known about what goes on behind closed doors in the sport’s closely-guarded training camps. Attracting riders from all walks of life, Keirin riders relinquish their careers, leave their families at home and commit to a year-long training regime before they are even permitted to set foot inside the velodrome. After months of correspondence through a translator, photojournalist Jasper finally gained entry to the Keirin Association School Japan. Hidden among the mountains in the Izu Peninsula, and a 20 minute drive away from the nearest town, Jasper describes a post-apocalyptic cluster of buildings with a distinct ‘60’s Eastern Bloc Olympiad feel’.
As the small percentage of applicants that make it through the entrance exam, Keirin Academy students recognise that there are thousands of other riders ready to step into their shoes and commit themselves to the challenge. With discipline high on the agenda, the school inspires an uncompromising dedication and strength of spirit in the riders who train 15 hours a day, 6 days a week in rain and snow to realise their goals. For many who pass through the doors of the academy, Keirin racing offers escape from the rigid bureaucratic system of the average ‘salary-man’. Renouncing the tedium and mechanical mundanity of office work, the track presents a welcome opportunity to realise a renewed sense of purpose.
Run and supported by the government, there is great emphasis on training the riders to be good citizens and representatives of the sport. And, with the potential of a pro career waiting for them after the school term, they readily surrender themselves to the school’s regulations, channelling every ounce of effort into the testing regime. Permitted only to occasional calls home and keeping to a strict male-female divide, for a year they become completely consumed with the training, tactics and science of keirin.
Jasper Clarke, photographer
If they make it through the academy riders are only guaranteed their first season. If they get relegated after their debut they’re out of racing. So it’s a real gamble.
Ensuring that riders are competition-ready demands a gruelling athletic regime that pushes both bodies and spirit to the extreme. Most Keirin riders undergo a relentless passage of endurance training calculated to urge both body and mind into synchronicity. A typical day for a Keirin rider starts with a 6a.m. wake-up call, followed by an hour of running drills. Upon completion, the cyclists mount their bike for an hour of steep 14 degree hill climbs that build and challenge their body’s endurance and power. To further condition their body, riders are subject to two hours of lap training before lunch. Typically this would be followed with a ‘science’ class in the afternoon, where the riders absorb the ins-and-outs of cycling theory and racing rules essential for mastering for their debut.
Much rests on the riders ability to surmount the relentless onslaught of physical and mental challenges. However, all the effort of preparation, it is an opportunity that blazes bright but short, with the odds dwindling the closer each rider gets to competing. Despite the exertion and toil, many racers are only guaranteed a single racing season. Even rarer, are the few that continue racing into their 50’s. For many, failure to make the cut is the death nell to their cycling career.
TBE: What is it about Keirin racing that drew you in?
Matthijs Büchli: The thing I like about Keirin is that it’s so technical. Sprint is also technical, but it’s one against one. With Keirin, there are nine guys you are competing against, so there are many more factors to think about- alot more can happen. It’s also a longer sprint effort, and the speed increases after one and a half laps.
TBE: What is it like racing in Japan?
M: In Japan, you’re locked up before a race, and then you race just one race a day. So, you have 24 hours of doing nothing, just to prepare for that 30 seconds. It’s all over very, very quickly. So all day long, the day is all about this 30 seconds where you have to be fully focused and be the best you can be. It’s crazy. In a national race you have maybe 6-7 heats a day or maybe more, but in Japan it’s just one race a day so you really have to be focused.
TBE: What was a particularly memorable Keirin race?
M: Last season, I crashed for the first time. It was in the final and there is big money in the final. I was doing a lead out for a Czech guy, Tomáš Bábek and the last corner I crashed. I had a bad result, he had a bad result and also a lot of people bet on us, so everybody lost their money. It was kind of crazy.
TBE: What’s the atmosphere like in the velodromes?
M: As a rider you don’t see much, because you’re not really allowed to look towards the crowd in case you tip them off. But what you do notice when you’re racing yourself, is that there are people watching. There are like 4 or 5 tournaments in the country everyday, so the guys who come to watch the race are watching and betting on all the other races too. It’s all about betting. One time I was watching a race that I wasn’t competing in and I experienced it from the other side. I was walking around there, and they didn’t even know who I was. They only know your colour, your number. You’re not more than something to bet on.
TBE: Did you have to go to a Keirin training school?
M: Yeah, we just go a few hours a day for a few weeks to a classroom to refresh ourselves on the rules. Its a lot more relaxed than the Japanese schools, they are like army training camps. They show us a lot of videos on how it’s not supposed to go and we also have a bike exam- taking your bike apart and putting it back together in the right order.
TBE: So there are different tactics for racing, do you have a preferred way of riding? How do you decide how you will ride?
M: In Japan it’s kind of weird because you have to tell them your tactics beforehand which is normally the last thing you would do. So I always try to be the most flexible I can be, and that’s Senko-Makuri. You have three basic tactics which is Senko, Markuri and Oikomi. So Senko you attack 800m before the finish, Makuri is 300m and Oikomi is a sprint in the last 100m. So when I say Senko-Makuri, it’s saying that I’ll go before the last 300m so I might start the sprint at at 600, 400, 500 or 300m. That way you’re still really flexible.
TBE: I’ve heard that there is a tradition in Japan of the younger riders, riding ‘Senko’ and the older riders following?
M: Yeah absolutely, it’s a really nice system actually. If you’re a young guy there you have to work for the old guys. The idea behind the young guys going Senko, is that if you’re young, you’re strong, fast and you can ride a longer sprint. If you’re an older rider, you probably can’t compete. If the older riders stay behind the wheel and the young guys lead, they can still make money. For them Keirin riding is their job, and this way of riding means that your cycling career can last thirty years.
All images courtesy of Jasper Clarke
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Matthijs Büchli is a Dutch track cyclist. He won a bronze medal in the keirin at the 2013 UCI Track Cycling World Championships and won a 2012–2013 UCI Track Cycling World Cup Classics keirin race. In 2016 Büchli won the Silver Medal at the Men’s keirin at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Jasper Clarke is an award winning photographer based in London, working mainly in portraiture, documentary and advertising. Documenting the people and places he sees with a remarkable curiosity he has been exhibited in the British National Portrait Gallery and has worked with clients including; Paul Smith, Converse, Reebok, Adidas, Puma.