Keirin Racing: The Fascinating Story Of Cycling’s Wildest Olympic Event

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To outsiders, Keirin racing is a curiosity, an odd but feverishly exciting fan-favorite that crops up every four years at the Olympics, then fades out of view until the next Olympic cycle.

But in the livewire event’s birthplace of Japan, Keirin is a 12-billion-dollar national obsession. Steeped in tradition, it demands a strictly regimented way of life for the handful of elite riders allowed to take part.

To get you up to speed on one of the most exciting disciplines cycling has to offer, we’ll be covering:

  • War, Betting, And Bikes: The Birth And History Of Keirin Racing
  • What Is A Keirin Race?
  • The World Stage: Keirin Olympics Inclusion
  • The Complicated History Of Women’s Keirin Racing
  • Keirin Bikes: Olympics Vs. Japanese Keirin

Ready to get clued up on Keirin racing?

Let’s jump in!

Keirin Racing
Source: Edmund White/Flickr

War, Betting, And Bikes: The Birth And History Of Keirin Racing

Keirin – which has no literal translation but is a mesh of the words for ‘race’, ‘wheels’, and ‘bike’ – was born in Japan’s Kokura City in 1948, as the country recovered from the devastating consequences of the Second World War.

Like the rest of Japan, Kokura City was crippled by the conflict. Much of the city had been flattened by American bombing: Kokura was saved from being the world’s first target of nuclear warfare only by bad weather, which forced the bomber pilot to target the attack on Nagasaki instead.

With Kokura City desperate to generate income, the Keirin was devised as a gambling event from the beginning: one of only four licensed betting sports in the country. The original Bicycle Racing Law which legalized Keirin racing required that a share of the profits be invested in rebuilding Japan’s devastated cities.

The blistering speeds and tactical dogfights made Keirin an immediate hit.

The very first Keirin race meet at the Kokura Velodrome on November 20, 1948, drew a crowd of over 50,000 – more than a quarter of the crippled city’s population.

By the mid-1950s, 53 new velodromes had been built in Japan. Keirin had become a vast multi-billion-Yen industry employing tens of thousands of people, with a fanatical following.

These days, annual attendance for Keirin races in Japan stands at around 60 million. The winner of Japan’s most prestigious Keirin meet, the season-ending Keirin Grand Prix held on 30th December each year, takes home a prize fund of 100 million Yen ($850,000). The wagers on the Grand Prix alone dwarf the total bets placed across an entire season of horse racing in Britain.

Keirin is about far more than just bookmakers’ profits, however.

Keirin is a sporting culture steeped in tradition, discipline, and respect. Attendance at Shuzenji’s regimented Japan Keirin School, which teaches etiquette and rituals with the same importance as performance and tactics, is a prerequisite for any aspiring Keirin racer to receive a license.

The riders bow as they enter the track, and bow again as they line up in the start gates. Though the racing gets heated – unlike its Olympic counterpart, Japanese Keirin is a contact sport – the victor is expected to distribute bottles of water to their rivals as a mark of respect, and riders often exchange gifts at the end of a meet.

The first day of each meet is for senken (‘inspection’). The riders must assemble their bikes for themselves, and declare their tactical plans for the race in advance. Tradition dictates that celebrating a win or looking to the crowd during a race is forbidden – partly out of respect for their competitors, but also to prevent race-fixing signals being passed to gambling gangs.

For the bookies, Keirin is a lucrative profit-driven industry. For punters, the gambling often matters more than the sport itself.

But for its racers, Keirin is a way of life.

Keirin Racing 2
Source: Paul Keller/Flickr

What Is A Keirin Race?

Keirin races typically feature between six and nine riders, racing around a banked oval track. The first rider to cross the line after a specified number of laps is the winner.

What makes Keirin unique from other scratch races is the inclusion of a motorbike pacer.

The riders must remain behind the motorbike as it slowly increases in speed from 30 km/h (19mph) to 50 km/h (31 mph). With 750m to go, the motorbike pulls off to the side of the track and the competitive racing begins. Riders can reach hair-raising speeds – as high as 80 km/h (50 mph) – by the time they power across the finish line.

Tactics are central to the Keirin. In Japan, riders usually choose one tactical style and attempt to master it over their career.

Senko riders rely on endurance. They attempt to drive the race from the front, pulling away early to build an unassailable lead.

Makuri riders conserve their energy for a late burst towards the finish. They aim to sit in the slipstream of the senko before picking the optimal moment for an attack.

Oikomi riders are similar to makuri, but take their approach to the extreme. They lurk behind the pack until the very end of the race, waiting until the last 100 meters – the final corner – to strike.

Keirin Racing 2 1
Source: Edmund White/Flickr

The World Stage: Keirin Olympics Inclusion

As the popularity of Keirin in Japan expanded, so too did its international reach.

Keirin caught on in Korea as early as the 1950s, and by 1980 it was included as an event at the UCI World Championships. The governing body of Keirin in Japan (the Japan Keirin Autorace Foundation) began inviting a handful of the world’s best Keirin racers to participate in the Japanese season as gaijin (‘foreigners’) – provided they first graduate from the Japan Keirin School.

It was not until Sydney 2000, however, that Keirin finally made its Olympic bow.

There are some key differences between Japanese Keirin racing and the Olympic version. Japanese Keirin ovals feature four distinct turns, separated by two long straights – the ‘homestretch’ and ‘backstretch’ – and two shorter sections known as ‘centers’.

Modern Olympic velodromes instead feature only two banked 180-degree bends, which transition smoothly into two straights.

Contact is also forbidden in Olympic Keirin, and the bikes themselves are very different – as we’ll be exploring in more detail.

Despite the changes, the Olympic variant has lost none of the excitement of old-school Keirin racing – check out this clip of the great Sir Chris Hoy’s electrifying World Cup win in 2012!

The Complicated History Of Women’s Keirin Racing

Women’s participation in Keirin has a troubled history.

From the very beginning, Keirin racing was open to both men and women. Women’s races were part of the very first Keirin meet at Kokura in 1948, and of the first 6000 cyclists registered as licensed racers by 1952, over 600 were women.

In Keirin’s early years, female Keirin stars such as Sayoko Shibuya and her great rival Kazuko Tanaka earned almost as much as the top male riders.

By the end of the 1950s, however, female participation was being slowly smothered. A new rule introduced an upper age limit of 25 for female Keirin riders, and social pressures meant fewer and fewer women wanted to get involved: between 1954 and 1957, not a single woman made an application to become a professional Keirin racer.

Meanwhile, rumors that female riders were colluding to ensure none of them lost enough races to be stripped of their professional racing license meant gambling revenues slowed to a trickle.

Between these two factors, Keirin’s governing body announced in 1964 that they no longer considered women’s races viable, and they were outlawed: a ban that would last half a century. Hundreds of female Keirin racers lost their only income overnight.

It wasn’t until 2012 – the same year that women’s Keirin was introduced at the Olympics – that female participation finally returned in Japan. There’s still a long way to go: prize money and exposure are far lower than for the men’s events, but women are at last Keirin racing professionally in Japan once again.

Keirin Racing 1 1

Keirin Bikes: Olympics Vs. Japanese Keirin

One of the most obvious visual differences between Keirin in Japan and its Olympic variant is the bikes the riders race on.

Olympic Keirin Bikes

The bikes used by Keirin riders are the same track bikes used across the other indoor Olympic cycling disciplines.

Stiff, aerodynamic, and eye-wateringly expensive, they’re at the cutting edge of scientific design, and can sometimes look like they’ve been lifted directly from a science fiction movie.

All will have ultra-light carbon frames, and most will be sporting a disc wheel at the back and a five-spoke wheel at the front to maximize aerodynamic slipperiness and weight reduction.

Japanese Keirin Bikes

The Keirin bikes used in Japan, on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the fixed-gear track bike spectrum.

The heavy steel bikes used by male Keirin riders look as though they’ve been lifted directly from the 1980s. The strength of the frames – which suffer more crashes than in Olympic Keirin – is one reason for the old-school bikes.

But, as with most elements of Japanese Keirin, the main reason for the antiquated machinery is gambling.

All the gear used by the cyclists is extremely tightly regulated. Every rider has the same wheels, tires, and handlebars – the only part of the bike there is some element of choice over is the frame, but even these are limited to a handful of manufacturers producing almost-identical steel bodies.

This tight control over equipment helps eliminate any advantages one rider might have over the other. Freezing the sport’s technological development in the 1980s was an unintended side-effect, but over time the dated bikes have become part of Keirin’s heritage.

Keirin Racing 1
Source: Paul Keller/Flickr

Notably, these tight restrictions don’t apply to women’s Keirin races in Japan. Instead, they ride on carbon bikes much closer to those used by their Olympic counterparts. Their rules also restrict contact, bringing them more in line with Olympic Keirin.

And with an aging audience and declining attendances, the rising popularity of women’s racing is gaining more and more importance for Keirin’s powerbrokers.

Having been excluded from so much of the sport’s history, it might well be women’s Keirin that leads Japanese bike racing into the future.

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A road cyclist at heart, Rory clocked early on that he had much more of a knack for writing about bikes than he ever did racing them. In recent years, the focus of Rory's love affair with cycling has shifted to bikepacking - a discipline he found well-suited to his "enthusiasm-over-talent" approach. Originally hailing from the United Kingdom, Rory is currently based in Buenos Aires, where he is loving taking advantage of all the backcountry bikepacking Latin America has to offer. Rory is a UESCA-certified cycling coach.

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