“I Was A Keirin School Dropout”

Try as he might, our man just can’t make the grade – but still rides away with a life-changing lesson.

Don Ceurdon, Images by Narayan Mahon |

Keirin Culture

The many forms and subcultures that cycling splits into can be astounding – and sometimes confounding. One of the least known is the Japanese style of keirin, which has been around since 1948. Racers live in seclusion when not competing, and are bet on by spectators as if they were horses, complete with odds for payouts. Keirin is run at 47 velodromes around Japan, and it’s estimated that each year as much as $14 billion in yen (R194 billion) can pass through the wagering system.

Photographer Narayan Mahon became intrigued by keirin when he was a teenager, a young cycling fanatic leafing through old issues of VeloNews, where he came across photos of the sport. Some 20 years later, he developed the idea for a shoot as he planned a personal trip to Japan, captivated by the parallels he’d drawn between the lifestyle and training of keirin racers and those of ancient Samurai warriors.

keirin school

This past December, he spent a day in the life of keirin cadets in training, and the next day amid the chaos and tranquility of the races.

“Keirin racing is so different to any kind of bicycle racing I’ve ever seen or experienced,” he says.

“The racers are so immersed, and there are such rigid rules. It’s very pure and honourable.”

Here, Mahon’s photos accompany an article from our archives: in 1992, our writer Don Cuerdon became the first American journalist to be allowed into keirin school – the training programme from which all racers must graduate before they are allowed to enter competitions.

keirin school

Shaun Wallace

Shaun Wallace, one-time silver medallist in the professional world championship pursuit race, is six metres above me as we swoop off the 35-degree banking of this velodrome perched atop a Japanese mountain. Wallace unleashes a blood-curdling yell as he accelerates, then dives across my front wheel, missing by… I don’t know how much, because I blinked in terror.

To compound my angst, former pro world sprint champ Michael Huebner appears from nowhere on my left – all 102kg of him – and also sweeps across my front wheel. Half a heartbeat later, American sprinting legend (and Olympic silver medallist) Nelson Vails rockets off my rear wheel in pursuit of his rapidly departing colleagues.

The entire encounter takes seconds. But for me, time stretches in that special slow-motion awareness reserved for sportsmen and those convinced they’re about to die. I’m not sure which category to claim membership in. This is a sport, but I’m scared to death.

The dynamic trio drops me, then fires afterburners for the final dash to the line. I can’t see who wins because my vision is blurred by bright flashes from my red-lined pulse. I taste lung.

It’s just one more warm-up at the Nihon Keirin Gekko (Japan Keirin School), with eight of the best track racers in the world and one overextended Bicycling journalist.

Keirin is a betting sport that’s akin to human horse racing. The first event was held on a horse track in 1948. It’s grown to 47 velodromes throughout Japan, and in that country ranks third in gross tote receipts behind horse and motorboat racing.

Top-category keirin racer Koichi Nakano brought some international respect to Japanese keirin racing with 10 consecutive pro world sprint championships in the ’70s and ’80s. Perhaps consequently, a form of keirin (using a motorcycle pacer rather than a bicyclist) was introduced at the ’80 world championships.

keirin school

The following year, several non-Japanese racers were invited for what was called the International Exchange Race. It was a demonstration only, but it was successful enough to become a regularly scheduled event. The ’90 International Keirin attracted nearly R192 million in bets, with Australian Stephen Pate winning 16 races to gross more than R1.4 million himself.

Keirin is the name of the race, but money is the name of the game. That’s why racers such as Vails, Huebner, Wallace and others are here. Even if they take last place in every race, they’re guaranteed about R410 000 for two months of work. And you know these guys won’t be finishing last, so most likely they’ll pocket R685 000 to R1.1 million apiece.

The Japan Keirin School sits atop a dauntingly sheer mountain outside Shuzenji, a city two hours south of Tokyo by bullet train. A narrow lane switches back several times to a guarded gate. Beyond the gate there are dormitories, classrooms, a gym, a building filled with rollers for winter training, two torturously hilly road loops, a testing lab, a bike shop, and three world-class, all-weather velodromes.

There are roughly 90 students enrolled in the national programme at a time. They range in age from 18 to 23. After 10 months of indoctrination and training, they will be qualified to go on the circuit. Top riders can make in excess of R9.5 million a year. Although this is low compared to the salaries of mainstream American sports professionals, it’s pretty good for cycling – and most of the graduates can compete for 20 or more years.

Our day begins in a classroom. The instructor speaks Japanese, which is simultaneously translated to English, French, German, and Italian. The result is bedlam, which is fine because the lesson is mostly pedantic gibberish about the organisation of keirin and the disbursal of funds to improve hospitals, schools, and roads.

Vails – or Nelly, as he’s called – is sitting next to me explaining the real story, while pointing to his textbook so it looks like he’s discussing the nuances of revenue distribution.

“I did okay my first year but lousy last year, so I’m kind of on probation,” he says. “I think they only asked me back because I missed the bronze at Worlds by a tyre-width, and acted professionally last year even though I wasn’t going well. I have to do better. I make 60 per cent of my yearly income here.”

keirin school

Meanwhile, England’s Wallace is scoring points in the respect category by underlining passages in his textbook. This is Wallace’s first year of keirin racing, and at age 30 he has the potential of a lifetime’s earnings of nearly R7 million. He’s making sure he gets invited back.

Belgian Michel Vaarten is the dean of the international crowd, at age 35. This is his 11th year on the circuit, with 56 career victories. Vaarten must be intensely bored, having endured the same lesson annually for a decade, but he doesn’t look it.

There are no personality clashes in our select international group, which is good considering those who make the grade will be sequestered four days out of each of the coming seven weeks once the racing starts. The keirin officials believe this prevents ‘evil elements’ from polluting the racers’ minds with thoughts of fixing the races. (For some reason, three days a week must not count.)

The instructor finally finishes and starts the video. The clowning quickly stops. All keirin tracks have video cameras that record every inch of racing should there be a need to scrutinise infractions.

In the classroom, these tapes are valuable learning tools – how much can you get away with? Keirin has a reputation for roughness – head-butting, elbowing, and shouldering for positions behind the pacer.

“This – serious warning,” says the teacher, pointing to a racer forcing another down.

A ‘serious warning’ will cost a rider one-third of his prize money for that race, while a mere ‘warning’ costs one-fifteenth. Causing a crash or doing something else that greatly impacts the outcome merits disqualification and prize forfeiture. The tactical nuance lies in risking a ‘warning’ to win versus a more serious offence, because fourteen-fifteenths of first is still better than 100 per cent of third. The right move can mean another R14 000 in your three-day event pay cheque. The wrong one can cost you twice that in lost income.

We have an hour to digest lunch before reporting to the track. Nearly flat straights merge gracefully with banked turns covered by a coating reminiscent of Tartan all-weather running tracks. It provides enough traction so that the banking can be ridden even when it’s raining, as it is this day.

In a trackside building heated with kerosene, we bundle against the cold dampness. It takes me a few laps before I can trust the surface enough to ride. But I figure if a giant like Huebner isn’t sliding off, I won’t.

I’m riding a borrowed 57cm Nagawa steel track bike with 165mm crank arms, and teeny-weeny toe clips that I’ve mangled to fit my size 11 shoes. It’s not the best fit for a 1.83m, 91kg rider, but journalists can’t be choosers.

After 15 minutes of rolling around the velodrome, two motorcycles join us. Within two laps, everyone is riding pacelines behind the motorcycles.

I’ve spent limited time on velodromes and brakeless, fixed-gear bikes. When the paceline passes below me, I dive down the banking in panic at how fast I’m approaching the last rider. I apply back pressure to the pedals and miss the impending wheel by a good three metres. I roll nonchalantly along the apron as if I planned it this way, then try to swing onto the tail of the next paceline as it passes above me at 50km/h. Nope.

I finally connect and ride several laps, sputtering from the rooster-tail of water coming off the last rider’s wheel. The speed slowly rises until the motorcycle pulls away, and we’re back to the opening passage of this story, where all hell breaks loose and my shorts get sucked into my lower intestines. And that was just the warm-up – no contact, no prizes.

keirin school

Back inside the building, we check the start list for today’s training races. Not surprisingly, my name doesn’t appear.

Japanese keirin is highly formalised. There are nine racers in a heat. Each wears a number, in addition to a matching jersey and helmet cover. Traditionally, numbers 1, 2 and 3 are white, black and red, respectively, and are reserved for the favourites. Other number and colour combinations tell the spectators which racers are newer or would be a dark-horse bet.

The nine racers assemble in numerical order outside the warming building. They bow to the instructor, mount their bikes, and roll around the infield exactly two bike lengths apart. This is called the ‘presentation’, and its purpose is to allow the bettors to assess their picks.

A row of holding devices is then rolled onto the track, and the racers insert their rear wheels. Then they bow to the starter, mount up, and secure their feet into their pedals. Thirty metres ahead, a single starting device supports the pacer, a cyclist dressed in an unnumbered purple jersey and helmet cover with orange stripes. When the electronic gun is fired, the bikes are released, and the pacer pulls free. Within a lap, the racers are on the pacer’s wheel, jockeying for position. The race is 2 000 metres long, or five laps of a 400-metre oval. For half this distance, the racers must stay behind the pacer. The object is to secure a good position going into the final 2.5 laps without exhausting yourself before the sprint.

Handicappers identify three kinds of keirin racers, or riding styles. The first, and most revered, is the senko, a rider strong enough to lead the entire last lap and win. Second is the makuri, who makes a powerful move through the final turns to win. And third is the oikomi, who comes around in a quick burst on the finish straight, just overtaking the leader at the line. Keirin tactics are as subtle as a Japanese rock garden to the untrained eye, but the opiate of hardcore keirin spectators.

At the bell, Huebner moves near the front of the bunch. Coming off the back straight, he blasts around the right side to victory, makuri-style. A video replay of each race is critiqued by the instructors. Who could possibly tell the world’s best trackies how to ride a better keirin? Katsuaki Matsumoto, the winningest keirin racer in history. He has more than 1 300 victories, or about 500 more than Koichi Nakano to date. Matsumoto-san is the Eddy Merckx of keirin.

“Huebner-san!” bellows the diminutive coach. Through an interpreter, he chides the German for having to close a gap he shouldn’t have let open on the back straight. Here is where keirin meets bike racing.

Winning isn’t enough to please Matsumoto-san. You must win to the best of your ability.

Our studies end with a three-part final, including a written exam, an interview, and a speed test. The first is as pedantic as the lessons: what is the name of the organisation that oversees and governs all keirin racing? (And the answers are multiple choice.) The interview is a verbal version of the written test. So far, I’m passing with flying colours.

keirin school

But the speed tests are another story. First is a standing kilometre – nicknamed ‘The Killermetre’, by those who ride it. The pass/fail mark is 1 minute, 20 seconds. Wallace takes top honours in 1:06.

Nobody fails. Next is the flying 200 metres. The time to qualify is 13.3 seconds. Huebner does it in 11.0. Nobody is over 12.

I’m about to take my turn when Matsumoto-​san gestures to me from across the track. I ride over, and he loads my bike into the boot of his sedan, then drives the two of us down a narrow lane and parks.

The paved road ahead is flat for 120 metres, then turns up sharply in a 35-degree slope that lasts 80 metres before ending in a flat cul-de-sac. Matsumoto-san unloads my bike, hands me my helmet, tells me Japanese racers do this 10 times in 2 hours, and finishes with: “You try.”

When a bicycle racing legend offers you a private lesson, you don’t ask questions. You ride. I take a few laps of the flat section to loosen my legs, then bolt down the straight. My lungs begin to burn at 100 metres, but before I can adjust my speed the wall is upon me. Twenty metres up, I’m faced with the choice of turning my 53×19 with these short, 165cm cranks, or crashing in an ungracious slide to the bottom. I press on.

You’d think there would be enlightenment in the last 10 metres of this beast. But if there is, I miss it. I nearly swallow my tongue trying to catch my breath at the top. When my sight clears, I see Matsumoto-san gesturing for me to ride back down. From here, the hill looks like the view from a third-story window. I circle the cul-de-sac, pondering my fate. When I finally plunge over the side, I know I’ve made a grave mistake. Back pressure won’t slow the pedals. The bike has no brakes.

Enlightenment is revealed on the way down. I have no choice but to relax and let my feet spin faster than I’ve ever believed possible. Relax and steer straight. Remain calm, or become a crimson human crayon. It’s an 80-metre eternity.

At the bottom, I climb from my bike and try to hide the shaking of my limbs. “Very good,” says Matsumoto-san. I won’t get a degree from keirin school. But I’ll always have this.

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