“Whatever you do, don’t stop pedaling or you’ll be thrown off the bike.
This was the last tip Ryo Okuhara gave me because with a slight push he sent me on a carefully paced velodrome lap on a steel frame bike with no brakes with my feet strapped to pedals that never stopped turning.
I had hiked an indoor wooden track a few years earlier, but this was my first outing on one of the vast “banks” familiar to fans of keirin – a track cycling event invented in Japan after the Second World War.
The goal of the exercise was to stay upright on the steep inclines at either end of the 400m track, before diving onto softer, flatter surfaces in the home and back straights.
After writing a book about the history and culture of keirin, it felt natural, albeit a bit reckless, to assess if something I had learned could safely see me around the forbidden gradients. of Kawasaki’s concrete surface.
I was a newbie to keirin when James Spackman, the founder of Pursuit Books, a London-based cycling brand, suggested telling the story of the sport’s transformation from entertainment to the weary Japanese masses. war on an Olympic event that made British cyclists stars. Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Jason Kenny.
Originally intended to raise taxes on gambling to fund the reconstruction of post-war Japan, the keirin now generates billions of dollars in sales, with top horsemen earning millions.
The rules are pretty straightforward. In a typical men’s race, a pacemaker guides nine riders through several laps before letting them compete. Along the way, they bump into heads – and sometimes crash – as they hit speeds of up to 70 km / h in the home stretch.
My research began with a trip to Kokura, an industrial port city in southwestern Japan, to uncover the origins of the country’s largest contribution to track cycling, but for which, I would find, most people – even those related to sports – seemed compelled to apologize.
Kokura, who had escaped nuclear annihilation but no heavy conventional bombardment, hosted the world’s first keirin race on November 20, 1948. For four days, over 50,000 people, mostly working class men who had been in military uniform a few years earlier , hastily watched lines of amateur men and women compete against each other on a vast outdoor track.
More than 70 years later, keirin continues to occupy a precarious place in the Japanese sporting firmament due to its association with the game. As one of the four sports – along with horses, motorboats and a form of speedway – on which it is legal to bet money in Japan, the keirin has spent much of its history fighting to defend its reputation. The year-end grand prize – with a million dollar prize at stake – is one of the few occasions the sport catches the attention of public broadcaster NHK and features appear in the broadsheet newspapers as well as in the sports tabloids.
By the end of the match in Kokura, spectators had bet unimaginable sums, part of which was devoted to the redevelopment of the post-war city, as the founders of the sport wanted. Suburban velodromes sprouted in dozens of other Japanese cities, as moral objections to the game were temporarily put aside amid the rush to raise desperately needed revenue.
Keirin’s early years were marred by racial rigging scandals and the involvement of the yakuza, the Japanese crime syndicates. Velodromes could be violent and unwelcoming places, where the mere suspicion that a runner had given less than 100% sparked unrest among well-oiled punters, mostly men.
But the reluctance of Japanese authorities towards the game is only part of keirin’s story.
The history of keirin is linked to the development of post-war Japan. Its chaotic origins mirrored the turmoil of the postwar years, but it was to survive political onslaught and thrive in a time of rising incomes and economic transformation in Japan, before the bursting of the asset-inflated bubble. country does not plunge it into its own version of the “lost decade” in the early 1990s.
For several months, I traveled from Fukushima in the north to Fukuoka in the south to attend races and interview an eclectic group of keirin characters: promising riders and companions in their late forties; seasoned frame builders and historians, journalists and trainers, and, of course, the men – and a much smaller number of women – who love to have fun on the bikes. I saw potential cyclists put to the test for 11 grueling months at a training school near Mount Fuji, and had a shochu– evening powered by Koichi Nakano, a keirin legend and one of the greatest track cyclists of all time.
Keirin has weathered storms throughout its history. Today, it still generates billions of dollars in betting revenue and, putting money aside for utilities and infrastructure, has stayed true to its philanthropic origins.
Even so, it was surprising how few Japanese friends greeted the news that I was taking unpaid leave to write a keirin book with genuine enthusiasm. Most thought I had lost my mind. Some admitted that they had no idea what I was talking about.
This is part of why War On Wheels has become a book not about cycling, but about Japan, seen through the prism of its exhilarating cycling subculture. A blue-collar Japan “hidden” from the rest of the world for nearly a century, centered on a community of athletes who exercise their profession in the shadows.
I completed the manuscript convinced that to broaden its appeal and last another 70 years, the keirin must open up to the rest of the world, beyond the biennial competitions between professional riders from Japan and South Korea, the only other country to have a professional circuit. And much more could be done to promote women’s sport, starting with a name change.
Keirin continues to demand my time and my finances. I’m addicted to speed and physical, and follow the fates of my favorite riders online, in the tabloid press and on social media. I read manga and keirin books and look for references, however brief, in movies and on television.
What started out as a modest collection of keirin accessories – towels, swimsuits, mugs, key rings – now fills a stack of plastic drawers. Scraps of paper revealing unsuccessful bets that should have been rejected in disgust fill a shoebox; a keirin frame that I roll around Tokyo – with brakes – is in the spotlight in my apartment.
The same obsession had brought me to the Kawasaki Velodrome for my meeting with Okuhara, a pro racer who gently slowed down as he motioned his novice mate to complete the last lap, which ended with the bike and rider intact.
We were a long way from the Izu velodrome, where in just a few weeks, Japanese riders will be moving away from professional competitions to compete in keirin at the 2020 Olympics.
A Japanese medal of any color would enhance the profile of the sport in its country of birth. But even if host nation riders fail to complete the keirin loop in Tokyo this summer, the new Olympic champion is expected to join cycling fans in thanking the forgotten cycling men and women who lined up in a city Japanese woman torn by war for 73 years. since.
Justin McCurry’s book, War on Wheels: Inside Keirin and the Japanese Cycling Subculture, will be released on June 24 by Pursuit Books.