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A Japanese Keirin refresher course

Welcome to Issue 9: The Latest News from New Zealand track cyclist, Simon van Velthooven.


When I ride my bike each day my tyres hum through the banked corners at the Keirin school training velodrome, the finish line looms and more often than not we are hitting near on 70km/hour inches away from each other’s 22mm tires.

It seemed like I was coming home when travelling back for my 5th year in the land of the rising sun to compete in the Japanese Keirin league.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to come here at a novice age of 21, the youngest international to ever have been registered, and yes I still pinch myself for the fact I am here racing professionally and training with the world’s best.
This winter season is a particularly busy one and a long way from my home stomping ground in the Manawatu. Having returned from Colombia with a World Championship Kilo Bronze medal, before coming back to Japan, I spent the majority of my off season touring schools up and down the country as a New Zealand Olympic Teamambassador. I don’t remember meeting many Olympians, if any, when I was a kid. Let alone meet one that had a medal in his pocket so it was pretty cool sharing that with kids and seeing their faces when I told them I used to be just like them and with a little perseverance and commitment they could win one to.
I will be in Japan for six months this year happily interrupted by the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in July which we are all very excited for.  Next year the situation will change; I will most likely not come to Japan as I do my absolute best to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics team. Being the only New Zealander ever to be racing Keirin professionally in Japan, there’s no guarantee that I’ll be invited back after Rio.
You may now ask “how did a Kiwi get on the radar?” In recent years the Japanese Keirin Association – who govern the sport in Japan – have started to invite a small number of international riders. We’re pretty much there to spice up the racing and to make it more appealing to the public. Their scout attends all of the UCI World Cup races, and if you prove yourself good enough, and they think that you can handle the Japanese culture and being away from your home for six months, then they offer you the opportunity to apply to race in Japan. Fortunately after performing well at a couple of World Cup races, I got tapped on the shoulder and happily filled out the application and crossed my fingers for a few months until it was confirmed.

International athletes that are lucky enough to be invited to attend the riding school (which is a pre-requisite before they are able to race in Japan) don’t have to prove themselves on the track, but just like the Japanese students trying to break into the sport, they have to learn the rules and learn how to race. Japanese students have a minimum ten months in front of them before they can have their registration confirmed. Even then, having been accepted into the sport. With 4,000 registered riders the competition is fierce, and Keirin racers in Japan are paid on performances alone.  There are minimal sponsorship deals allowed and they don’t pick up a weekly pay check.
So going to Japan and racing is a great experience, but to make the experience better you want to come home with a little money in the bank, and money only comes from your results. If you have a bad week you’ll be lucky to cover the cost of competing. Travelling to track meets (which are held all over Japan) is expensive enough, and then we’re paying a grand a day for the interpreters when we’re away. On top of that you get taxed 25% of your earnings – so without decent results it can be money in, money out.
For the very top Japanese racers though, annual incomes of US$3 million aren’t unheard of, so to say Keirin racing is big business in Japan is somewhat of an understatement. As if to put an exclamation point on the fact, there are at least 3 meets in progress every day of the year across 50 velodromes, with three television stations streaming live action from 10am through to 5pm each and every race day.
Our living base during our annual pilgrimage is in Shuzenji, a city 110kms south of Tokyo, where I share a house with three other international riders; Ukrainian Andriy Vinokurov; Australian Shane Perkins; and German Stefan Boetticher – while French superstar Francois Pervis and the big Russina Mr Dmitriev live 5 minutes down the road. When we are not travelling and racing, the six of us train together at the nearby Japan Keirin School while students are put through their paces. So really on paper we have the best training group in the world. The top 3 World Champ match sprinters, keirin podium, first and third in kilo time trial at the recent world champs. It’s a great environment to train in.

Each of us invited riders sit in the third of the six tiers within the sport, which excludes us from riding for the really big money. That’s an all Japan affair with the top tier riders racing for $100,000s each meeting. At the end of year the top nine money earners then race the season finale which is worth approximately US$1,500,000 to the winner.
That’s a far cry from the money I ride for, despite the betting public investing 10 times more on the races containing the international riders than on races without them. We’re pushing for a fairer share, but the riders association don’t want us to ride in the big races because the local riders will miss out on big paydays.
The importance of the bike and athlete goes without saying, but this sport was invented for the gambling public, and during the media obligations I must publically announce what size chain rings I will use and the tactic I will employ. Keirin is all about tactics, and with the tactics made public the punters have, if not an easy bet, at least a knowledgeable bet. They can tell from the chain ring a rider chooses if that rider is feeling strong, and the same goes for the tactic they announce.
There are four recognised strategies for the riders to choose from. Senko, where the rider leads from the front and attacks with 800-400mtrs to go; mak, where the rider will sprint from behind the second rider; Makuri, where the rider will come from behind the 2nd or 3rd rider in the final straight and attack no earlier than 300m to go; and finally Oikomi, where the rider sprints from behind the 3rd or 4th rider and attacks no earlier than 150mtrs before the finish.
My preferred tactic is Senko. Typically, I like to ride my own race, preferring not to sit on the wheel of others.  I have a long sprint – which is great for the boards where the racing is cleaner, but in Japan you need really good seat acceleration – the power to accelerate past other riders while seated. You don’t want to be riding side by side with someone, because they’ll check you if they get half the chance and you’ll lose all your speed. If that happens you’re pretty much out of contention straight away, because you’ll never get back up to speed in time to challenge again. So the idea is to get past them quickly and get into the clear and then just wind it up from there. Shane Perkins and Francois Pervis on the other hand have great seat power and can just kick past them because they can drive through the pedals so well – and then wind up their sprints closer to the finish.

The keirin bikes we use in Japan are decades behind the carbon fibre bikes we ride at international meets, but they retain a certain old-school charm about them. There are just a handful of bike builders certified to build race bikes for keirin racing, and they follow strict guidelines for frame design and construction – guidelines that were first established in 1957. The bikes are all steel tube, brass lug, and box rims – and the builders can only use JKA approved components and wheels. There’s no easy way to describe how the bikes compare to their modern day rivals, the only way to put it is that they are heavy and soft.
Every year I come to Japan I am in awe of the bike handling skills of the native riders and definitely rate the best as world class, and even further down the classes of the sport is full of strong riders. If I was to say who are the better riders, the internationals or the home grown talent, I would say the imports are probably physically better, but agree that the Japanese riders are a lot more wilier craftier. Hell they know how to race well, and the more experienced riders know the ins and outs of each track.  This means you’re constantly looking to see where the dangerous rider is, keeping an eye on the guy with good riding skills, the guy who you know will lead out early. It helps that we can read up on all of our opponents’ intended tactics in the newspapers, but it is still hard to translate that knowledge onto the track which is no small matter travelling at 60–70 kms/hr with eight desperate athletes going hell for leather.
When spectators watch the racing for the first time they’re often surprised by the amount of contact allowed as the race reaches its climax. The action can be frantic and if it looks like a case of anything goes, and you’re not too far off the mark – a healthy amount of pushing and shoving is allowed, perhaps even encouraged. Elbows, knees and helmets are all medieval weapons, but when it goes wrong, the resulting high speed crashes can be spectacular – YouTube it. Fortunately the riders wear a considerable amount of protection on the velodrome. A combination of Kevlar, leather, and plastic armour gets strapped under the numbered and coloured jerseys that distinguish each rider for the spectators.
Anyway enough from me, just thought I’d give you a refresher course on my 5th stint  in Japan and what I’ve been up to. My next race is in Omiya near central Tokyo on the 20th. It’s a huge 500m velodrome so will be a good track for the tactic Makuri!
My next update will be after a few races and once we have started our intense preparation for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Super excited to get up there and race as I have many great memories from the last Games and love seeing all the sports competing and having the shot to win some Gold medals myself
Hopefully see you there!

Simon van Velthooven
New Zealand Sprint Cyclist
World, Commonwealth, Olympic Medalist
Proud Volkswagen Ambassador