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Aichi city gambles on female cyclists

Chunichi Shimbun

The Toyohashi Velodrome in Aichi Prefecture has started a program to train professional female cyclists to drum up interest in the dying sport.

The city hopes the women will base their activities in Toyohashi and increase the popularity of cycling to attract more spectators and keep its related gambling facilities afloat.

With the variety of recreation available these days, fewer people are becoming interested in the sport, forcing some facilities to close.

The city is hoping that bringing more female cyclists into town will improve business. Toyohashi is the second city after Yahiko in Niigata Prefecture to launch a professional training program for female cyclists.

Toyohashi will provide free lessons to help athletes pass the examination at Nihon Keirin Gakko (Japan Keirin School) needed to become a pro cyclist. In return, they ask the cyclists to write about the program on the Internet.

Professional bike races for women, dubbed Girls’ Keirin, resumed in July 2012 after being dormant for 48 years. They were organized in the Hiratsuka Velodrome in Kanagawa Prefecture, also known as Shonan Bank, and quickly caught on at bike tracks in Toyohashi and Nagoya.

Since there are only around 50 professional female cyclists in Japan, however, Toyohashi decided to drum up interest among women.

“Their speed is slower compared to male track cycling, but it’s spectacular. I’d like to improve my skills so that I can compete with other cyclists and also attract more spectators,” said Yuki Kurano, 19, a pro cyclist based in Toyohashi.

Kurano, the city’s sole pro female cyclist, says she feels the pressure of being the only one. She is looking forward to having other women join the sport.

The training plan was left to the cycling team of Sakuragaoka High School in Toyohashi, which is the alma mater of many velodrome cyclists. The students are expected to pay their own transport costs but are permitted to join the free three-month program until late November and receive coaching from retired professionals. The program is also open to people from outside the city.

Three velodromes have closed since 2009, leaving only 44 cycling tracks in Japan. The city of Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture, plans to close its velodrome next March.

Toyohashi planned to shut down its velodrome in 2002 because it was unprofitable, but the plan was eventually scrapped and the city worked to reduce its costs and turn it over to private management. The track made a profit from 2003 to 2011.

“We will try anything that will give us a chance to make a profit,” said an employee at Toyohashi Velodrome. They organized the revival of Girl’s Keirin in the Chubu region and promoted the event using posters that parodied famous paintings.

The harsh economic situation is not only affecting velodrome cycling but also all other publicly recognized gambling sports, including horse racing. The current deficit of the Nagoya Racecourse stands at ¥4 billion.

“There are too many facilities, but not enough fans,” said Nobuhiro Okuno, a professor of economics at the School of Business and Public Policies at Chukyo University.

“By organizing new events, velodrome cycling may avoid plunging into the red, but it is a temporary solution. I believe the industry as a whole will gradually continue to decline,” he said.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Aug. 21.