Travel | ON THE ROAD

Training regime for keirin draws blood, sweat, sometimes tears

A year at the racing school is only the first step for hopeful pros

by Lee Brown

When the teenagers at the Japan Bicycle Racing School in Shuzenji, Shizuoka Prefecture, rise at 6.30 a.m. each day, they always have an appetite. The training here is tough, a regimen of cycling, studying, chores and more cycling, so a big breakfast is a must.

After fueling up on fish, rice and miso soup, the budding professionals head out on their bicycles to train in the mountains of the Izu Peninsula for about 100 km. There’s friendly banter out on the road, but also the knowledge that at this school it’s every young man for himself.

Toshihiko Tomita, better known as Tomity, graduated in 1982 from the school, which opened in 1968.

“I’ve been riding as a pro for 27 years,” says Tomity, 51. “I was in the 49th group to graduate from the keirin school. Because we spent one year riding together, we developed a strong camaraderie.”

Up to 150 riders pass through the school every year, but not all will earn the right to don the uniform of a rookie professional — a pair of racing shorts with a green panel dotted with seven white stars.

Back in Tokyo, tough old working men, cigarette in one hand, betting guide in the other, and groups of excited young lads walk purposefully toward Keiokaku velodrome in western Tokyo. Today, big names with some of the biggest thighs in the business are competing.

The betting forms take a while to master. Win, place, show, quinella, sweep — the possibilities seem endless, yet the punters are friendly and willing to share their experience, if not their selections.

“Keirin pits man against man, so it’s an exciting form of gambling. But it makes picking a winner very difficult,” says Koichiro Saito, a senior keirin association official. “For newcomers, it can be very difficult to choose from the field.”

After placing their bets, few punters take a seat. With huge sums at stake, they hug the fence to watch the riders, dressed like 1950s superheroes, emerge from the tunnel.

The riders place their bikes in the starting gate, turn and bow to the crowd, then mount their machines in preparation to take off. There’s psychology at work, the older riders take an age to get ready, letting the eager young riders burn up nervous energy.

The racing is tough, dangerous and very, very fast. Nine riders compete in each 2,025-meter event, lining up behind a rider who sets a constant pace for nearly four laps before pulling off the track and letting the contestants sprint for the line at speeds of up to 70 kph.

The bicycles are brakeless, and to ensure the steeply banked tracks can be used even when it’s raining, the surface is as gritty as sandpaper, which means that falling will probably cost a rider some skin. Some of the older riders’ legs bear a patchwork of scars.

After the young riders at the Shuzenji school return from their morning training, they have just a couple of hours to eat lunch and relax before they head to the track. Here, they spend hours riding laps at a steady pace to master the art of racing inches from each other. They learn about the key styles of racing, such as senko (attacking from the front) and makuri (using the front rider’s slipstream to slingshot past on the final bend), and are taught about life as a professional: how to look after their health, maintain their bicycles and deal with the pressure of having millions of yen bet on them every time they race.

The professionals compete up to 100 times a year, and to help ensure the racing is free from collusion, the riders are moved from city to city and are sequestered at the track for each four-day racing period — no cell phones, no laptops, not even the latest Wi-Fi-enabled computer-game machines. And yes, not even the wife and kids. Not great for family life for those who want to stay in the pro ranks.

“Contacting someone from outside the track would lead people to suspect some wrongdoing,” says Tomity. “But every velodrome has a place for riders to stay that is like a business hotel. We can have dinner, take a bath and even do our washing there.”

The reward for this monastic style of living is great, however. A top cyclist can earn more than ¥100 million a year. For those ranked near the bottom, however, life is hard and demotion from the pro ranks is a constant threat.

“All 3,800 keirin riders get ranked every six months. Sixty are forced to leave every six months, but actually more riders leave than that. Unfortunately, some retire because of an accident during training or racing. Kei Uchida (a top-ranked 27-year-old rider) died this year in a crash during a race,” Tomity says. “I’m not intending to retire, but my ranking is going down as I get older. One day, I know I’ll be one of the last 60. Until that day comes, however, I’d love to continue racing.”

When the last race ends and the results are announced, the punters, some still cursing their bad luck, stream out of the gates and onto the street, while the riders head to the track restaurant for a big dinner — their appetites undiminished.