Early-morning abuse rings out across the velodrome as punters throw their betting slips to the ground, exasperated. “Idiot, why did you ride that line?” Up on the stadium screen, winnings are projected for all to see, tormenting the losers, egging the winners on for the next race.
It’s a crisp morning and the cyclists look fantastic as they complete their warmdown, between them wearing a full iPod lineup of colored uniforms, the spotless steel frames of their brakeless, fixed-gear bikes glinting in the sun. “You know bicycles are meant to make you faster, right?”
This is keirin: Japan’s premier cycling competition, an Olympic sport since its debut in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and — alongside horse racing, speedboat racing and motorbike racing — one of four sports in Japan that allow gambling.
The races are simple, each typically two-kilometers long. Nine riders line up in the starting gate and complete the first few laps of the race (the number depends on track length and race) behind a pacing bike that brings them all up to around 50 kph. With a lap and a half to go, a gong sounds, the pacer leaves the track and the race begins proper. Cyclists go head-to-head, sprinting at speeds of around 70 kph to the finish line. It’s fast and physical; shoulder-barging and headbutting is allowed, and riders wear thick padding to protect against crashes. Watching things go round in circles is rarely so much fun.
Picking a winner is not so easy. Since it was founded in 1948 in Kitakyushu, keirin has turned into a trillion-yen betting sport, and the gambling culture is fierce — so fierce that racers are put into isolation during each four-day race period, cut off with no phone or internet.
Before the race, riders complete a parade lap and show off alliances among themselves, informing the hawk-eyed gamblers and skewing the odds in their favor or against. The betting system is confusing but can be a low-stakes affair, starting from as little as ¥100 per race; gamblers aim to choose which riders will take the top three spots, marking their choices on scorecards for each race.
Tipsters gather crowds near the betting machines, offering candid advice — “maybe you just shouldn’t try…” — to would-be gamblers, for a fee. The hardcore congregate not in the stadium, but in a seperate building that broadcasts live feeds from races taking place simultaneously at the 43 velodromes across Japan. The atmosphere is tense and the air is smoky. Keirin has tried to modernize in recent years, reintroducing women’s racing in 2012 in an attempt to broaden its appeal, but this is the sport’s core: aging punters, overwhelmingly male, blitzing through their pensions and their cigarettes in equal measure.
Keirin will take to a more bourgeois venue for the Tokyo Olympics in July, when riders from around the world will compete for medals at Shizuoka Prefecture’s Izu Velodrome. But there is little crossover between the two versions of the sport, and for the loyalists — both riders and fans — attention will be focused on the end of the racing year, which comes to a climax on Dec. 30 with the Keirin Grand Prix. The competition will see the season’s best nine cyclists battle it out for a top prize of ¥100 million ($930,000). No small change for the best rider in Japan.
Six velodromes are on the outskirts of Tokyo: Kawasaki, Keiokaku (Chofu), Tachikawa, Seibuen (Tokorozawa), Omiya and Matsudo; entrance to the stadiums is ¥100; the race season continues until the end of December. Schedules can be found at keirin.jp.