Wondrous Japan

I was fortunate to catch up with an old friend over the phone yesterday. We keep in touch largely by email but like to talk to one another on or around our birthdays which straddle Xmas. We met while working on a major construction project for my previous employer. She’s an architect and designer with a track record in bringing very difficult projects to fruition. She has a real clarity of vision and not only did I love working with her but I also learned a lot from her too. She now lives in Italy, not far from Venice, so we don’t get to see one another often enough.

She’s just come back from a month-long trip to Japan, her first visit. I went two year’s ago during cherry blossom time and was totally enchanted. I had wanted to visit for so long that I was sure the reality would not live up to my expectations. However, any expectations I had were just blown away. It’s such a beautiful, magical place.

We found that we both adored the architecture of the original wooden dwellings, the peace and tranquillity of the temples, the almost too beautiful to eat food, the enchanting traditional arts and crafts, the hustle, bustle and colour of the food markets and the unrelenting charm and politeness of the Japanese. Frankly, I can’t wait to return and have a long list of things I still want to see including Keirin racing, which in Japan, differs markedly from that shown in the Olympics on the track. Let me explain.

Since it started in 1948 Keirin racing  has become a Japanese social institution attended annually by around 57 million spectators  who place bets amounting to 9 billion Euros. Races are held almost every weekend at 50 tracks around Japan.

Picking the winner of a Keirin race is a complicated matter. The riders have to announce their tactics in advance while the punters  take account of the background of each rider, their blood group, astrological sign and thigh measurements, starting position and seasonal form. This is augmented by information about the athletes in special newspapers. bizarrely, most people don’t watch the races “live” but watch on the TV screens at the track.

Once the riders come out of the tunnel, “the racers gate”, they ride slowly to the start, fix their bikes in position in the starting machine, and bow before getting into the saddle. There are usually six to nine racers who are clad in standardized, bright, single coloured jerseys and helmet covers, for easy identification. The races are usually 2000m in length and held on steeply banked tracks.

The race starts slowly. The riders jockeying for an advantageous position behind the pacemaker, who slowly raises the pace before leaving the track after three laps. A bell then rings opening up the sprint where the riders reach speeds of up to 70 km⁄h in the photo-finish sprint for the line. 

A certain amount of pushing and shoving is tolerated by the rules and, as the speeding riders jostle for the best position, spectacular crashes are not uncommon. The surface of the track is rough, providing good traction even in the rain. The racers wear plastic body armour under their jerseys to prevent serious injury.

Top riders will race 80–100 times a year, prize money can be upwards of Euros 100,000 for the winner of a large event, with the best earning up to Euros 1.5m a year. The riders all use approved and specially built, similar, steel framed, bikes with a choice of gearing: 12–16 teeth on the sprocket and up to 55 on the chain ring.

Prospective racers must attend the Japan Bicycle Racing School, dedicated to teaching the academic and practical skills they will need to compete. The 10% of applicants fortunate enough to be accepted undergo a strict, 15–hour per day training regime. During the 10–month period of training and study, the students generally aged between 18 and 22, learn the rules and tactics of the sport, bicycle mechanics and physiotherapy as well as riding technique, and endurance.

Those who pass the exams are approved by and registered with the Japan Keirin Association as competitors, eligible to take part in Keirin events. There are approximately 4000 registered riders and each year 150 new riders are admitted, first to a four-month stint in the newcomer’s league, thereafter they are assigned a ranking which is adjusted, based on performance, every four months.

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