Today’s guest post brought to you by Matthew Sullivan.
The 2012 Keirin GP was one of the few items i had locked in before heading off for three weeks in Japan. I was expecting the excitement and glamor of the Austral Wheel Race, but ended up at Friday night Greyhounds in winter at Moe, or Slough, or Detroit. Sorry, hipsters: the reality is that the keirin is ONLY about gambling and the TV audience. It is bloody interesting for all that.
The Keirin Grand Prix is Japan’s premier keirin race. The winner can expect to take home something in the region of AU$1,000,000. On December 30th 2012, it was held at Keiokaku Velodrome, AKA TOKYO OVAL KEIOKAKU. Keiokaku is located in Chōfu, about 30 minutes by train from central Tokyo. On December 30th 2012, Chofu was a cold, wet and miserable place to be. 3 or 4 degrees and raining. A sane man would’ve watched it on NKH and saved themselves the 50 yen admission. The huge Japanese TV audience must be incredibly sane, because attendance at the track was ‘sparse’.
Those who did turn up were overwhelming middle-aged, male, and warmly dressed. Between races they loitered around the gas heaters as they placed their bets, smoked, drunk hot coffee from vending machines and consumed numerous bowls of hot noodles and cans of cold Kirin ‘Super-dry’.
Every thirty or forty minutes some of the drab colored crowd shuffled from their warm, smoky dens in the bowels of the stands to watch nine painfully bright riders (looks great on TV) race.
Keirin (‘racing wheels’) began as a betting sport in Japan in 1948. In Japan there are only four sports where betting is allowed. The value of betting on keirin is enormous. In 1957, the Nihon Jitensha Shinkōkai (NJS) was established to regulate the industry. Think NASCAR, think V8 Supercars. The whole shooting match — tracks, frames, pedals and riders — are carefully managed to ensure close racing. For all intents and purposes the bikes are irrelevant because they are essentially identical.
Keiokaku’s bitumen oval is 400 meters long and a typical race is 2025 meters. The riders took two or three steady circuits behind a pace rider, then fell into a couple loops of anaerobic sprinting madness. One minute and fifty seconds after it started, the crowd turned en masse and returned to still-steaming bowl of udon noodles.
After an hour or so, I decided that this was an eminently sensible strategy, so caught the train back to Ginza — for what turned out to be the finest sushi experience I’ve had to date. I did, however, catch the final race later on the ever reliable YouTube. Good finish.