The high stakes of Women’s Keirin racing in Japan

If you’ve ever been to watch a track cycling event you’ve probably watched a very unusual race called the Keirin. I’ve always enjoyed it and for a number of years I’ve been aware that it’s a big sport in Japan where it was developed. Men’s Keirin racing is very popular but women are also involved and it’s growing. Here’s a few insights based on some research I undertook:

Keirin is a track cycling race where between six to nine riders race over about 2 km around a velodrome. It is a relatively new Olympic event, first raced by the men in 2000 and the women in 2012. Keirin has been a big part of Japanese culture since it was introduced in 1948 as an initiative to rebuild after the war. The race starts with a pace setter (typically a motorised “derny”) who starts slowly but gradually increases the speed until peeling off with about 600 or 700 metres left to race. Usually the riders are travelling at about 50 km/hour by this point and have hopefully manoeuvered into their favoured position. Once the “derny” is gone the race is in full flight and the riders fight to take line honours.

The women follow international competition rules in Japan to keep things safer: while the men are renowned for shoulder barging and head butting through their racing, Girl’s Keirin is a bit more ladylike. The women use colourful disc wheels and tri-spokes provided by the JKA –the same colour wheels as the lane colour they draw.

In Japan the basic principles remain but there is one looming difference. Keirin racing is big business because it is a legal gambling industry that has a strict rules, tradition and culture. A majority of the revenue earned from the gambling goes back into public infrastructure. However, over the past five years the money being thrown at Keirin in Japan has declined and in order to attract a younger generation to the betting ring, Girl’s Keirin was re-established in 2012 to grab the interest of the punters. The form is not argued. The expectation is the same regardless of your cycling history.

Australian track cyclist, Kaarle McCullough went to Japan with a plan to race and earn a few dollars. Despite being a highly accomplished international competitor in the discipline, McCullough was run through a week of intensive schooling and then a four-part test before she was allowed to race. The test included a bike building time trial – she had to pull her bike apart and put it back together in 20 minutes. “It was stressful!” said Kaarle, “particularly because the bike had to be upside down and it had to be put back together following strict protocol.” She also had to pass an interview with the head of the JKA, as well as written and medical exams.

The Japanese girls undergo eleven months of training at the school that from all accounts seems to involve a tough regime of physical and theoretical training, “We would arrive for breakfast some mornings and the girls at the school would have already completed a 2km run! I can barely run away from the dog,” joked Kaarle. After they graduate, the racers are then qualified to race Keirin for a living. “They only have to come back to the school if they incur fines,” McCullough explain, “for every mistake they make in a race they earn 10 points and if they earn 90 points they have to go back to school for a week. As an international I could be fined 100,000 Japanese yen so I was pretty careful not to make any mistakes.”

Riders typically wear “amour” under their skin suits for protection as the racing is close and aggressive. The padding is a bit like skateboarding knee pads but worn on the shoulders, back and elbows. Kaarle also invested in some trademark Keirin pants with brightly coloured stars down the sides. Each rider draws a starting lane and with that comes a coloured jersey and a number that is loudly emblazoned on the side of their helmet and jersey.

Kaarle said, “the big concrete velodromes are quite eerie places with tall wire fences and not many people around. There are generally only close fans of the riders at the races but there are big betting rings where the crowds gather to place bets and watch the races. If you win on the last day you go and greet the crowds and meet lots of fans. We also visited the central betting building in Tokyo which is eleven floors high – the top floor has very wealthy gamblers sitting in leather chairs being waited on and the bottom floors are filled to capacity with the lower classes trying to get a bet on their favourite riders.”

A Keirin race meet goes for four days and the racers must go into isolation for this period, relinquishing all mobile phone and internet access to avoid contact with the punters and any temptation to fix races. The first day is spent checking bikes, having medicals and training. The next two days are qualifying races and the fourth day is kept for the final. Racers are paid a wage for the four days and then prize money on top of that – with a bonus paid for winning all the races.

There are now 57 professional Women Keirin racers in Japan and the school is aiming to have 30 more graduates every year. As Keirin is the second most popular gambling sport in Japan, there are plenty of opportunities in the 47 velodromes across Japan. Kaarle is also of the firm belief that with a growing number of professional female cyclists in Japan the country will have more talent to bring onto the world stage.


This post is based on an article I read on the website by former Australian professional cyclist Olivia Gollan.

One comment

  1. Wow. People who know I like cycling aften ask me about the keirin and i dont know that much. Thanks for the background info. Is Kaarle making her fortune yet?

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