Keirin School: Inside the strict and secret world of bicycle racing in Japan
For anyone pursuing excellence in life or at work, Japan, its people and its society are an endless source of inspirational anecdotes. This BBC story reveals a side of Japan we had never heard about: very high stakes professional track cycling. It is called Keirin and it is a big deal in Japan: “…in Japan, it’s a £10bn industry, potentially lucrative for riders and fans alike as one of only four sports you can legally bet on. Its annual showpiece attracts more in wagers than is gambled over the entire British horse racing season.
Keirin isn’t just a sport in Japan. It goes deeper than that.”
Keirin cyclists have to go to a special school to train for many years: “This is no ordinary school. This is keirin school, where just 10% of applicants are accepted. Only the very best get to come here.”
Sir Chris Hoy, Britain’s six time Olympic gold winner, trained in such a school in Japan. He says “”It’s a place of tradition which focuses on respect, self-control, and honesty, along with the knowledge necessary to be a professional keirin rider…It reflects Japanese culture…Everyone takes their job very seriously, they do it to the best of their ability and they do it the way they are told to do it.””
Structured like a monastery, keirin schools are where champions are trained both physically and mentally: “Keirin school is part military academy, part training camp. The day starts at 6:30am with roll call and finishes at 10pm with lights out, for six days a week, 11 months of the year.
In between, students have structured training and education sessions. Training could be on the bike, on foot or in the gym, while education sessions are both academic – studying tactics, theory and race rules in the classroom – and practical. Students also learn about bike mechanics in the workshop.
Throw in meal times – students consume more than 1,000 calories at breakfast and 4,500 at dinner – cleaning responsibilities and extra exercise and there’s very little time for anything else.
Everyone wears the same uniform. There are televisions, but no mobile phones, no email access and certainly no social media. Students may call home once a week on a payphone.”
Even more interestingly, these schools allow a small number of elite foreign cyclists to come and train with them. Sir Chris Hoy was one of them.
And then there is the business side of keirin: “Established in 1948, keirin was created to boost income in Japan after the Second World War. More than 70 years on, there are 43 velodromes in the country and fans can watch keirin racing on 365 days of the year.
“In betting offices, cafes and bars, there are thousands of people watching each race,” says Hoy.
Top riders can earn more than £1m a year in prize money, with many continuing to compete into their 50s and 60s. Such is the scale of betting on racing that riders must abide by incredibly strict regulations.
Riders must arrive at meets dressed smartly – and everyone must then surrender their mobile phone. No communication with the outside world is allowed over the entire event. Many take place over four days.
Sometimes riders will race only once in those days. It will mark their only chance to see daylight, to get some fresh air. For the rest of the meeting, they are cooped up inside, hidden from the rest of the world.
It’s on the first day that riders declare their tactics. Before every race, riders know their opponents’ exact plans in advance – who is planning to attack when, and who has got a target on their back.
It makes for an intense experience, particularly when, for the entire duration of the race meeting, they only have each other for company.
They sleep in a dormitory, some with beds, others with mats on the floor. They eat alongside each other, bathe alongside each other, warm-up alongside each other…”
Just as interesting are the post-race rituals that riders are meant to engage in: “Winners are expected to hand out water to their opponents as a way of expressing thanks for a good race, while riders frequently hand out presents to one another.
“Respect is such a big part,” says Truman.
“I’ve got a box full of presents, four or five pairs of gloves, tyres…”
When one understands how Japanese society works, how its focuses on respect, on perfection, on dedication, one understands the roots needed to build a great society and a great country.