Keirin Racing in Japan with Shane Perkins
While much of the professional cycling season has died down in Europe, a selection of international track riders have been invited to Japan to earn some money from racing the Keirin circuit. Shane Perkins is one of those internationals and I caught up with him to hear about his Keirin season and to find out more about this world we hear so little about.
Straight after returning home from the London Olympics and a shotgun move to Adelaide, Shane Perkins arrived in Japan to begin his season of Keiren racing. He’ll be in Japan for a total of 4 months and then back again next year for 6 months. This isn’t uncharted territory for Perkins however. He’s previously raced the Japanese Keirin circuit in 2009 and 2010 for a period of six months each.
Do you have to go back to Keirin School every time you return to Japan?
Yeah, every year. It’s a two year contract that you sign when coming over. My first year, 2009, I had to do one-and-a-half weeks of school, then in 2010 when I came back I had to do a 4 or 5 day refresher. The rules are quite different here than international racing and there’s quite a bit going on. The betting is the main thing and it’s quite strict from that perspective. Because I’ve signed a new contract now I had to go back and do the 1.5 weeks of school but next year I’ll just do the refresher course again.
How does that differ from the Keirin School the Japanese riders have to attend?
To become a Japanese Keirin rider you have to attend Keirin school for eleven months to get your Keirin license. That involves living at the Keirin school. That’s where I train, but I don’t live there. They have to live at the facility for nearly a year with a strict regiment. Many people think that the Keirin school is for riders who started riding when they were young and that’s where they go to train for their cycling career, like the VIS or something. But it’s actually people from different sports who might be in their mid-30’s and they decide to be a bike rider as a profession. What the Keirin school does is teach them how to ride a bike. They teach them how to train, how to weight train, how to look after their bikes, how to eat, all the rules of Keirin, and basically they’re prepared up to the standard that’s set in order to go off and receive your Keirin license and race. If they’re not fast enough or don’t understand the rules they can’t just go off and race the Keirin. With the betting involved they have to be athletes who know what they’re doing.
What are the Japanese Keirin training philosophies like compared to what you’ve been through at the VIS and National Team?
They’ve been training people through the Keirin school since the 50’s or so. They’ve been doing it for a long time and obviously know physiology, but tradition is also very big in Japan. You gotta remember that they’re working with a genralised group at the Keirin school. Some people may have never ridden a bike before. They make the choice that instead of going to University to study business they maybe want to become a Keirin rider as a profession, and go to school to learn to ride a bike. They do have different training groups but the school keeps it pretty general. A lot of the basics are the same in Japan as in Australia, but some of the traditional things are different. They do some pretty funky stuff with stretchy bands, and walking on these little bits of wood strapped to their feet to help with their balance. They spend quite a long time warming up. For me a warm-up will take 45mins but they’ll start two hours before.
I pick up quite a few things from the Japanese. They’re very flexible because they’re always stretching. They look after their bodies really well. They’re always working on loosening up their feet with golf balls and stuff. They say it’s the second heart of the body over here.
Are there any ceremonial and cultural traditions that you try to fit in with?
Being a foreigner over here I try to do my best to follow their lead. One of the biggest traditions here is the age hierarchy. If you’re an older gentleman, the younger person always pays for dinners and stuff.
In the Keirin racing you need to tell people your race strategy before the event. For example you say, “I’m gonna hit out with 400m to go which is called senko or long makuri.
[senko (in front and attack with 800-400m to go), makuri (second wheel and attack no earlier than 300m to go) or oikomi (third wheel and attack not before 150m to go)].
There are 9 riders in a race and you generally have three lines. You’d have three riders in one line – one at the front and the other two following. They’ll block the rider at the front if someone tries to come past. The younger rider often goes first to sacrifice himself for the older riders behind. The older riders had to do that when they were young and now this is where they get their payback. There are quite a few traditions like that going around. Respect for your elders is a huge one.
Explain how the whole Keirin Series works?
In Japan there are roughly 40 velodromes. They range from 333m to 500m. They’re all made out of a special surface because you race rain, hail or shine. Most tracks that you go to will have a dormitory. There’ll be a big wall around the dormitory so once you’re in there, you can’t leave or other people can’t enter. You hand over your phone, computers, or anything that can communicate with the outside world so you don’t put a sneaky bet on yourself. Everyone races over 4 days. It’s 3 days of racing, with the first day called “Zenden” which is the day you turn up and they check your bike, check that you’re healthy with a doctor screening, then you do a little bit of training. After that you’re racing for the next 3 days.
As for the structure, there’s basically points that rank the rider. It’s really hard to explain the whole points structure, but basically the better your results and the amount of races you’ve done, the better your ranking throughout the year. The classes start off at the bottom with A2, then it goes to A1, S2, S1, SS. SS used to be the top 12 Keirin riders in Japan would be in SS class, but I think it’s the top 9 now. They get to go to all the really big races.
As an international rider they put us in a category called F1. F2 is made up of all the A-class riders (the low points riders). 75% of the races in Japan are made up of F1. The highest class of race is called Grand Prix which the top 9 highest points earners get to compete in. The prize money in Grand Prix is between ¥90-100M [$1.25M USD]. As international riders we can’t contest that. We’d love to be able to be riding in the G races. Even the lowest of the G races are about five times the prize money as the F1 races that we compete in. We are coming into their world though. We didn’t have to do the eleven months of school, we’re not from here, so they make a compromise and let us race the F1 race. Even if we had enough points or enough money (in the money ranking) we still aren’t allowed to compete in the G races.
Have you ever heard of a foreigner who has lived in Japan for an extended period ever made it to the Grand Prix level?
Nah, not that I know of. The only way you could do it is by getting your full-time license.
The amount of money you can make as an international rider is limited by the class you’re racing then.
Don’t’ get me wrong – we’re still racing for good money. I’m not complaining and I really enjoy it over here. I love the atmosphere compared to what we’re used to racing internationally.
Tell me about the atmosphere at the velodromes.
You obviously have a lot of time on your hands while you’re racing. You don’t have any computers, games, or anything to keep you busy. Most of the time is spent warming up, mingling with the other athletes, and you’re stuck inside for four days. You have to make your own fun. Because I’ve been here before I’ve gotten to know a lot of guys and have a rapport with them.
[The Keirin velodromes in Japan can seat as many as 20,000-30,000 people but there isn’t much crowd attendance. That’s not to say it’s not well followed however. Most of the people are watching behind television screens at the betting outlets.]
Who are the other international riders over there right now?
How’s your racing going so far?
Yeah, not so bad. I’ve had a couple of wins. I’ve had three racing sessions, which is a total of nine races and I’ve won two or three. I made one final of those ones. I haven’t been out of the top 5 yet, so it’s pretty good. It’s hard coming off the back of the Olympics. I had 6 weeks off the bike to try to recover mentally and physically. It was quite the challenge to get going again and I’m starting to find my legs now.
Is the main reason you’re there to make money?
I’m not complaining, and there’s many more worse off than me, but to go to the Olympics as an athlete it costs a bit of money to prepare and get over there. I’m grateful for the support I’ve had from the Olympic committee in Australia and the AIS who support us. But aside from that it costs a lot of money to get there. It was fantastic but I’m paying for it now. To have the opportunity to come to Japan and race, I really love it here. You get to race 2-3 times per month, and that’s what I really love – the racing. All the training is part of it, but what we really do it for is the racing and put some money in your pocket at the same time.
Explain some of the tactics behind Keirin racing in Japan.
Basically you have three kinds of riders. You have a senko, who are the ones who go from about 400-600m out. That’s a long sprint. Then you have a makuri rider, who follows a senko rider. They usually protect for the Senko rider and they sprint from 200m-400m out. Then you have an oikomi rider who follows a makuri and a Senko. They block for the makuri and the senko who are hooking all over the back blocking quite hard. They’ll have a pretty short sprint – between 30m-100m. So that’s basically how it works.
There are three lines who each are made up of a senko, makuri and oikomi line. When you’re talking to the media beforehand the punters want to know what kind of tactic you’re going to use the next day. You tell them, “today I’m going to do oikomi” or “I’m going to do senko tomorrow.” Once you give that away you might have one or two riders who follow you and will block and protect for you which helps you go senko for example. There’s not a whole lot in explaining your tactics to the media. It’s hard to say before a race that you’re going to hit out with 300m to go, you might get blocked in. You never know, so they break it down into those three categories. But you might not end up get the chance to go Senko because someone has gone before you. That basically gives the punters a good idea of what you’re gonna do if you get the opportunity to do it. The race is like any other race in that you still have to go with the flow and make quick decisions.
What happens if the race situation dictates that you don’t do what you said you were going to do at the beginning?
You obviously go out there with a plan to ride a certain way, but if that doesn’t happen you still have to ride to the finish and win if you can. You’re not allowed to sit up or give up or else you can get disqualified for. Crashing another person you can also get disqualified. Shikaku is what it’s called. Even if you hit out too early. Say you make your move with 800m to go and the other eight riders pass you and you cross the finish line a certain amount of time behind them you can also be disqualified. This means that you’ve made your effort too early therefore you’ve made a silly decision and you’ll get disqualified.
With that amount of money involved, what about collusion?
There’s no collusion as such, but it can definitely been seen as that. When I talk about senko, makuri and oikomi where someone is following another person and blocking for them that could be riders from a certain prefecture around Japan. But aside from that everyone still tries to win for himself. It’s kind of a grey area. Not a grey area for Japanese Keirin as such, but a grey area for us in International competition. You wouldn’t ride up front and block for someone in international riding. Whereas in Japan, that’s what makes the racing. Following the different lines and the distance a rider will make his effort from…so there’s quite a bit going on in a Japanese Keirin race.
What about chopping of prize money?
No, what you win is what you win. As I said, with the respect thing with the younger rider laying it down Senko for the older riders, it’s not really about doing it to help him, it’s just as it’s always been. The young riders go Senko which is good for their training and is what makes the race. As they get older they can’t go as fast for as long of a time. The older you get you go back to Makuri and follow somebody and then as you get older you go back into Oikomi. It’s common sense when you think about it.
What age are some of the older riders?
I was at a race recently with a guy who was 52. It’s a business. When we think about International athletes with the Olympics and World Championships and things like that, you try to do it for as long as you can. Maybe early or mid-30’s. Whereas Japanese Keirin is a job.
How does a 52 year old possibly compete against someone like you?
Definitely, it comes back to him being an Oikami rider and gets put into pretty good positions to win. That’s a really good example of how it works. As the riders get older they can’t sprint for as long but they can certainly follow a wheel pretty well.
Tell me about the body armour?
It comes back to it being quite an aggressive sport with hoods and headbutts being thrown. A full-time Japanese rider with this as his job doesn’t want skin taken off and lose two months worth of earnings.
Do you wear any body armour?
I’ve got a thin bit of leather, but I don’t like the bulky body armour. But again, I’m only here for six months. 90% of the Keirin riders wear it to protect their hips and shoulders.
Is there a drug culture within Japanese Keirin? Can you speak freely about this?
It’s a great question, especially with what’s happening now in cycling. My response to that is a good one from here. In terms of the Japanese culture itself and the Keirin, there’s nothing that suggests to me that there’s a culture of drugs in the racing here. No one has ever spoken about it and I’ve never seen anything. Again, there is a lot of respect in the Japanese culture. It would be disrespectful to their ethics. There is drug testing for the Kierin riders, but we have our own UCI and WADA codes. I’ve never heard of an incident.
I never really thought about it but when I started hearing about this whole Lance Armstrong thing I started wondering if it goes on here in Kierin racing. It’s big bucks. It’s all about performance, but look, there’s nothing that suggests to me [that there’s a drug culture], but you never know. There’s nothing that’s come out in the media or nothing I’ve heard of that’s gone in-house.
How does this Lance Armstrong drama affect you as a track cyclist?
Well, it falls under the banner of being labeled as a doped-up cyclist. It’s definitely hurting cycling. What’s been great after what’s being called a dark era of cycling, are these teams that are coming out who are supporting their riders with the best technology, sports science and nutrition and not putting pressure on them to get results. That’s a really great approach. You look at GreenEDGE, Garmin…I think these teams need to be patted on the back and be commended. Doing things like this possibly means they have to take a bit of a hit with results at first though.
Can you tell me about your involvement with MS Australia and the MS Red Ride taking place in January during the Jayco Herald Sun Tour?
I’ve had some family friends who have had to battle with MS and Bade [Stapleton], my manager involved with MS Australia and getting to know a few of the people in the foundation was a great opportunity for me to be a part of it and try to give something back as well. The stories you hear from people battling the disease are inspiring. When I do think about these people who have been so much and they tell me about the inspiration they get from me from just watching me ride, I think to myself, “all I do is ride a bike.” They’re the ones who are battling day in day out in their lives, and I’m just lucky enough to ride my bike. It’s a great opportunity to give something back and be part of something larger.
How are you going to go riding the whole 1000kms in January?
Whoa…I don’t know that I’ll do the full 1000! I’m involved with a track day during the ride and it’ll be just after I’m scheduled to get surgery on my shoulder. The plan is to try and ride as much as I can. I’d love to do the 1000k’s but I have a few other things going on around the MS ride as well.
Just after this interview Shane went into lockdown again to race in Yokkaichi. If you can work it out, you’ll be able to watch him race on the Keirin.jp live streaming feed.
Heading off to yokkaichi Keirin today! Night races, starting to get a little chilly now too!
— Shane Perkins (@PerkoPerkins) October 27, 2012
Read about Ben Kersten’s time at Keirin school by RIDE (2007) and a good overview of Keirin racing by Rupert Guinness. Also, for an excellent video watch Keirin Speed Racers. According to Rupert’s article in 2010, Shane won 19 of 33 races, of which four victories were in finals. The largest wager put on Shane was ¥56m ($739,229) and with a final win paying him ¥1m ($13,200).