This ’90s keirin gallery is a glimpse of another world

by Iain Treloar

photography by Cor Vos

In the family tree of cycling disciplines, track cycling is the most traditionalist branch – bicycles with one gear, two wheels, no brake, propelled around a velodrome. And of track cycling’s many disciplines, it’s the Japanese strain of keirin racing that is the most beholden to tradition. 

‘Beholden’ isn’t the right word, really. Keirin has grown around the shape that the past occupies – a bit like a tree on an exposed clifftop, blown onto a slant by the sustained wind of decades before it. 

The history of keirin stretches back to 1948, where a Japan still reeling from the toll of the Second World War found a national passion. Alongside sumo, to which keirin is sometimes compared, the cycling event has a less sacred foundation – the government needed revenue, sought a gambling sport to tax, and keirin was one of those sports.

To this day, there are only five sports in Japan where gambling is legal: motorbike racing, horse racing, powerboat racing, football and keirin. 

In keirin, gambling and the sport itself are intertwined.

But despite its earthly origins, keirin is wrapped in tradition – for better and for worse. Japanese keirin riders must pass a strict, 11-month live-in traineeship at a keirin school. There is a rigid hierarchy, an appreciation of etiquette, and a respect for seniority, with older riders offered preferential treatment in starting positions. And although it is tactically complex, with riders declaring their strategy before the race begins, there is a clean transparency to the result: nine riders, racing for a finishing line, in front of a baying crowd. 

Keirin is a paternalistic, hyper-masculine sport, only open to men since 1964. In its blue collar, smoke-haloed ethos, it butts up against preconceptions of Japanese culture as slick and futuristic. That mirrors the sport’s approach to technological innovation: the Nihon Jitensha Shinkōkai (NJS) is the governing body, and to level the playing field, mandates that all equipment must fit into rigidly defined boundaries. Frames are chromoly, built to approved dimensions and angles. Wheels have 36 spokes. Everything has to be pre-approved, bearing an NJS stamp. 

NJS certification stretches from spoke count to seatpost to spanner.

Japanese keirin riders, meanwhile, approach the sport as a lifelong profession, learning the sport’s code, its rituals, its dance. There are only a few international riders that get a shot to race in the discipline, passing a less onerous apprenticeship than their Japanese contemporaries.  

Keirin has been an Olympic discipline since 2000, allegedly as the result of millions of dollars in payments requested from the Japanese federation by the UCI to [wink, wink] “support cycling” in “material terms”, in consideration of “the excellent relationship the UCI has with representatives of the Olympic movement”.

A killer selection of gowns in the dressing room.

Olympic keirin racing is a different beast, though. More international, more technologically sophisticated, less characterful. When (… or if?) keirin hits the boards at the Tokyo Olympics, the discipline’s past and future will meet in the homeland of its birth. 

Until then, here is a grainy, glorious gallery from deep in the Cor Vos archives that gives a glimpse of Japanese keirin racing at the Maebashi velodrome, around 1989-1990.

Really, though, it could have been shot 30 years earlier or later and still felt much the same.

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