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Linkoteca. keirin racers

The sport started in Japan and dates to 1948, when it was created specifically as a betting sport. Even now it remains just one of four sports upon which betting is legal (the others being horse racing, boat racing, and Formula 1).

The sport is highly regulated in Japan, because of the gambling involved. Before each race, cyclists announce their tactics so people know how to bet. For example, a rider may say he will ride seiko, staying out front but not getting aggressive until the very end. Riders’ positions within the pace line often play to specific strengths, like sprinting or blocking. The sport requires exceptional endurance, as top-tier racers—who can earn many hundreds of thousands of dollars annually—may compete in as many as a dozen races a day during meets that last four days. Competitors are housed in dormitories and denied access to the Internet or phones, to prevent cheating or other shenanigans that may affect the betting.

The concept is simple. A neutral track racer—not a derny motorcycle as used at the Olympics—starts in front of a peloton of nine racers and sets the pace for about a mile. He systematically increases the speed to 50 kilometers per hour and leaves the track half a mile before the finish. That’s when the keirin racers start jostling for position before making their sprints to the finish line.

World War II left Japan in massive debt. Money was necessary for the country to rise up from the debris of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so, in 1948, the Japanese government introduced the sport of keirin, with the intent of gaining from the gambling that accompanied it. The same goes for keiba (horse racing) and keitei (powerboat racing).

That is why the keirin rulebook has remained unchanged since its introduction 70 years ago. This is the opposite of the rules in western sports, where they are ever changing. So today, every keirin race in Japan is still based on nine identical steel-framed track bikes, the only difference between them being the seat’s height.

It’s a gambling sport, so the money the racers make depends on the bets made by keirin fans. At the beginning of each race, those fans receive information on the competing cyclists, including their condition, the thickness of their thighs, their blood type, their race tactics and, in some cases, their zodiac sign. For the people watching this is more than a sport.

Injuries are very common here—the average keirin racer breaks his collarbone twice in his career. That’s understandable if you know about all the contact allowed during the sprints. You even see the occasional head butt, which in turn explains why the helmets are the size of an astronaut’s.

The monastic life on the Izu peninsula prepares the students for the loneliness of a keirin tournament. Before each tournament, they go into a kind of quarantine, to counter match fixing. Again, the riders have to hand over their mobile phones and laptops to the organizers, and just a bed, a bicycle and a series of races await them. For days, they can only talk to each other.