Title: War on Wheels – Inside Keirin and Japan’s Cycling Subculture
Author: Justin McCurry
Publisher: Pursuit (UK) | Pegasus (US)
Order: Profile Books (UK) | Simon and Schuster (US)
What it is: A brief history of keirin racing and its place in Japanese culture
Strengths: It’s an introduction to keirin racing and its place in Japanese culture
Weaknesses: It’s a book largely about bureaucracy with very little human warmth, no stars of Japanese keirin past or present to really give a damn about.
Gambling is illegal in Japan, except where it isn’t. One of the areas in which gambling is not illegal is bike racing. Specifically, keirin racing.
Most of us are pretty confident in our knowledge of what keirin racing is. A derny-mounted pacer takes a line of riders up to speed and, after having done 1,400 metres or so, pulls off the track and the riders go at it hell for leather for the next 600 metres.
That’s the international flavour of the race. The Japanese version – from which the international flavour is adapted – is the same, except where it’s different. And it’s different in most respects. Justin McCurry’s War on Wheels – Inside Keirin and Japan’s Cycling Subculture offers the reader the skinny on original flavour Japanese keirin.
Originally planned for publication in 2020, to tie in with the Tokyo Olympics, War on Wheels was held back a year when the Games got postponed and was released last year ahead of the 2021 Games. It has sat on my bookshelf since then partly because I took a timeout from cycling books over the course of the lurgi. But it has also sat there because of its publisher’s last Olympic tie-in, Kenny Pryde’s The Medal Factory, a book which annoyed the hell out of me. Evidently I was not alone in being annoyed by that book as it has still not appeared in paperback more than two years after its hardback publication, having generated for its publisher the threat of a lawsuit which then required the excision of several pages. War on Wheels is an improvement on The Medal Factory at least insofar as it’s unlikely to have a rush of legal beagles wanting to read it.
The first bicycle tyres to touch Japanese soil, McCurry (the Guardian’s Tokyo correspondent) informs us, arrived on an American ship in the port city of Yokohama in 1865. If that bike was a pedal-bicycle then that is very early, ahead of Lallement’s patent and ahead of the Michaux brothers hooking up with the Oliviers. If it wasn’t a pedal-bicycle then that is very late, Von Drais’s draisienne having been around for the better part of half a century at that stage. Whichever it was, it was unlikely to have had tyres. That may seem like a trivial point but it does help illustrate how War on Wheels is yet another one of those cycling books in which the blind lead the blind and cycling history pays the price.
McCurry’s brief summary of early Japanese cycling history bounces all over the house between the 1870s and the 1950s, jumping forward and back without offering any real insight into what was really going on. The short version of this spaghetti history is that some form of racing culture eventually became established. We’re told that the first track race was organised in 1894 and it was 1896 before the first road race was held (both, McCurry says, were open only to Americans). In 1907 a 1,000 mile race from Osaka to Nikko was held. which took the winner five days and four hours to complete.
Curious to learn more about that race I turned to a paper Hiroyuki Kouno wrote on the history of keirin for the 11th International Cycling History Conference, held in Osaka in 2000. In that paper Kouno talks about a 1906 race from Osaka to Nikko (about 100 miles north of Tokyo) and back in which two teams each of five riders participated, supported by another 40 or so riders. (I’m guessing it must have been something like the first edition of Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891 only way, way slower than the speed managed then by Charles Terront and his pacers.) Kouno also offers alternative dates on the first races to be held in Japan and who competed in them. Cycling history, eh, who you gonna believe?
If our (western) understanding of the early history of cycling in Japan is a complete mess, there is at least general agreement on how and when keirin racing came into being in the years immediately after the Second World War. McCurry credits two men, Teisuke Kurashige and Kiyoshi Ebisawa with creating the sport. The latter was a former boxer who turned to philanthropy after the war. The former McCurry has little to say about so so don’t ask me who he was or how he got involved in this story.
“Keirin’s founding fathers met through a mutual acquaintance, but it is easy to imagine them finding one another without outside help. They shared an enthusiasm for sport and its potential to improve the lives of working class families, along with an appreciation that, at a time of post-war austerity, their vision was more likely to be realised through private enterprise than government largesse.
“Their backers would be like-minded individuals and institutions, invited to invest in plans by their newly formed business, the International Sports Company, through the purchase of lottery tickets, with proceeds going towards an international complex, to be called Leisure Land, on the Shonan coast, south of Tokyo. The leisure park would include a velodrome where visitors could bet on races, with the profits spent on reconstruction and welfare services.”
That then is the origin story: a sport that punters could bet on with a portion of the money bet going on reconstruction and welfare services. In July of 1948 a law was enacted allowing betting on keirin races – betting on horse racing was already legal at this point while exceptions were later made for two other sports, motorcycle racing and powerboat racing – and the first keirin race was held in November that year, with Kokura (part of today’s Kitakyushu) hosting the event after the whole Leisure Land idea fell through. Across four days of racing 55,000 punters gambled away ¥20 million of their income, which may or may not have been a lot of money, McCurry keeping that knowledge to himself.
Following the success of the first race in Kokura, Osaka hosted a six-day meet the following month, attended by 67,000 punters who gambled away ¥37 million of their wealth. Keirin was off to a roaring start.
How did the actual format of the race come about? McCurry buries that in a paragraph of text that starts off talking about the first female keirin riders:
“Kurashige studied and then adapted the long-standing use of pacer motorcycles that had been a feature of competitive cycling in parts of northern Europe since the turn of the century. A pacer bicycle would lead the competitors around the track for the majority of the race, giving them the opportunity to jockey for space, before leaving them to sprint a shorter distance to the finish.”
The reference to pacing originating in northern Europe at the turn of the century is a bit weird. Pacing had been a part of all racing everywhere, from the get go. McCurry’s claim may have something to do with a belief held by some that keirin has roots in Danish cycling. But the Danish origin story seems to be more to do with people betting on cycling races. Given that gambling is such an important part of the story told in War on Wheels it would have been nice had McCurry been able to contrast what was happening in Japan with what had actually happened in Europe and America in cycling’s early years. But he doesn’t.
From that simple start, with a pacer leading out a sprint, keirin has evolved into a complicated rule-bound discipline. Riders today form up into unofficial regional ‘teams’, Japan’s 47 prefectures (counties) grouped into nine regions to which riders align themselves. (McCurry initially only identifies eight regions but 170 pages later suddenly remembers the ninth.)
Within these informal regional alliances each rider has a particular role to play in the race and rules govern when each role is allowed launch its sprint. The three roles – senko, makuri and oikomo – basically break down into leadout, sprinter and blocker. Ahead of each race, each rider has to declare the role they are going to ride, with the seniority of riders in each team having an informal impact on who gets to perform which role. Written rules and unwritten norms underpin all sport but it is tempting to exoticize keirin and think it is more bound to tradition than other disciplines within cycling when that is not necessarily the case.
As well as rules governing what the riders do, keirin has strict equipment rules which, for the men, basically come down to traditional steel framed track bikes (women’s keirin is a bit more relaxed and allows carbon frames and aero wheels). It also has rules governing which riders get to ride which races and some sort of system for distributing races around the country’s 40-something velodromes.
For the men, the nine top-earning riders get to compete in an annual Grand Prix which offers a hefty purse for the winner. Every six months the 30 worst performing riders get replaced by a new cohort of riders. The 30 male riders coming up each six months come from the Japan Institute of Keirin (formerly the Japan Keirin School – insert your own polytechnic jokes here). As with other aspects of keirin it’s tempting to exoticize keirin school’s austerity but in reality it’s not much different to the many Soviet-inspired training regimes that have only in recent decades come to be replaced by more scientific methods.
All of this is run by the JKA – keirin’s governing body, a part of the country’s Ministry of Economy, Transport and Industry that today is also responsible for motorcycle racing, a recent change not covered in War on Wheels. The JKA is also responsible for dope testing within the sport. WADA stats show that in 2019 they carried out a grand total of 30 tests. That’s for a sport of 2,500 to 3,000 riders who on average compete 80 times a year. But McCurry doesn’t think doping is a problem in the sport: “Instead, keirin riders have countless hours on rollers and in the gym to thank for their enormous thighs and chiseled calves.”
There is very little crossover between Japanese keirin and international keirin, riders tend not to have feet in both camps. Quite where the JKA fits in the overall scheme of UCI-governed cycling McCurry is not clear on. Presumably it has some form of a relationship with the UCI-affiliated JCF but apart from telling us that the JCF was formed in 1901 (it wasn’t) McCurry doesn’t really talk all that much about the UCI side of things.
One major bridging point between the two worlds is Koichi Nakano, “the greatest keirin rider of all time […] Nakano set a record of eighteen consecutive wins in his first season in Japanese keirin, in 1975, and ended his career seventeen years later with more than 150 titles and prize money of more than ¥1.32 billion.” Nakano’s success in Japan was matched by his success on the international stage, where he owned the track sprint rainbow jersey for ten years in a row, 1977 through 1986. Which kind of makes Peter Sagan’s three years in the arc en ciel seem like a wet weekend in Margate.
McCurry met Nakano for War on Wheels and saves that interview until the book’s finale, which only serves to highlight the lack of personalities in the book. Imagine writing a 300-page book about the Tour de France and the only rider you really talk about is Eddy Merckx and you only do that a few dozen pages from the end.
McCurry does argue that there is a lack of personalities in the sport today and – as with so many people in cycling today – he is able to tell the JKA they don’t want to do it like that if they want to make keirin great again. His fix? Bring in foreign riders. McCurry though doesn’t offer both sides of the argument here, sees the introduction of foreign riders as only a good thing. While that might broaden the sport’s appeal outside of Japan what damage would it do to the sport at home? You only have to look at the rest of cycling to see how internationalisation is a double-edged sword, bringing audiences and wealth when you have the riders but making the sport ever more niche when you don’t. And that would play havoc with the real subject of War on Wheels: gambling. Again, though, keirin is exoticized, seen in isolation, there’s no real context for anything that happens in it.
How keirin came to be part of the wider world of cycling isn’t fully clear. The first world championship race was held in 1980 with women having to wait until 2002 before they were allowed a shot at the rainbow. Keirin’s introduction to the Olympics is more clear: the UCI were slipped a bung. That bit of bad news McCurry gets out of the way inside of a paragraph. In a book that does a lot of hand-wringing over the place of gambling in society, tossing aside serious allegationd of corruption inside of a paragraph strikes me as odd. But that’s the kind of book War on Wheels is.
The place of gambling in society is keirin’s strength and War on Wheels’ weakness. McCurry never quite finds a comfortable line between showing the problems with gambling and treating his own penny-ante bets as a bit of a lark. As depicted by McCurry keirin feels more like a night out at a down-at-heel greyhound racing track than, say, a day out at Royal Ascot. Kind of seedy and far from fashionable. A sport tolerated because it raises money for good causes, not loved because of any inherent sporting, technical, or aesthetic qualities it might have.
While keirin is a colourful sport – bright jerseys, lots of jockeying for position – War on Wheels isn’t a very colourful book and most of the time it doesn’t feel like McCurry has a clear picture of the story he wanted to tell (actually the story his publisher wanted to tell as, in the book’s acknowledgements, he says the idea was pitched to him, not the other way around) and so he wanders somewhat aimlessly through the story, often repeating the three or four firm facts he’s most comfortable with. Is keirin really a sport or is it just a lottery with wheels instead of balls, raising money for good causes while making some people uncomfortable about its social cost? McCurry can’t quite make his mind up on that one. Nor does he impart enough knowledge for readers to decide for themselves.