Thursday, December 31, 2009

Keirin Grand Prix 2009

Happy Year of the Tiger

People have been able to bet on the outcome of cycling races in Japan since 1948. It's called "keirin", and it was first recognized as an Olympic sport in 2000 in Sydney. There are racing velodromes all over Japan, with the closest one to me being maybe 2 miles away (I can get there on my bike in 15 minutes if I take the "long way") in Chofu.

(Cover of the upcoming year race calendar.)

As mentioned in the wiki entry, there are different grades of races, from FII, FI, GI, GII GIII to GP. GP, or Grand Prix, is a 3-day competition held at the end of December. This year's GP was in the Chofu velodrome. I didn't realize how important that is in the scheme of things until I got home after the race.

The wiki also states that there are several ways to start the race, and the number of laps is based on the course length. I arrived around 1:30 PM, and race 6 had just ended. There were 10 races for the day. This is how things went. I visited the keirin museum first, and saw the various trophies and uniforms from past races and riders. Then, I went to the outdoor refreshments area at the back of the stadium and had a nice bowl of oden (it was a pleasant, clear December day, with temps around 50 degrees, and the hot oden soup complemented being outside) and a glass of beer. By this point, it was close to 2 PM and the betting for race 7 had ended.

People were gathering around the outside of the track, and I went over just in time to see race 7 itself end. Betting opened up for race 8, so I went over to the windows, and filled out a pencil card (like the kind used for exams in school, where you black in the circles with the pencil) to wager on the recommended winning line up of racers 1, 7 and 9. I handed in the card at the window along with 1000 yen ($11 USD), and received my ticket. I then found a place at the track where I could see the finish line and had a second beer. Betting closed for race 8 at about 2:20. People came out onto the track, starting with some fat guys on bikes checking the course, then the camera crew, more fat guys on bikes, the pace setter, finally the racers with their bikes, and the gong banger.

(Get yer souvenir bath towels here!)

There's a special silver box that the back tire of the bike fits into which locks the bike and holds it upright for the rider. The racers are all in a line, and the pace setter is about 30 feet ahead of them. Everyone got on their bikes, the starter fired the gun, and the bikes left the lock boxes. This was a five lap race, and the pace setter got up to 25 kpm. With each lap, the counter board counted down. With 1 lap to go, the gong banger started hitting the bell, slowly first, then getting really fast as the racers reached the finish line. At the same time, the pace setter got out of the way and the racers then sprinted the final lap to determine the winner. It was an incredibly fast race, and the cyclists probably did get up to 70 kpm at the end. Afterwards, there were 2 warm down laps and everyone disappeared into the locker rooms at the opposite side of the track. Next, the announcer and race bunnies came out, and the winner returned to get up on the podium. There were the standard "what did you think of the race" and "any thoughts for the finals tomorrow" questions, then the winner threw three plastic balls into the crowd - catching one would get you a t-shirt. I didn't win any money, or a t-shirt. Sigh.

(Oden stand.)

Since the next race wouldn't be for another 30 minutes and I had other things to do, I left after that. But, it was fun. This was day 2 of the grand prix. Admission is 50 yen (55 cents USD; 100 or 500 yen for seats in the stands). The track wasn't very crowded, and the stands were mostly empty. I expect that the real excitement was on Dec. 30 (the final day).

(Inside the museum.)

I'm hoping to go to one of the FI or FII races during the upcoming year to get a better appreciation of what's going on. The 2010 Grand Prix will be in Tachikawa, maybe 15 miles away, which is easily reachable. I can get there in 45 minutes on my bike.

Tachikawa in 2010!

The rest of the album is here.

(In the museum - previous year's advertising poster.)

The brochure artwork, and event advertising was provided by Osamu Ishiwata, whose current manga is "Odds", a keirin-based sports story. Volume 1 is now out.

(Broadcasting truck. NHK is like PBS in the U.S.)

(The screen from the fence area.)

(Lining up for the race. 9 Racers. The audience can get very abusive, so the link fence is required to protect the racers from thrown objects and angry fans. The stadium seating is visible in the background. Those seats are only at that end of the track. The opposite end has the big screen, and the opposite middle has the box seats. So, the track's really not laid out well to allow for taking good photos during the race. Then again, the race is broadcast on NHK, so you can tape it off TV if you want.)

(The pace setter.)

(The gong.)

(They're off.)

(Camera kept focusing on the fence instead of on the racers.)

(The winner approaches the fans after the race. Look at those legs.)

(The post-race interview.)

(Advertising for the track, "Keirin Town".)

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