Peloton Watch
  Katy Marchant Blog: Keirin racing in Japan - Experience of a lifetime  
  October 12th By Katy Marchant  
  Katy Marchant and fellow international riders Kristina Vogel, Wai Sze Lee and Monique Sullivan.  
  So I'm two weeks in to what is turning out to be the experience of a lifetime. Obviously the Olympics were the pinnacle but this is something very different, something that could not be missed. After four weeks of downtime post Olympics, celebrations and all, I arrived in Japan on 22nd September and spent a week in Izushi at the keirin school. Yes back to school it was for me. It's only been 8 years :)

Keirin in Japan in a gambling sport so we had a lot to learn.

We did a mixture of lessons throughout the week, lectures on the rules and regulations, the laws of keirin, about the fairness and safety at races and bike maintenance practical classes. We then sat an exam at the end of the week and only when you pass are you granted a keirin licence to race.

Things are very different here and the rules and regulations are not like those on the international circuit but it was really interesting to see how differently keirin can be ridden and how it works in Japan. We were told about the structure of races, fines we would pay for dangerous riding, the starting protocol for each race and not forgetting, how its prohibited to take mobile phones, laptops or anything that would enable you to contact any outsiders into the racing velodrome (I'll get back to that bit later).

I had a week of free time in between finishing school and my first race so I used that time to get a little bit of training in. The school is set up on a mountain in Shuzenji and whilst its very picturesque and beautiful, it also means there is a 10km climb to get there and when your a sprinter after 4 weeks off the bike, this isn't something I'm going to enjoy. But it's going okay and I'd like to say it's getting a little easier. The upside is, after a double day of training you can free wheel home no bother.

We also went to see a little bit of Japan. We went to Kamakura for the day, dressed in kimonos, visited the great Buddha and did lots more touristy things. It was a lot of fun but it was also 33degrees and for those who have ever worn a Japanese kimono would know that it makes a better winter outfit than it does a summer. Besides that a good day was had by all and it was nice to get out and see Japan. I've also been to Tokyo and shopped until I dropped...quite literally.

My first race was coming quick and it was in a little village called Yahiko. It was a few train rides and a night in a hotel before we arrived on the Saturday morning for Zenken day.

Keirin is a professional sport in Japan so it's etiquette to arrive to the races dressed smartly in business attire. Very different to arriving in your team tracksuit but it was a good realization that we were in fact professional keirin riders.

Zenken day is like 'pre race day' just a day to get everything checked and get yourself settled for the racing the following few days. When we had arrived the first thing we had to do was switch off our mobile phones and any other electronics and go hand them into to the venue reception. (Yes I wasn't looking forward to that one bit but it's all part of being a pro hey) then we went and dropped our bags in a girls only common room. They are very strict here in Japan about mixing girls and boys so they assign certain areas to either male or female. Red writing for women blue writing for men, this is key if you can't read Japanese like me. The common room was very nice, we each had our own little area and there was showers, toilets, washing machines, everything we needed. We were given a schedule when we arrived for each day with allocated food times and bath times. Again this is to assure that men and women don't cross.

We then had to go build up our bikes and take them to be examined. Bicycle examinations were very precise to ensure that our bikes were fit for racing. One tiny mechanical problem could affect the whole race and have a major impact on the betting so it was very important that they made sure all our bikes were the same to make it a fair playing field. Then we had to attend a health check, this was also very important because all riders need to be 100% to take part. It was just the standard blood pressure heart check and temperature monitor.

Mid afternoon was designated training time; we were allowed 20 minutes to do something of our choice. The best thing to do was to go on the track have a ride around and get some fresh air. With only 20 minutes it was just about enough time to warm up and have a hit out. All of the tracks are outdoors and vary in size, 333m 400m or 500m. Yahiko was a 400m track. They are also made out of a special surface because in Japan, you race hail, rain or shine. Again something we are not overly familiar with in the UK.

The rest of the day was basically free time. We were advised to take some books, DVDs, anything to occupy our free time. I managed to get through 2 full series of Orange is the new black (which I highly recommend), Davina Mccalls autobiography and a whole mini sudoku book. Funny what you can get done without the distraction of your mobile phone. Oh and you also have to declare your race gear that day, which is a little bit different to usual as normally it's top secret. The maximum gear you can ride is 102 or in Japanese terms 3.79, which is quite small for a rider like myself.

At 6:30 on race day we were woken by an alarm, up for breakfast and away we go. We had to arrive at the velodrome at 8am, which was just 5 minutes down the road to be ready for morning practice at 8.20am. Again this was just 20 minutes so something similar to the following day on the track was a good activation for the race in the afternoon.

Just one race a day, which calls for a lot of hanging about. You can only warm up on the race gear you declared and there are about 20 sets of rollers that need to be shared around. I just went for a standard roller warm up with some short accelerations and a longer acceleration 15 minutes later to prepare for the race. It's quite strange not having a coach to tell you what to do but it's also quite nice to be independent and have to make your own choices. For me, being so new to cycling, this is not something I have ever had to do.

There is a race every half an hour and 45 minutes before your start time you have to declare to a 'call room' and from then on you cannot touch or ride your bike. You are assigned a number for each rave and that number is a colour. That is the jersey and hat cover you wear for that race. This is so that the gamblers can tell who is who, they are given a sheet with lots of figures on and also informed what gear each rider is riding and how they intend to ride the race.

The press were very interested in the international riders and we were interviewed a lot whilst at the races. The Japanese girls are really good at blocking you and making things difficult so it's important to stay on the ball and race tactically well. Straight after the race before yours, you have to ride a presentation lap. This is so the gamblers can have a good look and put on their bets. There is all sorts of shouting and cheering and it was strange to hear my name being called whilst rolling around.

Then it's back to the call room for the final 30 minute countdown. Although it's a very different situation from what we are used to my first race went really well. I came away with a win and my legs actually felt really good. After 15 mins on the rollers and a couple of press interviews it was back to the dormitories for shower, dinner and bed.

Then day two starts and the exact same thing happens again. I won my 2nd race and again was feeling very good. Day three is relatively similar, the race just starts a little bit later. But after the same sort of set up and warming up it was race time. I came away with a 2nd place in the final to Hong Kong's Sarah Lee. I rode Senko in the final, which means to go long as soon as the pacer leaves the race. My legs were feeling good but maybe not quite good enough to sit on the front for 500m in the wind and she just pipped me on the line.

The prize money is Japan is very good so a 2nd place means more days shopping in Tokyo! :) Woop Woop.

All in all my first experience racing as a professional in Japan was awesome, although I was pleased to get my phone back and let everyone know how it was. How do you catch up on 4 days no contact? Thank god for facetime!!!

Anyway, I'm really looking forward to my next race in three days time.
 © 2016