Behind the Scenes of Keirin, Japan’s Brakeless Bicycle Racing

The most extreme sport you’ve never heard of is KEIRIN. Competitors ride fixed-gear bicycles with no brakes around a track, pacing themselves behind a motorcycle before sprinting to the finish line to the delight of betting crowds. In October, photographer Jasper Clarke captured these speed demons during a day of training.

The sport dates back to 1948 when it was founded expressly as a betting sport in Japan. It is still one of only four sports where betting is permitted (the others being horse racing, boat racing, and Formula 1). The first official race was held at the Kokura Velodrome, and the sport has progressively grown since then. There are more competitors than in any other professional sport in Japan, and it is popular around the world. Keirin has been an Olympic event since 2000, and the races are nothing short of spectacular.

Competitors—shaped like redwood trees—ride in a paceline behind a motorcycle that steadily increases the speed with each lap until the entire field travels at 50 kilometers per hour (about 31 mph). The motorbike rips off the track around 700 meters from the finish line, and all hell breaks loose as riders dash to the finish line at speeds of up to 70 km (43 mph), inches apart. Crashes are common, and they can be frightening at times.

Because of the gambling aspect, the sport is heavily controlled in Japan. Bicyclists declare their tactics before each race so that spectators know how to wager. For example, a rider may report that he will ride Seiko, remaining in the lead but not becoming aggressive until the end. Riders’ positions often play to specific skills within the paceline, such as sprinting or blocking. Top-tier racers, who can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, may compete in as many as a dozen races per day during four-day meets, requiring tremendous stamina. Competitors are housed in dorms and denied access to the Internet or phones to prevent cheating or other shenanigans that could affect the betting.

Professional racers must obtain a license and complete a year of intensive training at a keirin school. After witnessing a video of Shane Perkins, an Australian elite track cyclist, exercising at an academy earlier this year, Clarke became captivated with the training. He was amazed by the rigorous regimens and unwavering resolve to succeed. “How many opportunities does a person get to be truly exceptional at something?” Clarke explains. “These individuals had sacrificed any semblance of normalcy for a year to achieve success in their chosen industry.”

The photographer spent a day in Shuzenji, roughly two hours south of Tokyo, at the Japan Keirin School. “Spartan” is how he characterizes life there. Students get up around 6:30 a.m. and eat a high-calorie breakfast of miso and fish that can reach 1,300 calories. After breakfast, they immediately begin intensive training, including running drills, hill climbing, lap training, and race simulations. They also participate in classes to learn about the sport’s rules, strategy, and training. It’s lights-out at 10 p.m. after a long day. “I was blown away by the pupils’ dedication, hard effort, and the fitness, strength, and resilience that resulted,” Clarke adds.

Clarke used just available light and a Nikon D3S using Zeiss manual focus lenses. Although the pupils didn’t speak English, an academy instructor and Clarke’s interpreter accompanied him everywhere, and everyone managed to exchange a few jokes. The photographer wants to return to Japan and look at the sport through the eyes of a gambler.

Clarke enjoys cycling, but solely for pleasure. He’s been riding BMX bikes since his father bought one for him in the 1980s, and he says he understands why keirin riders are so passionate about the sport. “I enjoy being on two wheels. It’s all about liberty, “he declares