Professional keirin racing in Japan is big business and a Kiwi is riding in it for the first time, writes Michael Brown.

Simon Van Velthooven has it written into his contract that the only time keirin racing is cancelled is when rocks are thrown on to the track or a typhoon strikes.

Typically, about three typhoons hit Japan between May and October each year. They are relatively slow moving phenomena whose path can be predicted quite accurately.

Rock throwing, though, is less predictable.


Van Velthooven hasn't experienced either, yet, although considerable abuse and angry ticket waving was directed his way recently when he didn't live up to expectations as pre-race favourite. If Van Velthooven was disappointed in his performance, it paled in comparison to punters who piled millions of yen on him to win.

Professional keirin racing in Japan is big business. More than 1.5 trillion yen ($22 billion) was gambled on the sport in Japan last year - a figure that dwarfs the $1.5 billion placed with the New Zealand TAB last year.

Three television channels are dedicated to the sport, newspapers are filled with the latest information and 60 million people attend races annually. There are even keirin schools, where aspiring young riders undergo a strict training regimen for 15 hours a day.

"It's all very, very alien," Van Velthooven admits, drawing a parallel with sumo wrestling and its ancient rules and practices. "But it's very cool."

For keirin riders, racing professionally in Japan is the equivalent of competing at the Tour de France. It is the pinnacle.

Van Velthooven recently became the first Kiwi to race the Japanese circuit. The 21-year-old was invited to apply for a racing licence after scouts saw him race last year at world championship and world cup level and he is now one of 10 internationals sanctioned to compete on the tour.

Also on the tour are Dutchman Teun Mulder, a former keirin world champion who holds the world record for the kilo time trial set at sea level, and Australia's Shane Perkins, who claimed silver in the individual sprint at this year's world championships.

Professional keirin racing began as a betting sport in Japan in 1948 and little has changed since a uniform standard of rules were introduced to govern the sport in 1957.

The bikes are virtually the same as they were back in the 1960s - heavy steel contraptions with only one gear - and riders are decked out in different colours much like horseracing. When the racing gets under way, the nine riders jockey for positions behind a motorcyclist who sets the pace before veering off the track and letting the sprinters charge to the line.

The racing can be exciting. It can also be brutal.

Crashes are common and often spectacular and there are riders employed solely to protect a senko - leadout rider - by any means possible until it is their turn to attack.

It's why the riders all lather their legs in baby oil to help them slide across the track when they fall and also race in clothing that makes them look like puffed-up superheroes. It's somewhat comical to the uninitiated but entirely necessary.

"It's like you're going out to war, with your armour and helmet on," Van Velthooven explains. "It's more padding than what a motorcross rider wears.

"Every joint on your upper body is protected by a big, thick piece of plastic. Every single bone that sticks out is protected.

"You need to wear it because crashes happen so often. I try not to think about that side of it. But when these guys take off their armour, you can see how many crashes they have been in. There are scars all over them."

The rewards, though, make it all worthwhile. The astronomical level of interest means riders are well compensated and a rider can earn more than $100,000 at a three-day meeting. Last year the top Japanese rider, Keita Ebine, earned 225 million yen ($3.4 million), including 100 million yen for taking out the Grand Prix.

"If he races well, Simon can become a very wealthy young man," BikeNZ high performance director Mark Elliott says. "If he won the majority of races, he could come back with US$250,000.

"But it will also provide a year of racing experience we couldn't provide for him in New Zealand. He will be racing against the world's best and set himself up for opportunities heading into London [in 2012]."

Van Velthooven is part of an exciting posse of young New Zealand sprinters making a significant impression on the world scene.

Changes to the Olympic programme, which has seen a move away from a focus on endurance events to sprint ones, mean BikeNZ have had to change some of their priorities.

But their sprint programme is well ahead of where they expected it to be and there's a good chance sprinters will pick up medals not only at this year's Commonwealth Games but also the London Olympics. New Zealand has never won a medal in a sprint event at Olympic level.

Keirin riders go into lockdown three days before a race. They move into fairly spartan headquarters where they must hand over any means of contact with the outside world, including mobile phones and laptops.

It is all done because of the massive betting industry and the fear of collusion and corruption.

Odds are offered on any finishing position, including last, and it wouldn't be difficult for a rider to agree to finish at the tail of the field to ensure a payout.

Punters, however, are given some information to help. Each rider declares on the eve of the race what position they will adopt - senko (leadout; must attack 400m before the finish), makuri (second, sometimes third wheel; must not attack before 300m) and oikona (third, sometimes fourth wheel; must not attack before 150m) - and how they are feeling. It all helps the form guide.

"This is locked in with the newspapers and TVs and then there is nothing that can be done to change it," says Van Velthooven, who has already been nicknamed The Rhino because he's that much bigger than his opponents. "Tactics and gear selection go out to all the bookies and then people start to bet according to that information.

"There is pressure to perform every day. Every race we do it 100 per cent full-on. We don't get that in New Zealand, maybe two or three times a year, but over here it's two or three times a month.

"We are definitely objects. The Japanese riders are a bit like horses. They want to beat the internationals so the money goes to a local rider but they respect us because we are helping to put more money into the pockets with higher purses at each race."

The money is one of the reasons hundreds of young riders aged 18-22 apply to go to keirin school each year. The school typically accepts only 10 per cent of applicants and the successful ones undergo an intensive 10-month programme to learn the rules, etiquette and skills required to race professionally.

The school is located on the outskirts of Shuzenji, about an hour south of Tokyo, and 7km up a steep mountain. It's also where Van Velthooven lives, although he isn't subjected to the intensive regime.

"It's just like sumo camp," Van Velthooven says. "All these teenagers are running around getting harassed by their teachers and learning the ways of the keirin riders.

"The school is a nice place but it would have been much nicer back in the '80s and '90s. There hasn't been much doing-up around the place at all - although you could eat off any surface [it's that clean]. But it has everything I need - there are four tracks to train on and two gyms.

"The international riders did it for 10 days because we need a licence to compete. What we learned was good for rules and regulations but it didn't prepare us for the real thing."

Despite the school pumping out 150 young keirin riders each year, most riders are in their thirties. There are 4000 registered riders in Japan and it's not uncommon for someone to compete into his fifties. The oldest racer ever, Uemura San, was 60 when he retired from the track.

The top riders become national heroes but are little known outside Japan. But because of the Japanese tradition and influence, keirin was added to the international track programme in 1980 and as an Olympic discipline in 2000.

Van Velthooven has signed up to the Japanese circuit for two years and already wants to extend it because of the financial rewards. But there is nowhere better for him to learn his craft.

The money is good, but an Olympic medal would be even better.