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Speed Demons

Notorious for its gruelling training and its high-speed races, Japanese Keirin racing has captured the imagination of cyclists and enthusiasts worldwide. 2016 Olympic silver medalist Matthijs Büchli and photojournalist Jasper Clarke illuminate a world defined by seclusion, discipline and hope.

In Japan you could be an office body one minute, and then have gotten into the academy and be racing six days a week.

Jasper Clarke
black and white image of cyclists keirin

Chasing Thrills

The Japanese Keirin races are more than just a speed test- they are a battle of will and strategy. Riding in the hopes of a long and lucrative career, athletes jostle for a place amongst the elite few. Perched on a regulation steel frame, cyclists are pitted against one another in a dangerous lap race that’s over in the blink of an eye. Originally engineered around the theatrics of gambling, detailed rider profiles and planned tactics are printed in newspapers the evening before the race, prompting fans to place their bets ahead of schedule. In more recent years, with its inclusion in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. the once illicit undertones of Keirin have undergone a subtle social cleansing. With its admittance into the roster, the Olympics has raised this once taboo sport out of its ignominious beginning and re-positioned itself as a spectator sport in its own right. 

The Training Ground

Shrouded in mysterious whispers of punishing training schools, Keirin’s model of isolated and intensive training regimes set it apart from international sports. Although the Japanese races are televised throughout the country, little is known about what goes on in the sport’s closely-guarded training camps. Attracting riders from all walks of life, Keirin riders relinquish their careers, leave their families, and commit to a year-long training regime before they are even permitted to set foot inside the velodrome.

Ensuring that riders are competition-ready demands a gruelling athletic regime that pushes both body and spirit to the extreme. Most Keirin riders undergo a relentless passage of endurance training calculated to bring both body and mind into a competition ready state. A typical day for a Keirin rider starts with a 6a.m. wake-up call, followed by an hour of running drills. Upon completion, the cyclists mount their bike for an hour of steep 14 degree hill climbs that build and challenge their body’s endurance and power. To further condition their body, riders are subject to two hours of lap training before lunch. Typically this would be followed with a ‘science’ class in the afternoon, where the riders absorb the ins-and-outs of cycling theory and racing rules essential for mastering for their debut.

Office Body One Minute, Competitive Rider the Next

For many who pass through the doors of the academy, Keirin racing offers an escape fromthe tedium and mechanical mundanity of he average ‘salary-man’. As this is a sport endorsed by the government, there is great emphasis on high moral standards and impeccable reputations. Riders are trained to be good citizens and representatives of the sport. With the possibility of a professional career, riders readily surrender themselves to the school’s regulations.

Alot rests on the riders ability to surmount the relentless onslaught of physical and mental challenges. After all, it is an opportunity that blazes bright but short- many racers are only guaranteed a single racing season. Even rarer, are the few that continue racing into their 50’s. For many, Keirin racing is a remarkably competitive sport where the difference between victory and defeat can be the difference of milliseconds, but that in itself, is part of the thrill.

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Matthijs Büchli

Matthijs Büchli is a Dutch track cyclist. He won a bronze medal in the keirin at the 2013 UCI Track Cycling World Championships and won a 2012–2013 UCI Track Cycling World Cup Classics keirin race. In 2016 Büchli won the Silver Medal at the Men’s keirin at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Jasper Clarke

Jasper Clarke is an award winning photographer based in London, working mainly in portraiture, documentary and advertising. Documenting the people and places he sees with a remarkable curiosity he has been exhibited in the British National Portrait Gallery and has worked with clients including; Paul Smith, Converse, Reebok, Adidas, Puma. Visit his site here for more information.

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