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Ben Kersten

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Welcome to Alcatraz

Cycling News
August 08, 2007, 1:00 BST,
April 22, 2009, 20:17 BST

Japanese Keirin is a world unto its own. There are about 4000 Professional Keirin riders throughout...

July 2, 2007

Japanese Keirin is a world unto its own. There are about 4000 Professional Keirin riders throughout Japan and 50 velodromes that are permitted to host Keirin Tournaments. Each velodrome is allowed to run a maximum of two tournaments per month, which tallies up to approximately 1200 tournaments held throughout Japan per annum.

To keep one's licence each registered Keirin rider must compete in at least two Tournaments per month with a maximum of three per month. Each race you are given points which are added and divided by your races to give you an average score. Every six months your average is taken and if it falls below a set limit three times in your whole career, you are suspended for life. Sayonara.

A Keirin Tournament typically runs for three days with 11 races per day, therefore a typical race has 99 Keirin riders competing in it. Each rider's Tournament locations are allocated to him by the Keirin association. This spreads the riders evenly throughout the county eliminating the possibility of all the best turning up to the same race and vice versa.

The day before a Keirin Tournament begins all the riders must arrive at the Velodrome before a set time, usually 1pm; this is called 'Zenken'. The organisers of each Keirin reimburse all the cyclists for their travel costs, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.


1) In Zenken your bicycle (jitensha) is submitted to a long series of testing in what can only be described as a Japanese motor industry production line.

There's a man for every part of the 'jitensha'. Each tests his own allocated bolt with a torque wrench and moves the jitensha along down the line. They look at scratches with magnifying lenses and study each tyre with a space telescope for five minutes. Eventually they strap your bike in the Incredible Hulk machine and try and break it, if it doesn't break, it gets a sticker.

2) Next you take your shoes and helmet for similar testing, if they are all ok you get a number.

3) You then go to the infirmary with your number to see the nurses. They take your blood pressure and heart rate. If you're not about to die you get shuffled along to the doctor to check your respiratory system. If you don't have the black lung, your all go. Simple....

All phones and electronic items that can access the internet are handed in. Even electronic items that can't do this but look suspicious or advanced are also taken. This is to stop any contact with the outside world in attempts to eradicate all illicit gambling. Keirin riders are a lot like horses when it comes to gambling, only horses can't talk...

You are not searched but if you are found to have one of these items you will be suspended for two years.

The maximum penalty for illicit racing or accepting a bribe in Japan carries a three year prison sentence..

You are now in Alcatraz, I mean a Keirin Tournament: Most velodromes have dormitories attached so once you're within the walls of the track for Zenken there is no contact with anyone from the outside world. The walls of the track are high and the windows of your rooms are often fogged glass so you can't see out.

Some of the dorms aren't located at the track, so two special busses are needed. They load up with the riders behind the walls only once each day. The gates open and it's no stops to the dormitory. The dorms are owned and operated by the Japanese Keirin and are only for this purpose, high gates and walls surround them also.

The problem with some dorms not being at the track is the bus schedule. As I said it's not a very flexible form of transport. It goes when it goes, that happens to be the first thing in the morning so the riders with the earlier races can get there in time, that is about 9 am. We race at four or 5pm..

That's a lot of waiting and that is done in the waiting room...

Make yourself comfortable.

Shikaku and Karaoke

Cycling News
August 08, 2007, 1:00 BST,
April 21, 2009, 11:57 BST

SHIKAKU: you don't want to get one of these. In part three of my diary I mentioned some Japanese...

July 12, 2007

SHIKAKU: you don't want to get one of these.

In part three of my diary I mentioned some Japanese Keirin penalties:

SHIKAKU: you don't want to get one of these. say goodbye to all your money and any further advancements in the competition.

JUUSHU: serious warning and a fine.

SOOCHU: small fine.

SHIKAKU. I can't believe I got one of these.

I actually raced Kumamoto Keirin a week before my last diary entry "Welcome to Alcatraz". However thanks to me receiving a "SHIKAKU", I felt it might be more beneficially for someone to read about the inner workings of the Keirin Tournament rather than a night in a Karaoke Bar.

In my last entry I touched on the similarities between a Keirin Tournament and prison. Well, I wasn't actually complaining. I much preferred being locked in the Keirin than locked out.

In Keirin School and at the place where my journal begins, we crammed a normal Keirin Riders year-long education into a handful of lessons. In one of those lessons I specifically noted the following rule. "When a rider is forced from the sprinters line to the inside of the track with physical force, he is allowed to continue underneath the sprinters line to regain his position."

On day two in Kumamoto I was waiting on the front of the bunch for a line of two riders that were coming, so that they could pass over and in front of me and I could get a wind break. As they got to me they instead broke rapidly and pushed me down inside the track. I was heading backwards to attempt a run around the outside when I remember our drivers ed. course at Keirin School. A bright idea I thought so off I went full steam 450m before the finish line. I opened up quite a margin and won easily while slowing before the line. I felt like I was finally getting into my groove.

In Keirin they have a little tradition. Every rider that wins no matter what race they are in, are to buy 9 energy drinks (Pocari Sweat) and offer them to the riders he defeated as a gesture. Since the winner is still rolling on the inside of the track and unable to buy the Pocari Sweat, his friends or handlers buy the drinks for him before he returns.

As I rode into the pits I saw my handlers had forgotten to buy my Pocari Sweat. Filled with adrenalin I raced off to get some and immediately handed them out. Totally unable to understand body language or compute awkward stares with such a high heart rate.

It seems everyone was expecting a decision from the judges about my submarine dive.

And right they were - SHIKAKU.

"Can I please have that drink back, sorry"

I met with the judges afterwards and they were extremely apologetic and totally understood my manoeuvre. It is a legal move but I waited a split second to long to decide to take the lead back and breaking that rule is punishable by a Shikaku.

Before hand I was under the understanding that I couldn't race the next day and didn't receive any money for this punishment. It get's worse.

(Keirin men) "Pack your things"

(Me) "eh?"

(Keirin men) "Pack your things please"

(Me) "eh??"

(Keirin men) "You're not allowed in the Velodrome or the Dormitory after a Shikaku"

(Me) "Eh???"

(Keirin men) "Taxi is waiting"

(Me) "EH!!??"

(Keirin men) "Sorry"

(Me) "Where do I sleep?"

(Keirin men) "We booked you hotel, you have to pay for it" "Sorry".

(Me) "AH Shikaku"

(Keirin men) "Sorry"

Sitting alone and destitute in my hotel room didn't sit to well. I decided to give myself a Japanese lesson. I hailed a taxi (who didn't speak English) and got him to take me to the busiest street. From there I asked people for a popular bar (in Japanese). The bar was empty (Japanese maybe not so good). I quickly made friends with the bar staff and we all hung out for half an hour or so before I was making them Australian Cocktails from behind the bar (Japanese getting better). Two of the guys decided I was better company so they left work and we all went to a Karaoke Bar that you could only navigate toward if you were a local.

Not a nice result for my third race, fortunately I now have a few fond memories of Japan and I can sing a little better.

Many train rides

How to dismantle an atomic bomb

Cycling News
June 27, 2007, 1:00 BST,
April 22, 2009, 20:17 BST

Hmmm... I think I ended my last entry with, and I quote "I do know that I'm here to win so I guess I...

June 27, 2007

Hmmm... I think I ended my last entry with, and I quote "I do know that I'm here to win so I guess I will keep taking some chances, and... learning more lessons."

I am now in-between my last race (Hiroshima) and my next (Kumamoto). I have been lamenting over my shameful defeat in Hiroshima for the past three days. I should have simply followed my instinct and raced with chance as previously suggested to myself. Taking the safe option surely makes more sense right? Yes, normally...

Japan has some really unbelievable Keirin riders. For 50 years they've slowly created and mastered their own unique race. It is barely recognisable [compared] to the UCI (International Cycling Union) Keirin. For this reason you see UCI World Champions such as Theo Bos, Mickael Bourgain Craig MacLean, Stefan Nimke and Teun Mulder not always winning over here against guys who never leave Japan.

There are a few top riders here in Japan whom have amassed some $8-10 Million US Dollars each in their careers. Although one would seem to think this is enough proof of their ability, they are still a little insecure when it comes to the public's perception of international success as a comparison.

One of these successful chaps is Shinichi Gokan. He is one of the top five big guns here who savour the opportunity to take on the Internationals, and possibly show Japan that he could be a World Champion if he left the spoils of the Japanese Keirin and focused on the International style and training needed.

After winning my race the first day in a difficult and messy Karate battle, I progressed to the semi-final the following day with Gokan. [Watch a video of this heat - Ben is the rider in red. Note: these Japanese race videos require Windows Media Player V.10, but definitely worth the effort, and turn up the volume; they're mad. Ed]

As I described in my last entry, I had been having a hard time trusting my following riders' (Makuri) ability to stay behind me and then in turn protect me after a long sprint. After talking with Gokan (in fact a pretty nice guy) I decided that this would not be a problem and that I would ride in front of him (Senko). In the semi final the top three progress to the final, so I was ok with playing it safe on the front for Gokan while he was taking up the rear and in turn assuring me a top three place for the final.

How to dismantle an atomic Bomb (step one): A rider of Gokans' class surely knows how to win by a little margin and protect a rider in front. In fact he also knows how to win by just a little more and bring two others around, removing my chances of [making] a Grand Final and meeting my International mates in the final. [Watch a video of this round - Ben is the "sitting duck" in orange. Ed]

I had total trust in the situation and forgot to ride my own race on the front. If that was the case I would have ridden a little higher and gone a little later and easily made the top three.

How to dismantle an atomic Bomb (step two): Before even rolling from the track Gokan had officially nominated his tactic for the next day. He would ride Makuri behind Polish International power house Damian Zielinski, separating him from his usual final berth Makuri: the crazy and unpredictable fast finishing Spaniard, Jose Antonio Escuredo. This is unheard of. The only weapon at the disposal of the International riders is hopefully meeting each other in a final and riding the combination of Senko Makuri together.

How to dismantle an atomic Bomb (step three): In two swift and cunning moves, Gokan had gone from the possibility of drag racing three Internationals to a cozy arm chair ride behind only one. The whole field was now riding with that only situation in mind, and this is what we had figured out would happen. Instead of a long hard sprint as Zielinski would normally do, he waited, so did the field and up the front, so did Jose. Now being stuck at the back following Zielinski it was too late for Gokan to do anything and as Zeilinski darted around the outside Gokan was left on the inside. Amazingly Zeilinkski timed it perfectly claiming his first victory in a Major Final here.

In my Final it was more of the same, A bit of wasted energy Karate fighting and another second place.

I'm still learning and adapting to the Japanese Keirin.

Next time: Not as much Karate fighting and no trusting.

A replica A-bomb

Senko, Makuri and Oikomi

Cycling News
June 25, 2007, 1:00 BST,
April 22, 2009, 20:17 BST

I have just returned from my first race in Hiroshima. How any city has the ability to start again...

June 26, 2007

I have just returned from my first race in Hiroshima.

How any city has the ability to start again from scratch like they have done I truly do not know. It is a strong reminder why we should abolish all nuclear weapons.

On another not so monumental note, please take a look at the title of this entry - Senko, Makuri, Oikomi. These three words have haunted my long train ride back to Shizuoka. These are the names of three positions and they are the foundation of every Japanese Keirin.

Senko (Lead out man), must attack 800m - 400m before the finish.

Makuri (2nd sometimes also 3rd wheel), must not attack any earlier than about 300m before the finish.

Oikomi (3rd sometimes also 4th wheel), must not attack any earlier than about 150m before the finish.

A Japanese Keirin has nine riders in it versus the International rule of six. In ideal terms the punters and the association wish to see the riders form three opposing lines of three for each race. Usually riders from the same area organise themselves as to what position they will take depending on their strengths. If you don't have any other local riders in your heat you organise with people you know who want to ride in a position you don't. If you don't know anyone, for example us the Internationals, you just have to get whoever puts their hand up. You will begin to see the problems for us with this.

One Keirin goes for three days. Every day is like a small final with pretty good money, but also acts as a qualification to advance further towards the big final. Everybody continues throughout the three days, some downward toward smaller finals, some upward towards the big final.

The night before every race day you must nominate what gear you will ride and nominate what tactic: yes, my favourite words, Senko, Makuri or Oikomi. This is locked in with the newspapers and then and there is NOTHING that can be done to change it. Tactics and gear selection go out to all the bookies and then the people start to bet according to that information.

Now, the idea of riding Senko (must attack 800m - 400m before the finish) and committing yourself on the front of eight good Keirin riders for so long seems absurd to say the least, but here's where the positions come into it. If you're riding Senko, the guy who has nominated to go behind you (Makuri), will protect you by physical force against anyone who wants to pass. In turn the rider behind him (Oikomi) will do the same for him. They will protect you until it's their time to try and win and then it's only you versus your own formation of three rather than the whole nine.

This makes the betting process more calculated. They don't like to see solo kamikazes breaking up pre-organised formations. When you have good riders in your formation this is the only way you stand a chance against eight others. Unfortunately, in Hiroshima I had some creepers in my formations and ended up riding away from my protection every race.

This left me on the front trying to ride against the other formations for the whole last lap. I was lucky enough (and I guess a little strong enough) to hold them off during the first and second days, coming second both days and advancing to the big final.

The other Internationals in my group - Jose Antonio Escuredo and Damian Zielinski were very unlucky and missed any further progression. Jose was carrying a torn quadriceps and Damian crashed while winning. Meeting another International in the final is what you dream about, because being alone is very... lonely.

With the disappointment of my Makuri and Oikomi riders not being able to keep up with me in the previous two days, I decided to go Makuri myself but with no nominated Senko. This meant I had no one to follow but was leaving it all until the last half lap. I was fed up with second place and had to take a chance to win. The Japanese are masters at this and saw straight through me. As soon as I made my move with 300m to go, so did the seven in front. I rode the last lap all the way around the fence stuck on the hip of the same seven, finishing... 8th.

I wasn't happy with second and took a chance to try and win.

Is the lesson to be happy with second? Or not to take a chance? I don't know.

I do know that I'm here to win, so I guess I will keep taking some chances, and learning more lessons.

The 250m velodrome

Living with the Gods

Cycling News
June 09, 2007, 1:00 BST,
April 22, 2009, 20:17 BST

It's no wonder Keirin riders in Japan live like Gods, they begin their formidable steps to fame...

June 10, 2007

It's no wonder Keirin riders in Japan live like Gods, they begin their formidable steps to fame living on a mountain peak. Keirin School in Izu-shi, Shizuoka-ken is literally based at the highest point in Shizuoka, well at least between here and Mount Fuji. I know this because we can see the legendary landmark simply by looking straight across the horizon (Beautiful).

Keirin School has 3 superbly conditioned outdoor tracks solely for the purpose of learning (a 400m, a 333m, and a 250m). With a little artistic interpretation if I described these tracks by asking you to imagine 3 cloud rings nesting on the tips of three snow-capped mountains. Then go one step further and replace each of these cloud rings with these 3 different Velodromes looping around the tops of each, you wouldn't be too far from the truth.

Japanese Keirin riders have a bit of a reputation for being a tad lazy, now I know why… If you want to go for a road ride here you must first descend 10km of hairy twists and turns before you can go for a spin. Oh yeah, and how to get home? 10kms while doing your best impression of a mountain goat will get you there. So far I've ridden 100km down hill, 100kms on the flat and a 100km up hill, a strange group of figures for some training rides.

During Keirin School and a little while following it, the local 'professionals' come and stay at our accommodation, or if they live close, drive here each day. During this time we participate in a series of real races. Well, everything is real except for prize money. After every race we go back inside the barracks and the officials play us back the race on video. They show us what will happen in a real race if you do this move, or that move and so on. It's very strict and there are three forms of punishment given out. Every race it is not uncommon for 2 or 3 of these various punishments to be dealt out.

  1. SHIKAKU: You don't want to get one of these… Say goodbye to all your money and any further advancement in the competition.
  2. JUCHU: This is a serious warning and you don't want to be getting one of these either. It is a fine and a percentage loss of your prize money. However, it may be worth the risk to possibly receive one of these in trying to win.
  3. SOCHU: From what I can figure out, this one is given out for breathing, a small fine = $50.

Because gambling is the biggest reason Keirin is so popular in Japan, the punters call the shots. They don't think that just because you're doing 75km/h, in lycra, on a banked track, in a group, and it rains, that you shouldn't race. To make the ludicrous seem a little less so, they have come up with a world only design: the track is sprayed with a very fine sand paper making it pretty normal and safe on the banking in the rain.

That's one problem solved, now what does it feel like to skid across sand paper on your bum at 75km/h? Oh who cares, as long as you can still get a bet on.

Crashing in Japanese Keirin is scarily about 1 in 3. Due to this and the sand paper surface, Keirin riders have taken it upon themselves to wear more protection than the average bear.

Their race suits, unlike our traditional track ones, better resemble that of a downhill mountain biker or motocross rider. Plates for the spine, arms and shoulders, Carbon knuckled gloves and massive helmets are the necessities here.

Mt. Fuji

The land that time forgot

Cycling News
June 08, 2007, 1:00 BST,
April 22, 2009, 20:17 BST

Where do I begin… I’m actually 7 days or so into the International Keirin school. I say 'or so'...

June 7, 2007

Where do I begin… I’m actually 7 days or so into the International Keirin school. I say 'or so' because I don’t actually know what day it is. Internet and telephones are a thing of the past for us, or perhaps a thing of the future in Keirin School.

It is a bit of an oxymoron being in the country that has made a name for itself by mastering such devices and to then to be reverting to letter writing and sending carrier pigeons.

This is in fact the first time I have had to write a letter (albeit 11pm at night), including the last weeks I had in Australia. These weeks before arriving were completely tumultuous. Most of this disruption is funnily enough for the same reason that I have neither phone nor computer now.

You see, Japanese Keirin has many rules and regulations (so many in fact that it takes a Japanese Keirin student one whole year of army/boot camp/university to learn them all). I won’t go too in-depth but for the purpose of this topic I will elaborate on the Bicycle rules.

Basically, go back in time 20 years. Whatever bicycles they had then is what they use now and is all that is allowed. For the local circuit this is not a problem, as all these parts are of course easily accessible and used and sold daily in 'the land that time forgot'. In all my wisdom I do see how bicycle evolution has bypassed the Japanese Keirin. Because of the gambling involved, there must be total equality and consistency for each Keirin racer. There is no flexibility on these rules, nor has there been for some time, hence prehistoric bicycles for everyone.

Now getting back to why I was so busy to write this. You can imagine the difficulties involved in finding the parts required to participate in Japan. Considering that in Australia, selling last year's brand new equipment is like trying to flog off some Cuban Cigars to the late JFK. The first step was to order from Look France a steel bike, since all carbon fibre is banned.

Look does not make nor sell steel anymore so they specially made Mickael Bourgain from France and me some bikes, being their only sponsored riders here. The rest of the equipment needed has been hurriedly outsourced from sponsors, people's basements and once here in Japan. Mix this in with the usual working Visa problems and leaving overseas for a long time issues, I was needless to say pretty happy to just get here.

Ben Kersten

Ben Kersten is one of the world's finest and fastest track cyclists. The Australian is reigning Commonwealth Games gold medallist in the kilo, Australian champion in the sprint, kilo and keirin, and the Australian male track cyclist of the year. This year he is one of the international riders invited to Japan to attend the International Japanese Keirin school. Follow Benny K on his journey as he learns the techniques, rules and traditions that make up Japanese keirin racing in this unique diary from 'the land that time forgot'. You can also check out Benny's own website and he is also a strong supporter of the the Illawarra Institute of Sport, from his home town of Wollongong, just south of Sydney in NSW, Australia.