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Tokyo Olympics: What is the Keirin?

The pacer starts the men's keirin at the Olympic Games in Rio
The pacer starts the men's keirin at the Olympic Games in Rio (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The best-known track cycling event in Japan is the Keirin, which returns to its origins at the Tokyo Olympics with the world's best sprinters going head-to-head in this fast, exciting and often dangerous event.

The Keirin starts with riders being held by helpers and taking off from a standstill. However, the Keirin uses a pacer on an electric motorbike to bring the pack of six or fewer opponents up to speed. Before the start, riders draw lots to see where they will be positioned behind the pacer and, after take-off, they must settle into that order as the race begins.

The riders sit in a line behind the pacer for three laps, being brought gradually up to 50kph. They must remain behind the pacer until it leaves the track, then all bets are off and riders use a combination of strategy, positioning and strength to be the first across the finish line after another three laps.

In Japan, the sport is hugely popular for betting purposes and events are attended by millions of fans and bets tally into the billions of yen. Japanese Keirin riders attend specific schools for training before racing as professionals.

History

Emma Heinz (Germany) rides to the world title in the keirin in 2020

Emma Heinz (Germany) rides to the world title in the Keirin in 2020 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The Keirin made its debut in the Olympics in Sydney in 2000, 20 years after being added to the UCI Track World Championships as an event. Florian Rousseau (France) was the first gold medalist, while the British have won the last three gold medals – with Chris Hoy in Beijing and London and Jason Kenny in Rio.

The women's event was added in 2012, with Victoria Pendleton claiming the gold in London and Dutch rider Elis Ligtlee staging an upset win over Becky James and Anna Meares in Rio.

The beauty of the Keirin lies in its randomness – anything can happen across the three rounds and the 'repechages' that precede the gold medal final.

The competition starts with 30 riders at the Olympics, spread across five heats of six riders each in the opening round. The first two finishers of each heat automatically qualify to move onto the second round (10 riders) while the rest enter the repechage heats, four heats of five riders each. Again, the top two get to move onto Round 2 for a total of 18 continuing and a dozen athletes being knocked out entirely.

Round 2 is safer, with the top four riders in each of three heats moving on to Round 3 and six riders eliminated. Round 3 determines which riders get to race for the medals and which will be racing for seventh through 12th place overall.

The top three riders from the two heats of Round 3 move onto the medal round, where the top three claim gold, silver and bronze.

In 2016, it took three tries to run the medal final, with Jason Kenny and Malaysian Azizulhasni Awang, in the fight for position as the derny began to exit the track, passed the pacer too early and faced disqualification. The judges did not disqualify them and restarted the race again only to have Germany's Joachim Eilers repeat the mistake. On the third try, all six riders stayed well behind the pacer and had a clean start, with Eilers taking the early lead.

Kenny, who stayed mid-pack until the final turn, burst out of the corner to snatch the gold medal ahead of Dutch rider Matthijs Büchli. Awang, having had to go through the first round repechages, won the bronze medal.

In the women's event, the early rounds saw several incidents including Dutch rider Laurine Van Riessen riding up the hoardings to avoid crashing along with Tania Calvo of Spain and Olivia Podmore of New Zealand.

Ligtlee prevailed over a stacked field of pre-event favourites, winning her first round, taking second to Germany's Kristina Vogel, and in the final, took the lead halfway through the final lap and held off James and Meares to win gold.

Riders to watch

Jason Kenny en-route to victory in the keirin round one

Jason Kenny en-route to victory in the Keirin round one (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Harrie Lavreysen (Netherlands) has been the dominant sprinter and is the favourite to stop the British winning streak in the Keirin.

Jason Kenny returns to defend his Olympic title, while Büchli and Awang also return in search of more hardware.

Kenny's Keirin didn't go as planned in the last world championships in 2020, when he was eliminated in the semifinals, placing fourth behind Lavreysen, who went on to win the title over Japan's Yuta Wakimoto and Awang.

Experienced riders like Eilers, Matthew Glaetzer (Australia), Denis Dmitriev (Russian Olympic) and Sam Webster (New Zealand), Max Levy (Germany) and young upstarts like Kevin Quintero (Colombia) are expected to be in the mix for the medals.

Emma Heinz (Germany) is the reigning world champion and a consistent performer in the Keirin, along with South Korea's Lee Hye-jin, Katy Marchant (Great Britain), veteran Simona Krupeckaite (Lithuania). Look for newcomers Mathilde Gros (France), Ellesse Andrews (New Zealand) and Maddie Godby (USA) to shine, while Kaarle McCulloch (Australia) holds her country's hopes for a medal after the unexpected retirement of Stephanie Morton after the 2020 World Championships.

Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news.