PETALING JAYA: The sight of Sato Shintaro proudly holding up a winner’s cheque of Japanese Yen 103,400,000 (RM4mil) for winning the Japan Keirin Grand Prix race in the last weekend of 2019 created a big buzz in the international cycling fraternity.
The Japanese rider, after 13 years of trying, finally earned the right to be crowned the national champion after what was the richest cycling race in history. And he did it in style at the Tachikawa Velodrome on the outskirts of Tokyo by beating Yuta Wakimoto, the reigning Asian keirin champion and is now expected to lead Japan’s chase for gold when they host the Tokyo Olympics in August.
Shintaro’s success also brought to light the lucrative domestic cycling circuit in the nation that gave the event to the world. Men’s keirin made its Olympic debut in Sydney, Australia in 2000 and it was only in 2012 at the London Olympics that women’s keirin was added.
Many sports fans have seen what keirin racing is like at the Olympics, thanks to the exploits of Josiah Ng and now Azizulhasni Awang.
But not many are aware of how competitive the domestic cycling circuit in Japan is.
Spectators pay not just to watch but also place bets on the racers. The organisers also hand out invitations to top foreign cyclists to boost the profile of their races.
The cyclists have to go through keirin cycling school, where the training is brutal and strict adherence to discipline is called for.
Britain’s multiple Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy and Australia’s former world champion Shane Perkins have raced in the domestic Japan circuit.
For former top Malaysian track cyclist Josiah, it was a sight to behold as he got used to the experience of having salt thrown over the bike and getting ready to racing in all kinds of weather.
Unlike UCI-sanctioned international keirin races usually held at indoor timber track velodromes, races in the domestic Japan circuit often take place in outdoor tracks.
“I am, until today, the only non-Japanese Asian rider to have raced in the keirin circuit there.
“I went there four times in my cycling career and I would say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience each time. Azizul could have been the second Malaysian as he was invited at one point but he had to turn it down because he had to stick to his training schedule.
“It’s a gambling sport unlike the UCI-sanctioned keirin racing and thousands of young cyclists in Japan want to get in as it’s very lucrative. In fact, Shintaro used to be my rival when I was there in the mid 2000’s.
“He must be above 40 by now (Shintaro is 43).
“It’s pretty cool atmosphere but the rules are rigid. We have to go through a health check each time and we are told not to wave to the audience. It must be because of the stakes involved, ” said Josiah, the first Malaysian cyclist to make the Olympic keirin final in Athens in 2004.
Strangely, the competitiveness of the domestic keirin circuit has failed to translate into success for Japan at the Olympics.
Japan only have one Olympic medal in keirin so far – a bronze won by Kiyofumi Nagai in Beijing in 2008.
Azizul became the second rider from Asia to win an Olympic medal with his bronze won in Rio de Janeiro four yearsago.
The difference in the rules between those in the domestic circuit and the UCI-sanctioned ones may have made the difference.
Jostling and shoulder barging are allowed in the domestic circuit whereas a cyclist will be disqualified for any move deemed dangerous by the track commissaire in a UCI-sanctioned event.
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