Inside The Cult Of Japanese Keirin Bike Racing

The final few laps of a Keirin bike race involve a frenzy of riders careening around a tight track at speeds upward of 40 mph, sometimes to disastrous end. It's an exhilarating sport where riders have to attend an academy for a year before entering the amateur leagues and, potentially, clawing their way to elite status. Photographer Jasper Clarke captured an inside look at how riders train for, learn about, and live the sport.

Keirin racing is got its start in post-World War II Japan as a government-backed initiative to spur the nation's economy through gambling. The races start off relatively docile with a pace bike called a derny leading the riders for the first few laps. Each of the riders has to stay behind the derny until it exits the track for the final two and a half laps. Then, all hell breaks loose. Before the race, the players have to state their strategy and they're awarded points based on the outcomes. Some riders go for endurance—keeping at the front of the pack, battling wind resistance—and others go for quick bursts as they maneuver their way past other riders.


At the academy, riders train for 10 hours a day, six days a week, rain or shine. They learn how to maintain their bikes and tweak them to optimize each ride. Just as Sumo wrestling is a lifestyle, so too is Keirin racing. As professionals, riders live a solitary life away from family and friends and have virtually no contact with the outside world to prevent race fixing. The dedication, discipline, and focus on craft could be nothing other than a Japanese sport.