A Keirin Racer on the Road

The other rider passed us at great speed. Getting passed by “hobby racers” while cyclotouring with my Japanese friends isn’t unusual, especially on valley-bottom roads that see many cyclists.

From behind, the rider looked odd. His position was very low. He was turning a large gear. All this sounds like a novice rider, but there was something about his cyclist that piqued my interest.

I decided to speed up to catch the rider and get another look. I told my friends that I’d ride ahead. By now, the rider was maybe 400 m (1/4 mile) ahead of me. It seemed like a good opportunity to stretch my legs and do a little speedwork. I accelerated, shifted a few cogs on the rear, and got into a good rhythm.

My first acceleration simply saw me maintain my distance, but not gain on the other rider. I had underestimated his speed. I dug deeper and made up some ground, but then the gradient of the road steepened a little. My speed dropped, while he continued with metronomic precision. I was back in a holding pattern, not gaining any ground, yet riding at a speed that was a little too fast to be sustainable after the previous effort. I remembered my racing days, caught in “no-man’s land” after being delayed by a crash or being blocked by dropped riders. In this unsustainable situation, you have two choices: abandon the chase or muster all your reserves and close the gap in a sprint. I chose the latter…

That is how I caught him. Out of breath, I looked at the rider. His position was incredibly low – his hands were lower than his knees, and his back was truly flat. Just look at his shadow on the road!

I drew alongside, greeted him and asked: “Suminasen, shashin totte mo iidesuka.” (“Excuse me, is it OK to take a photo?”) He looked up, and I was surprised to see a wrinkled face that seemed at odds with his speed. This was no novice “hobby racer”!

He seemed startled, too. Was he not used to having another rider come up from behind? Or was my broken Japanese the source of wonder? He nodded his permission and put his head down again. Clearly, he had better things to do than talk to strangers on randonneur bikes!

I looked over his bike. It was a track bike with beautiful Dura-Ace track cranks and, of course, a fixed gear. Contrasting with the superb frame and drivetrain, the brakes were almost an afterthought. The right brake lever was higher than the left, and both were hard to reach. I suspected they were only for emergencies, or perhaps to satisfy traffic rules. A spare tubular tire was strapped under the saddle, and a pump attached a bit haphazardly to the top tube. It was obviously a track bike to which the parts that made it street-legal had been added only reluctantly.

The rider’s tights were inscribed “All-Star Keirin”, and the legs they hid were large and muscular. His feet turned classic pedals with toeclips and -straps. The Arai hardshell helmet confirmed: I was riding next to a true Keirin racer. That explained the ultra-low position and the slow, but smooth and powerful, pedal stroke. I had seen this on the track, where Keirin racers pedal at (for them) moderate speeds, waiting until one of them unleashes the sprint. Then they rise out of the saddle, throw their bikes from side to side as they jockey for position under full acceleration. They dash toward the finish line at a speed and cadence that is fast and furious, whereas before it was slow and deliberate.

I wanted to ask the Keirin racer how far he was riding. Was he still racing, or, more likely, had he retired from the track? I know a few retired Keirin racers, but I’ve never had the opportunity to ride with them on the road. But I felt that I had intruded enough. In any case, my Japanese probably wasn’t up to understanding his answers. So I let him go. I turned around to ride back to my friends. I had ridden next to him for less than a minute, and yet the image of this unexpected figure, turning his pedals with deceptive ease in a huge gear, remains etched in my mind. I hope to meet him again some day.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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15 Responses to A Keirin Racer on the Road

  1. Marco O. says:

    Great experience!

  2. Graham Sparks says:

    Is this an April Fools post???

    • It really happened just as I described it. At the last moment, I noticed the date and worried that it might be taken as an April Fools’ joke, so I posted it on March 31.

    • Andy says:

      Nice story Jan. I think many of us have known the sheepish feeling of “Cat 6″ing and finally catching a rider who turns out to be quite out of our league.

      • I rarely chase after other riders. I figure if I (or they) want to race, there is a place for that.

        Sometimes, when I am carrying a full camping load and a rider makes a great effort to pass me on a hill, only to run out of steam almost immediately after passing, I cannot resist the temptation to speed up a little and drop them for good.

        In this case, I was just so intrigued by the rider that I wanted a closer look! I don’t regret chasing after him, and I hope he didn’t take it wrongly.

  3. Steve says:

    I love that picture! It’s like a cyclist from the future. I was riding today and stopped for a coffee and read this post and then spent the rest of the day thinking about that rider.

    • I haven’t (knowingly) seen a keirin racer while in Japan, but I have seen many elegant looking older riders. I don’t know what it’s like in the USA, but in Australia, where I come from, many of the older riders—”weekend warriors”—look like mobile slabs of beef (after slaughter) squeezed into over-logoed plastic wrapping. I guess there must be some of these in Japan, but most older men I see there are slim & wear discreet and more practical, cyclo-touristy clothing.

  4. Aki says:

    The rider in the pictures does indeed have a low position. However, if he has the somewhat ubiquitous Japanese body proportions (shorter legs, longer torso), then a flat back and low bars are almost automatic. I have both the heritage and the proportions – my shorter legs means the bar drops on my bike are below the front tire.

    • It’s interesting how Japanese riders often have different proportions. I can ride the bikes of many Japanese riders who are not as tall as me, but whose reach to the handlebars is almost the same. I just raise the seat on their bikes…

      What was noticeable about this rider was less how low his hands were, but how low his back was angled. I’ve never seens a rider with a truly horizontal back.

      • Aki says:

        I have what I think is a typical short leg (sub 28″ inseam) + long torso position (5’6-1/2″ hy). ST is like size S alum TCR (40 ctt sloping, 50 cm level), 56.5 TT, 75.5 STA, 14.5 cm stem with compact bars (12 cm with regular ones), zero set back saddle (4mm to be precise, with SLR). After 6 years I even tried to go 2cm longer, close to what that Keirin rider has, but I felt uncomfortable sprinting. I have the least flexible hamstrings ever, a bad back, and people comment on how long and low I am. Thing is that it’s due to torso length, not any shenanigans on my part. My hip angle is normal, no serious bend in torso, very comfy position. A bit heavy so can’t do a flat back at all once I’m at about 170 lbs, typically race at 165-180 lbs.

      • Aki says:

        Also, I’m not that strong so no one gets impressed with my riding when I’m out training. Heh.

  5. bonnev659 says:

    Wow is all I can say

  6. alexei says:

    Fixed gear long rides are the best things!

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