The many forms and subcultures that cycling splits into can be astounding – and sometimes confounding. One of the least known is the Japanese style of keirin, which has been around since 1948. Racers live in seclusion when not competing, and are bet on by spectators as if they were horses, complete with odds for payouts. Keirin is run at 47 velodromes around Japan, and it’s estimated that each year as much as $14 billion in yen (R194 billion) can pass through the wagering system.
Photographer Narayan Mahon became intrigued by keirin when he was a teenager, a young cycling fanatic leafing through old issues of VeloNews, where he came across photos of the sport. Some 20 years later, he developed the idea for a shoot as he planned a personal trip to Japan, captivated by the parallels he’d drawn between the lifestyle and training of keirin racers and those of ancient Samurai warriors. This past December, he spent a day in the life of keirin cadets in training, and the next day amid the chaos and tranquility of the races.
“Keirin racing is so different to any kind of bicycle racing I’ve ever seen or experienced,” he says. “The racers are so immersed, and there are such rigid rules. It’s very pure and honourable.”
Here, Mahon’s photos accompany an article from our archives: in 1992, our writer Don Cuerdon became the first American journalist to be allowed into keirin school – the training programme from which all racers must graduate before they are allowed to enter competitions.