Tuesday, January 21, 2014

a life long quest ....continued

A life long quest :
 part two --MY first NJS frame and more about keirin

....please see previous posts for first part--

Photography is not allowd at keirin tracks--I was given special permission to take this shot at Keiukaku 'drome.
    The following should not be taken as fact...it is written from my sometimes sloppy memory..I doubt there are any grave errors but any numbers shoud be fact checked before taking them as true facts (in other words don't use this information for wikipedia or even your  school report on keirin)

           Keirin is one of 4 or 5 sports the japanese gamble on ,these include one spectacle, Boat racing  which is still on my todo list of events to spectate at. I think they bet on horses and motorcycles as well, in any case Keirin is the only one of these sports where the jockey is the powerplant as well as the driver.

       There are just under 50 Keirin tracks in Japan. The race series are usally 3 day events. Becuase of the nature of gambling the are strict measures taken to insure no shenannigans. The racers check into the track the night before the races ,residing for the 3 days of racing at the full living quarters for them on the site. Upon arrival they surrender their cell phones and laptops --no information is allowed in or out. They all eat from food provided to them. Many of the tracks have a small shop on site where items that may be needed can be bought, everything from toestraps to silly gifts to bring back home after the event to the children or partner. Some even sell drinks snacks and ice cream. In general the only people allowed entry into the riders area during a race series are officials and raceers other racers not in the series might be there but thats about it.
     There is a long process to become one of the certified riders,last time I checked there were over 1000 racers in four ranked catagories. To become a Keirin racer you must attend a two year program at the Keirin School. Applicants can start trying to get in at the age of 16 after you turn 26 (?) it is too late.

two kids out trainng for the entrance exam..

I met these two kids late december very early one morning in the town of USA south along the coast from Kochi. They were training to get into the keirin school. in addition to a written exam there was a cycling element required for admisssion. These two were trying to get fast enouugh to get in. I was riding the Jaques Anquitiell folding bike but one of them let me use their bike and I did a no handed trackstand for them ..they had never seen that. The mother of one of them was nearby and they got her to take a photo of me I gave her my camera and got her to take a photo of all of us. Here that is.. my feet are on the pedals........

 The photos below are from an issue of BICI SPORT . They show the scale of the Keirin school as well of the divirsity of the skills taught there. All things go towards making a rider worthy of being a Liscenced Keirin racer.

  I was riding randomly around Kochi ( on Shikoku)  ; That morning, I saw a motorcycle store that had some odd looking Mama-cheri (commuter) bicycles, I pulled over and stuck my head in, only to be shocked that there was a used ViValo  track frame on his wall. I asked the shop owner use his phone by sticking my thumb in my ear ad my pinkie in my mouth and was soon calling  Victoria who translated for me and informed me that it was indeed for sale.
I was there the next day to buy it and spent the next week building it up, I had at last found an actual Keirin bike underneath me. One that had been racing towards a finish line with wagers dependent on its outcome.

    (  That bike ended up in San Francisco after my Bilato  took up residence in Kochi. I sold that Vivalo to BRU who rode it a few years then sold it after fixes became hipster mobiles and he felt there was not a night dark enough for him to ride one anymore. I think the girl he sold it to totalled it in a crash after a few months. (the meme of the fixie is another future post).Bru is now found on top of a fixed gear ocassionaly-- his fixed wheel stead being one of the original Bernie Mikkelson  Kamikazi's  in white and green livery-which was formerlty ridden by Tony Tom. )


        Anyhow Keirin racing started over 50 years ago shortly after the second world war. The racer I have spent the most time with started racing then, his name : Shimizu-san. When I met him he was long retired from racing, his bike shop having pictures of him on the summits of all of Japans Highest peaks as a hiker, the acitivty he choose once he retired from racing.. The only clues that  he was a former racer were the number of old kingspeed bikes and frames in his shop which seemed out of place and time compared to the ( mostly used) commuter bikes that took up most of the space. Sadly his shop was bulldozed to make way for a road widening and I have since lost touch with him ,he was very old last I saw him hopefully he is still alive.

      Shimizu-san was very cold to me the first time I met him in fact the only other time I have experienced that feeling in Japan was when I visited Hiroshima , where that vibe was prevalent (maybe due to the constant reminders there of the Abomb?) . In any case Shimizu warmed up to me after I made some purchases . Everytime I got the chance I would bring Victoria there to translate and ask questions for me.

When Posed with the question :How long did you race Keirin he answered. Thirty-seven years….and four months! He told me that when he started racing there was no special school for racers and that they rode anybike they could find,obviously this changed quickly as Japan started to recover from the war. I asked him what his wages were and similar to the answers I received to that question from OSCAR JUNER (an american 6-day racer) he said he earned about as much in a night as a carpenter would in a week ! I noticed a diploma type certificate on the wall one visit and asked Victoria what it said, it was for wining a race in august 1950.
     We visited the library before our next trip to his shop. It was hard finding any information about the old races ,it is unlikely the San Francisco public library would have 50 year old  racing forms for the ponies ,so why would a library in Kochi have the similar items for Keirin especially with the stigma attached to gambling. We did strike paydirt however from the standard newspaper, for there was in each day an advert for the races at the track along with a start list for the day and the results from the day before.  Shimizus name was there. We made copies and brougt him one on the next visit he was overjoyed read off his friends names from the add and duely noted that back then women were racing Keirin (this is starting up again ).
   When Shimizu-san started racing in 1948 he  had to lie about his age becuase they didnt want any one racing that was younger than 17. He recounted to me those early times in the history of the sport, there was no school for racing , you rode whatever bicycle you could find just ordinary bicycles with the extra parts removed. As Japan recoverd from the war and resources became available this changed.
         Shimizu-san had a number of King-Speed frames around his shop, I asked about what he rode during his carreer and what made him get a new frame. He told me that he was always trying to find the perfect fit and geometry , Kingspeed was a framemaker that would make a frame to the dimensions he requested. He would always have a few racing buddies in line to buy the frame he was using when he got a new one , it seems that was one of his reasons for opening a shop when he retired, the fact that his design knowledge was respected by his peers. By the time I found his shop however everything in the
shop relating to keirin was covered with dust and /or rust.
       The going rate for fixing a flat in the bigger bike shops in kochi was about 3000 yen Shimizu-san would hook up one of the block locals ,or anyone who wandered in with a refurbished Mama-chari for about 6000 yen.. his used bikes wouldnt have lights baskets or kickstands on them however so you could add on a bit more money there, but still the best deal in town and he was so sweet with the old lady customers he made me cry one time....he just wanted people to be able to use a bike if they wanted at least thats the feeling I got from him -the average guy who became the average racer then the shop owner.. a feeling that made me happy to share the moments in his shop..then the last time I saw him he dropped the bomb on me.....
        It was the last time I would be able to see him on that trip to Japan and we had a nice visit..he was sitting on a low stool fixing a flat and we were outside the shop putting on raingear as it was starting to drop.. he stood up and grunted in pain..he said it hurts more in the cold..and through Victoria I asked if it was an injury from riding.. he laughed and I could see Victorias face change as her told her the other part of his story he had chosen not to share till now.
       He gestured to his coliflowered ears and said see? didn't you know? then he pulled up his sleeve and we could see the burn scars on his arm.. Two thirds of my body was burned. I was sent to Yokohama in the war and was caught in the fire bombing from a B29 bomber. All we had for medicine was a red salve ...
  The pieces fit into place and his first reaction to me made perfect sense ..how hard it must have been with me in his space and then to see that some Gajins were not to different from him. As I rode home in the rain the  I thought of his starting racing with a body still frail from the trauma of war..in a country in a similar physical state, hoping that Keirin would help the population forget the troubles for a moment while suppling funds to help rebuild the country. And as Shimizu-san recoverd the country did as well...there wasnt a high mountain in Japan he hadnt climbed..

It may have been free and easy when Shimizu-san started racing but its not like that anymore. There are procedures that must take place , Bicycles must pass scrunity, raceers communication is not allowed outside of the track for the days and nights of the race series. this photo below was up near the "fighting gate" where the racers enter the track, This chart explains the ways a racer may be disqualifed while in a race.

These are the type of things one learns in keirin school.. Not only the riders but also the officials must have the knowledge of these things on paper but also the mechanical aspect of the bicycle . There is so much more to write about this sport but I feel that I have been waiting to publish this peice for over 2 years asd if I try to make it complete I will never get to tell any of the other stories I want to share so I will leave it at that and hope that you look forward and check back here for dispatches on a more timely basis from the srteets of Misster Pissta.