Toshihiko Tomita: Keirin Ambassador

, 2011/10/24

“Those were the golden years of Keirin you know, you could hear Koichi Nakano’s name everywhere, Keirin riders were flown over to Europe to put on demonstrations; Keirin essentially turned into billion dollar industry. If I remember correctly, the winner of last year’s Keirin Grand Prix took home about 100,000,000 Yen (US$1,242,000).” Tomita Toshihiko, who after 29 years as a Keirin professional cyclist, retired in July 2010 and like any retiree, is full to the brim with stories of the sport. Papersky met with this Tokyo mainstay cyclist to hear more about his life and the sport he knows so well.

“When I was on my university cycling team, I thought being a world champion like Nakano was too hard because frankly, the bar was set too high. I also didn’t think that Keirin was as ‘world class’ like the UCI(International Cyclist Union) which had races on an international scale. I thought those races were more serious, in the same way the World Cup just seems so huge in Soccer. Along with the gambling infused into the sport, people just assumed the international races were more on par with the Olympics and after the Second World War, Keirin was seen more as a form of entertainment. But things really changed when Nakano started winning.

Nakano’s name was on everyone’s lips and nicknames like ‘Mr. Keirin’ were all over the media. Amid the economic boom of the 1980s, the status of the sport continued to grow wider in recognition. Everyone started to think that Keirin riders were so cool and riders from all over the world were astounded by Nakano’s success and domination. After Nakano’s fifth straight year of winning sprint contests, the UCI thought Keirin itself was a world class system and saw fit to send some of its board members to Japan to learn more about the sport and its governing body. In turn, nine pro Keirin riders, along with a pacemaker, were invited to perform a demo race at a world championship. These events introduced Keirin to the world.

Before I turned pro, I had just gotten a right-out-of-school job as an engineer but it didn’t last too long and it was about six months before I quit. My old teammate from my university cycling team phoned me one day to tell me he had entered the professional like he had always wanted to. He asked me what I was doing with my life and naturally, it got me thinking. The next time he called me, he was in the hospital with a broken collar bone from a race accident so I went to see him and again, he asked me what my dream in life was. At that point, I felt I wanted to open a bike shop or a frame factory rather than being a pro rider but he convinced me to come out to training camp and that he would take me under his wing. It was 1981 when I quit my desk job and began to train everyday. At the Keirin school, I learned the ins and outs of the sport and in 1983 I made my official debut as a professional.

One thing you don’t forget is passing the first test- dashing one kilometer within a minute and 12 seconds. It’s a dead or alive thing, with the best seventy-five riders of each class selected to move on. Every six months, new riders enroll while at the same time seventy-five graduate and meanwhile, there are sixty pro riders retiring each year. Since that’s twice a year, you have 120 riders retiring and 150 entering- its all regulated by the Keirin Association but you can see that the number of active riders is increasing every year. I think about right now there are about 3,900 registered Keirin riders, with at least one in each prefecture and here in Tokyo I’d say there are about 160.

Another thing every rider must take from the Keirin school, or at least be aware of, are the styles and techniques that riders rely on to help them cross the finish line first. It’s often said Nakano had none of the standard methods but he did have his own style, and everyone referred to it as the ‘go, dash’ since he would just blaze straight through the track. While it emerged as a new style in spring racing, there is a handful of styles or techniques which riders employ. There’s Makkuri which I would say is the hardest, is when a rider intentionally lags behind on the first lap then powers through all the way to the front on the last stretch. There’s Senko which is dashing as soon as the pacemaker goes off the track- which is probably the most common. One every rider knows is Sashi which in Japanese means ‘to stab’ is when a rider pokes out his handlebars and body, giving it his all right before the finish line since every half-second makes all the difference. Another style is Oikomi which is just passing someone near the end of the race and then there’sMarking which is when a rider stays in 2nd place and follows the leader until they can pass when the wind-drag effect is just right. All in all, these techniques make for some of the most interesting and dramatic races.”

While Koichi Nakano was a beacon for young Keirin riders and fans alike, Tomita had his own personal hero. One of his closest and most enduring relationships throughout his years in the sport was with one of the most revered and respected frame builders in Keirin, and the world, Akio Tanabe. “When I was younger, I had gone to my first Keirin race and that was were I met Tanabe-san who was a well-known amateur at the time. I asked him a lot of questions when I met him after his race and was in awe- he was god-like, with huge, bulging muscular legs and a super aerodynamic bike. I remember pressing up against the fence and watching the Tokyo Track Championships, which on the one-kilometer dash, Tanabe easily took other riders. In my later high school years, I had attended a national athletic collegiate meet and Tanabe started training me and teaching me the more profound aspects of riding, technical bicycle maintenance as well as racing techniques. These were invaluable lessons for me and allowed me to enter my first race with confidence. I often spent time at Tanabe’s workshop and when he asked me what my dream in life was, I simply realized and said, ‘I want to be you’ and from that point on, Tanabe-san taught me everything about the sport and even suggested that I go to the Keirin school. At the start, I was weak, just a high school boy but within two years, I made it to the Japan Nationals and placed third, and even earned a little bit of a reputation along the way.

Most riders aren’t paid by sponsors nor supported by the smaller frame factories and don’t necessarily have a very close relationship with their builder but because of my close relationship with Tanabe-san, he knows everything about me, my style, my height, my size and so I don’t even really have to too involved with all the technical details like other riders may have to. I think I’m pretty lucky in that respect, I just decide on the color [laughs]. Sure, a lot of frames are pretty much the same but it’s the spirit and passion the builder pours into the frame that counts.”

Since retiring in July of 2010 and stowing away his racing gear, Tomita is currently involved in a carbon fibre frame building project as a test rider and consultant. “Since the price of carbon sheeting has leveled out a bit, it’s more possible to experiment and that what we have been doing with other components like forks and handle bars.” Commuting from his home to this project, Tomita gets around town on one of his former racing bikes, which these days, seem a bit more common on the streets than before. “Sure, these days everyone is riding these Keirin racing bikes on the street and without brakes. Naturally, this actually worried the Keirin Association. I thought it was dangerous after having been a pro and only knowing Keirin inside the track, not on the streets but the more I started to ride my bike on the streets I came to appreciate the feeling in this riding environment. I was able to see the good side of the culture but still, I always tell all those riders I see out there to put a brake on!”

Tomita has just opened his first frame-building studio and is open for business.



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