Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Part of what makes racing in Japan fun is the language barrier. This sounds weird, but because my Japanese is so poor, I'm really never sure exactly what is going on until it actually happens. However, I consider this a good thing. Every experience is a surprise, a gradual unfolding. Basically, I'm constantly clueless, only slowly understanding the real situation. It keeps me on my toes, open-minded.

The latest example of this is my new team. Back in the States, we have a clearly laid-out numerical ranking of racing categories all organized under one governing body, USA Cycling. Category 5 are beginners, Cat. 4 are more experienced novices, 3's are those with some solid results behind them, Cat. 2 riders are approaching elite level, while category 1 designates a top elite racer, possibly a national team member and a rider likely to turn pro. Good results earn points towards an upgrade to the next category. Simple.

But in Japan the system is far more complicated. So far I count four separate governing bodies, and for all I know there may be more. The JCRC seems to be made up of fairly casual hobby racers. The JCF (Japan Cycling Federation) is the official UCI governing body for Japan and so has riders from junior to elite and professional. The JBCF (Jitsugyodan) has been explained to me as "semi-pro" (more on this in a minute), and then there is the JKA, the Japanese Keirin Association, or professional keirin.

So far I have raced in the JCRC and JCF ranks, and have not seen anything like the categories or upgrade points of the US system. Of course some races are categorized by age groups, but at the same time I've raced several JCF races with no discernible categorization at all. At some races they simply group you according to ability-- for track races this often means seeding by kilo times. But now I've joined the Jitsugyodan "semi-pro" ranks. Just what does this mean? Well, I'm slowly findng out...

I assumed that "semi-pro" meant "not really pro" and that the major difference was just gonna be bigger purses and a kind of self-selected higher level of competition. Well, it is that, but there's more to it. You do not have to earn the right to go "semi-pro", you just have to sign up and pay your license fee, so the self-selection part is correct. But, the "not really pro" part-- I was completely wrong about that.

Last weekend was my second training camp with Shonan Airinkai's JBCF squad. Just as last time, there were a couple of pro's along. Last time I assumed that they were there just for training and to try the unique 250 meter track, kind of graduates of the team who had moved up to the pro ranks. Sort of slumming with the amateurs, or so I thought. This is wrong. The pro's are ACTIVE members of the team, and this means that come April, I will be fighting against professional keirin racers! What have I gotten myself into? This is what I mean about the surprise factor of racing in Japan!

This is Obara-san, a member of the team and an S-class pro keirin racer. In pro keirin, SS is the elite class (of which there are only 50 or so racers [EDIT: I just learned there are only 18 SS-class pros, a very elite group]), S-class is next, then A-class is the lower level. Ishibashi-san mentioned that Obara-san is only 22 years old, so to be S-class so young indicates a very serious bad-ass.

A couple of Obara-san's rides. The new Anchor must surely be one of the best track bikes available. Behind the Look is my new team sprint squad-mate, Kitaura-san.

I was super excited to be back at the 250 meter track. This time I was immediately much more comfortable on the steep 45˚ banking. It was a nice day too, around 12˚C and virtually no wind. Brought my crunchy disc along to test it out ahead of any races to assure myself it was fit for duty-- no problems at all. My bank account and my wife are both very relieved.

First up for me was to try some flying efforts on the track and hope to learn a good line for the 200. After warm-ups, we did a series of flying 100's paced up to the approach by coach Wada-san on the motor.

Here's Obara-san's motor-paced 100:

I did a couple of these and then wanted a to try an unassisted flying 200. It's amazing the G-forces you feel in the turns at speed on a 250! It really forces you down on the bike, and you must consciously push yourself back and up with your arms to avoid sliding down and forward. It also feels incredibly fast! I was a bit shocked to find that after my 200 (which felt like a new P.R.) my time was a most pedestrian 13 flat! Shite. Wada-san explained the problems with my approach (too slow on the penultimate lap, standing too late in turn 3/4) and my line (staying too high entering turn 1), and that made me feel a little better...

After lunch, I decided to try a standing 500 meter time trial to give my TT bars a try out on the 250. Coach Wada said, "Ok, no slower than 35 seconds", which would have meant a new P.R. for me. I thought to myself, 'b-but it's February! It's 12˚C! And-and I feel fat!' Um..., "Yes, Coach! Ganbarimasu!"

Nope: 36.3. Wada-san was kind, however. He gave me a thumbs up and said my start was getting better. I felt I'd flubbed the first stroke, but he said, "the first stroke doesn't matter. It's number two and three that really count". So more wisdom for me. I must say, it's really cool to have a coach to look at you and give you criticism on your riding. The rest of the effort was ok, but I'd gotten into the aerobars a bit too early-- the timing of this stuff is a lot different on a 250 to a 400 meter track. Obviously I still have a lot to learn.

More eye-candy, Ichikawa-san's Anchor.

Next I was told that the team hoped I'd take part in team sprint with them at the next race. Well, hell yes! So that meant time to do some testing and see what the rider order would be. We were gonna do a series of one and two lap efforts in three-man team sprint formation, with rotating riders in different orders.

To review, this is what team sprint looks like when done by the best in the world. This is the gold medal ride-off at the 2004 Olympics between Germany and Japan:

Picking the order of these three riders is critical in team sprint. You want to have a really good first lap, but you don't want to have the first guy be so powerful that he gaps the second guy (Cue flashback to Yamaguchi...). The second guy has to be the fastest on the team, as he has to take over from the first guy, continue the acceleration of the first guy, then not fade at all before dropping off the third guy. The third guy has to have the best sprint endurance, and it's his job not to fade, and even to up the pace if possible. His is the most painful job, of course.

Picked for the team are Tsuchiya-san, Kitaura-san, and myself. Tsychiya-san seems about my speed, maybe a bit younger. Kitaura-san is currently training for a crack at the next qualification exam for the Keirin Academy, and he looks pretty damn likely to me. This kid has some serious speed and power- we watched him do a 11.5 second 200 on a standard keirin bike and running an 88" gear! Serious leg-speed!

So we did three tests, two of one lap and one of two laps duration, with each of us taking a turn on the front. Even though I somehow managed the quickest first lap, it was clear that Kitaura-san is the most powerful and so garnered the 2nd man position. Tsuchiya-san faded a hair as 2nd man, so got the job as starter, and that left me as-- 3rd man, ouch!

Times of the day. The Katakana they use to write my name, デブ (de-bu), sounds the same as the same word in Japanese that means "fat". Is this a subtle hint from Coach Wada to take a different direction in my training?

It's so exciting to be asked to do the team sprint with these guys. It's gonna be a thrill to do it for real in April. As an aside, Ishibashi-san later told me that the squad I was training with was the "B" team sprint squad. The "A" team will be major Shonan Airinkai bad-asses Ichikawa-san, Kameyama-san and an as yet unnamed professional rider. Whoa.

Another amazing day at Shuzenji. Here's my goofy ass and the new 250. You can see the roof is almost completed, soon they'll be working on the wooden track itself.

Now for the sad part: We're leaving Japan. After the April race, Tomo and I jet back home. Yes, though I've found a virtual track racers paradise in Japan, I'm giving it up. I've been made an offer I can't refuse in the form of a very sweet job in the U.S., and well, when it comes down to it I have to admit that track cycling is a hobby for me. An amazing, rewarding, exciting hobby, but a hobby nonetheless. Obviously, I will never turn pro. So sadly, reality calls, and back to America we go. However, I do hope to keep a toe in the water here. I'll maintain my Japanese racing license and my membership to Shonan Airinkai, and hope to be able to make it back occasionally to race here.

Heavy sigh...