Miyoko Takamatsu is a rookie keirin cyclist. She lost her first race, but some may say that’s a good thing: In Japan’s favorite sports narrative, effort trumps natural talent, with winning almost incidental.
Just don’t tell that to the racer.
“That could be true, but believe me it’s not what you feel when people have put down money on you," Takamatsu says. "As far as they’re concerned, winning is the only proof of your effort. I came in sixth twice, fourth once and never made it into the final heat, but I should have at least placed third.”
Measuring in at just over 162 centimeters tall and weighing in at 58 kilos--most of it soldered onto her calves and thighs--Takamatsu is part of the first batch of female keirin bicycle sprinters to hit Japan in 48 years.
"Girl’s Keirin," as the betting sport is called, kicked off July 1, when Takamatsu took on 13 opponents at a velodrome Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Nearly 7,000 fans came out to bet on the ladies, who earned over 2 billion yen in wagers over the first three days for the league’s organizer, the Japan Keirin Association, which expected only half as much.
Takamatsu found herself a crowd favorite, but a long shot: At age 50, she’s the oldest “girl” on the circuit, competing with others half her age.
“Normally, 50 is the time to start taking life a little easier. There’s enough time and money to run, travel or go to a hot spring. But I wanted to try something not everyone can do,” says Takamatsu, who until last year worked as a substitute public school teacher. “I reasoned that I could either hang on until 60, just doing what I’ve been doing, or I could spend the next 10 years learning something new.”
In keirin, the riders start slow, maneuver subtly and finish at explosive speeds.
Takamatsu knew nothing more than that about the sport until she made it into the JKA’s prestigious Bicycle Racing School last May, as one of 36 first-year apprentices assigned to a master. (Unlike the men’s, the women’s bicycles come equipped with brakes). She has, however, been riding a road bike since 35, when she started joining marathons and triathlons to stay active.
Eventually she focused on cycling for the trophies: With few women to compete with, she says, it was easy to win.
Living four in a room at the Bicycle Racing School proved quite a lesson, says Takamatsu. Not only were her classmates younger than her two daughters (both in their 20s), they were plenty more vocal as well.
“Everything we did was decided for us,” she says, from the size of their meals to the length of the baths to the cosmetics they could wear (none). A day’s worth of pedaling began before dawn.
“These girls would begin whining right away after the alarm,” she says. “I just thought, ‘If you’re complaining now, just wait until you get older.’ One good thing about turning 50 is that you develop more mental fortitude and patience.”
All in all, the highly regulated camp was a good thing. The make-up ban did wonders for her skin, and it was a great learning experience--for her daughters. With mom out of the house, they had to learn to cook and clean and pick up skills they’ll need to be proper homemakers, says Takamatsu. Although she’s back with her family in Kawasaki (where the Kawasaki Keirin arena is her official base), she’s rarely home.
When Takamatsu isn’t on the track, she’s in a gym. After her disappointing debut, she’s working with a trainer on how to pump out her entire energy in the last 200 meters before the finish line.
“Coming from endurance sports I have the habit of holding something back, which is something I have to fix,” she says.
Otherwise, bicycle racing fits just fine.
“Before I must have looked ridiculous to some people. ‘Who is that old lady and why is she riding around in that gaudy outfit?’ Now I can tell tell them I’m a pro.”
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