Japan racing intense for van Velthooven

GEORGE HEAGNEY
Last updated 12:00 04/12/2012
Simon van Velthooven

NO HOLDS BARRED: Manawatu Olympian Simon van Velthooven, red, about to receive a big hook from a Japanese rider in the Japanese keirin league.

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Simon van Velthooven's life as an overseas professional in the Japanese keirin league may not be as glamorous as it sounds.

The Olympic bronze medallist has been racing in Japan since the London games and it is a lifestyle of mainly travelling and racing around 50 tracks.

"It's nice to come over here after the games but I have been envious of everyone else enjoying their Olympics," he said from Japan.

"I guess I had my fair share, but it's a great feeling to have an Olympic medal in your home country.

"On the other hand, it's great to come over here and race, stay fit and strong developing your skills. To get to race the Japanese keirin was always a dream of mine. It's a bit of a yin-yang."

The keirin association looks after him and he enjoys it, but it won't be making him a millionaire any time soon.

"Japan's a professional racing scene and 700 million yen is bet annually on the racing; there's big money involved.

"We don't see the exceptionally big money. We're more like the weekly dogs the daily punters can bet on."

The Japanese ride in the top level while the competition the internationals race in receives less fanfare.

"It's like the Whanganui dogs compared to the Melbourne Cup."

The riders are locked away at the velodrome four days before the race behind barbed-wire fences, so they cannot tell anyone what they are going to do in the race.

They have to hand over cellphones and laptops to ensure there is no contact with the outside world.

When they go out to race, the spectators scream at them what to do. But van Velthooven's Japanese isn't sharp enough yet to understand them.

The 23-year-old is racing near Nagoya this week and he believes the league is the pinnacle of spring cycling, the equivalent of a professional cycling road tour.

Van Velthooven said Japanese keirin was the next level. While international keirin is all about speed and stamina, in Japan it is about power and physicality, with riders, most of whom are 10 years older than him, not shy of dishing out "a big hook".

He has been in three finals this year and because he won bronze in London, the home competitors are more determined to knock him off.

"They want to go home to their wives and kids and tell them they beat an Olympic medallist today. It's that kind of feeling you get that you're singled out."

There are eight international riders in the Japanese Keirin Association who compete against the locals.

Van Velthooven arrives home in New Zealand just before his belated 21st bash at the end of the month, will race in Tasmania on Boxing Day and then contest the track world championships in Belarus in February.

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- The Manawatu Standard

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