Game-changing prize money will turn an expensive hobby into a good career

Photo from @TachikawaKEIRIN

Much of the excitement around DerbyWheel has centred around money, and specifically the opportunity for track sprinters to make a good – potentially, very good – living from their sport.

At present, track sprinting (outside Korea and Japan) is dominated by a small number of national elite development programmes. There is no career path for athletes who don’t secure a place on a national programme: cycling becomes a hobby, and an expensive one at that.

And even those few who do make the cut will earn far less than stars of road cycling, cyclo-cross or other professional sports. The hosts of the Piste Take podcast noted that ‘even in (DerbyWheel’s) B class, you can essentially make in a weekend what my academy wage was in a year’.

Documents posted on the DerbyWheel website (PDF) illustrated a typical race meeting structure, with riders competing in four races each over the course of three days. They would begin in seeded groups, but it would be possible for a rider to start in the bottom group, but reach the elite final with good performances through the rounds.

In UCI keirin competitions, riders often only do enough to make it through each round. DerbyWheel will offer prize money according to finishing position in each round, as an additional incentive to compete all the way to the line in every race.

The sums involved are literally game-changing. A prize money model posted on the DerbyWheel website suggests that a rider in the lower B group could come last in every round over a weekend, and earn prize money of US$ 3,280. A rider in the A group who won all four of their races could earn US$ 43,660.

In his book War On Wheels, Justin McCurry suggests that Japan’s top nine male riders earned an average of US$ 600,000 in 2019, with a ‘lowly’ A3 rider averaging US$ 46,000 – ‘higher than the average salary in Japan, and far more than recent university graduates can expect to earn.’ Women in Japan’s Girls Keirin earn significantly less.

The sums on offer at DerbyWheel’s showpiece Grand Prix events will be markedly higher. Yuji Matsuura, the male winner at 2023’s year-end Grand Prix in Japan received US$ 900,000. Mina Sato won the Girls Keirin race, and US$ 88,000.

This is all in stark contrast to the prize money typically on offer at UCI events: Japan’s Kaiya Ota earned a mere €625 for winning the men’s keirin at the recent Track Nations Cup in Hong Kong. Commenting on Instagram, DerbyWheel CEO James Pope said: ‘The current economic situation for track riders is unsustainable. We hope to change that.’

DerbyWheel riders will have to pay for their own bike, components including a mandatory SRM power meter, and helmet. But DerbyWheel have indicated that they will pay for riders’ travel, accommodation, meals and insurance.

Riders will not be expected to participate in every race meeting. They will receive a race schedule based on their availability, allowing for personal and other professional commitments. However, riders would be wise to wait for a resolution of the current stalemate with the UCI before trying to combine DerbyWheel with other pro commitments.