What is DerbyWheel? Keirin goes global in new international cycling league

DerbyWheel is an exciting initiative to bring the sporting excitement and financial stability of Japanese and Korean keirin racing to a worldwide audience.

Keirin is a bicycle racing format, with races taking place on the banked circuits of velodromes. It was born in the Japanese port city of Kokura (now Kitakyushu) in November 1948, becoming part of the world championship track cycling programme in 1980, and making its Olympic debut at the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia.

You may know keirin racing as ‘the one with the motorcycle’ – although in fact, in Japan and Korea, riders are led out by a fellow bicycle rider acting as a pacer.

Races are for 5 to 9 riders: international races take place over a total distance of 1500 metres, but Japanese and Korean races can be up to 2800 metres or more.

Riders must remain behind the pacer, controlling their speed, and jockeying for position until the pacer exits the track, usually with around 750 metres to go… at which point, the real racing begins, and it’s a straightforward charge to the finish line.

【KEIRINグランプリ2023】松浦悠士 涙のグランプリ初制覇
Yuji Matsuura wins the 2023 Grand Prix, and a prize of ¥137 million.

Keirin is a popular spectator sport in Japan, generating a reported US$ 10 billion in betting receipts annually, as one of only four sports in the country in which gambling is legal. It was introduced to Korea in the wake of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, where it now generates about US$ 2 billion annually.

Prize money from keirin racing is enough to support thousands of professional riders in Japan and Korea. The lowest-ranked (male) riders can expect to earn around US$ 50,000 per year (2017): riders in the elite category can earn many times that, with the male winner of Japan’s year-end Grand Prix receiving a prize in the region of ¥100 million (US$ 600,000).

What is DerbyWheel?

DerbyWheel is an initiative backed by Korean investors, to repeat the successful launch of keirin racing in Korea at a global scale.

DerbyWheel will operate a professional keirin league, with over 300 male and female riders invited to join its inaugural 2024 season.

It will begin with an exhibition event, planned to be held in Newport, Wales in the first half of 2024, but subsequently delayed. Its regular season is expected to begin in the second half of 2024, with race meetings typically running over 3 days, Friday to Sunday. Racing will later move to a weekly schedule.

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Sellout crowds in London for Track Champions League

DerbyWheel’s CEO is James Pope, who created the UK’s Revolution velodrome race series and London Nocturne criterium, before taking up the role of Event Director for the UCI Track Champions League.

DerbyWheel has also partnered with Sportradar Group for integrity services, and an as-yet unnamed agency for anti-doping testing.

Who is racing in DerbyWheel?

DerbyWheel competitors will range from up-and-coming young talents to veterans with world and Olympic level experience. They will be grouped according to ability.

Induction sessions were held in Melbourne, Australia; Seoul and Uijeongbu, Korea; and Manchester, United Kingdom.

So far, a relatively small number of riders have publicly committed to DerbyWheel. Global Keirin is aware of many riders with national and international experience planning to join DerbyWheel, with or without UCI approval, whose identities have not yet been disclosed. Others are waiting to see what happens, or fulfilling existing UCI commitments, before committing.

See our list of riders linked to DerbyWheel.

Where will DerbyWheel races take place?

DerbyWheel CEO James Pope has revealed that DerbyWheel plans to hold races on three continents, starting at an unnamed UK velodrome and at Perth in western Australia, and then Asia.

Most DerbyWheel events will not be open to spectators, with fans watching instead via broadcast channels or online. James Pope has stated that ‘every single race will be on our YouTube channel’.

However, its regular Grand Prix events are being designed to be spectator-friendly, and are likely to take place at venues with larger seating capacities. Speaking in February 2024, James Pope cited London (UK), Apeldoorn (Netherlands), and Brisbane (Australia), as well as Hong Kong, the Malaysian National Velodrome, and a new track in Chiba (Japan), as possible Grand Prix venues.