M16_tanabe-san

Shortly after World War II, the Japanese created a new form of track cycling: keirin (pronounced kay-rin). In a keirin race, a bicycle, motorbike, or moped sets pace for six to nine bike riders, gradually increasing speed on each lap. When the pacer drops off, the race becomes a sprint as riders jockey for the front position.

People across Japan trek to velodromes to watch and bet on keirin racing the way Americans bet on horse racing — except the stakes are much higher.

With significant sums of money at stake, a governing body, Nihon Jitensha Shinkokai (NJS), regulates keirin racing. NJS has exceptionally high standards for bike geometry, weight, and materials, to ensure that a rider’s equipment never provides an advantage or results in catastrophic failure. This fiercely regulated system of quality standards comes from a tradition of quality and integrity. Many keirin bikes are hand-built by a single frame builder.

Urbanites worldwide have caught keirin fever, and frames branded with some of Japan’s most notable names, from 3Rensho to Watanabe to Makino, roll through city streets. And while NJS-stamped frames and parts are sought by fixed-gear fans for street riding, the NJS stamp of approval is the only thing that will allow a frame or part on the keirin track.

On a recent trip to Tokyo, we were lucky enough to hook up with a Flickr contact, a bicycle aficionado named Yohei Morita. On Christmas Day, Morita picked us up at our hotel and offered to take us around to some of his favorite bike shops in the city.

After the first shop in the Shibuya ward, we considered where to go next. I blurted out, “Kalavinka!”

“Sure, it’s a short drive,” our host answered.

For 35 years, Tsukumo Cycle Sports, a small community bicycle shop located in Meguro ward, Tokyo, has serviced all kinds of bicycles, from domestic mama-chari to professional keirin bikes.

But it’s what lies in the back of the shop that makes Tsukumo a destination for bicycle aficionados. It’s in this tiny workshop, the size of a large closet, where Akio Tanabe creates some of the most sought-after bicycle frames under the name Kalavinka.

There’s nothing particularly new about the technology Tanabe-san uses to hand-build his frames. His workshop is filled with sketches, bottom bracket shells, lugs, and bottles of chemicals. There’s no automated assembly line, no shiny new tools, and, until recently, no space-age carbon fiber. Kalavinka has been working on a carbon track frame for some time, but Tanabe-san is best known for frames produced with steel tubing and welding machines.

Before opening Tsukumo and starting his own line of bikes, Tanabe-san worked as a test rider and racer. He builds 80 to 90 frames a year, half of which are for professional keirin racers.

Despite Kalavinka’s prestige, Tanabe-san is incredibly humble. He greeted us warmheartedly, showed us his workshop, and even posed for a picture. But when we began lumping on the praise, he deflected it by pulling a metal Kalavinka head badge from underneath the workbench, meticulously hand-painted by his wife.

The art of frame building is enjoying new interest in the United States. The United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Ore., offers two-week programs for aspiring frame builders. And it’s partly because of Japanese legends like Tanabe-san.

» Tsukomo Cycle Sports: kalavinka-bikes.com

» United Bicycle Institute: bikeschool.com

More photos: makezine.com/16/kalavinka