The Art of
Akio Tanabe creates some of
the world’s most sought-after
bicycle frames. By Jess Hemerly
Tanabe-san poses for a photo in his Tokyo workshop.
Photograph by Jonathan Koshi
Shortly after World War II, the Japanese But it’s what lies in the back of the shop that makes
created a new form of track cycling: keirin Tsukumo a destination for bicycle aficionados. It’s in
(pronounced kay-rin). In a keirin race, a this tiny workshop, the size of a large closet, where
bicycle, motorbike, or moped sets pace for six to Akio Tanabe creates some of the most sought-after
nine bike riders, gradually increasing speed on each bicycle frames under the name Kalavinka.
lap. When the pacer drops off, the race becomes a There’s nothing particularly new about the tech-sprint as riders jockey for the front position. nology Tanabe-san uses to hand-build his frames.
People across Japan trek to velodromes to watch His workshop is filled with sketches, bottom bracket
and bet on keirin racing the way Americans bet on shells, lugs, and bottles of chemicals. There’s no
horse racing — except the stakes are much higher. automated assembly line, no shiny new tools, and,
With significant sums of money at stake, a until recently, no space-age carbon fiber. Kalavinka
governing body, Nihon Jitensha Shinkokai (NJS), has been working on a carbon track frame for some
regulates keirin racing. NJS has exceptionally high time, but Tanabe-san is best known for frames
standards for bike geometry, weight, and materials, produced with steel tubing and welding machines.
to ensure that a rider’s equipment never provides Before opening Tsukumo and starting his own
an advantage or results in catastrophic failure. line of bikes, Tanabe-san worked as a test rider and
This fiercely regulated system of quality standards racer. He builds 80 to 90 frames a year, half of which
comes from a tradition of quality and integrity. Many are for professional keirin racers.
keirin bikes are hand-built by a single frame builder. Despite Kalavinka’s prestige, Tanabe-san is
Urbanites worldwide have caught keirin fever, and incredibly humble. He greeted us warmheartedly,
frames branded with some of Japan’s most notable showed us his workshop, and even posed for a
names, from 3Rensho to Watanabe to Makino, roll picture. But when we began lumping on the praise,
through city streets. And while NJS-stamped frames he deflected it by pulling a metal Kalavinka head
and parts are sought by fixed-gear fans for street badge from underneath the workbench, meticu-riding, the NJS stamp of approval is the only thing lously hand-painted by his wife.
that will allow a frame or part on the keirin track. The art of frame building is enjoying new interest
On a recent trip to Tokyo, we were lucky enough in the United States. The United Bicycle Institute in
to hook up with a Flickr contact, a bicycle aficionado Ashland, Ore., offers two-week programs for aspiring
named Yohei Morita. On Christmas Day, Morita frame builders. And it’s partly because of Japanese
picked us up at our hotel and offered to take us legends like Tanabe-san.
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.
» Tsukomo Cycle Sports:
» United Bicycle Institute:
Jess Hemerly is a research manager at the Institute for the
Future, a freelance music critic, and a bicycle enthusiast.