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   Inside Out - East Midlands: Friday January 19, 2007
Bert Harris Way sign
Bert Harris - commemorating a cycling hero

Bert Harris - superstar

From W G Grace to Sebastian Coe, Britain's great sporting heroes have become household names and part of our heritage.

But one of the greatest sporting stars of his time is now completely unknown.

In the 1890s the new sport of cycling was big news, and in England the top performer was a young man called Bert Harris - the David Beckham of his day.

Such was his success that, having won more prize money all over the world than almost any other sportsman, people began to refer to 1896 as 'Harris Year'.

Mysterious circumstances

Bert was the only man who could consistently beat soon-to-be world champion A A Zimmerman of the US - and everyone predicted ultimate success lay just ahead of him.

But Bert died young and in mysterious circumstances.

The official verdict is that he died as a result of a racing incident, but speculation still surrounds his fatal crash.

Richard Harris
Bert Harris' descendant Richard Harris

Inside Out discovered how this sporting genius from Leicester was the victim of a tragic incident surrounded by mutterings of conspiracy and race fixing.

We also find out why today he is almost totally forgotten, but for the efforts of a handful of loyal enthusiasts.

Victorian reconstructions to tell the story were filmed on location in Leicester.

By a bizarre twist of fate, the Bert Harris look-alike in the film turned out to be Bert's descendant.

The East Midlands sporting hero who lost his place in the history is about to be reinstated as perhaps England's greatest ever cyclist.

Fact file

* Bert Harris was born in Birmingham in 1874, but moved to Portsmouth Road, Leicester as a child.

* He grew up in the shadow of the Belgrave cycling track.

* In 1891, Bert won the Five Mile Race at Bristol and was invited to join the London Polytechnic Cycling Club. Bert turned professional in 1894.

Bert Harris
Bert Harris - England's greatest ever cyclist?

* He became the first professional champion of England and gained the nickname "The Kid" on account of his youthful looks.

* Bert's reputation as a cyclist grew around the world. He moved to Paris and toured the European circuit, earning £15 a week in winnings.

* He was invited to Australia in 1895 to take part in racing. He won almost every event he entered. Bert later planned to emigrate to Australia.

* Before a race in Bolton on Easter Sunday 1897, Bert had a premonition that he would die racing, and returned to back to Leicester before the race.

* Later that weekend Bert was persuaded to race. After four miles Bert fell and banged his head on the cement and was taken to hospital in Birmingham.

* His death is surrounded by suspicion and controversy - his borrowed front wheel was badly damaged and there was speculation about whether an experienced professional would have made such a basic steering mistake.

* There were also rumours that Bert was going to be "bumped" to fix the race.

* Bert died aged of 23 on April 21 1897. Thousands of people lined the route to the Welford Road cemetery for Bert Harris' funeral procession.

Read a detailed biography of Bert Harris

Thanks to Roger Lovell for biographical information.

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