Reg Harris training in Manchester 1956
Bury's biking hero
By Andrew Swanson
Much has been made of Manchester's role in this summer's Olympic cycling success. The squad honed their skills at the national velodrome, but the seeds of the city's cycling prowess can be traced back 60 years - to Bury's own Reg Harris.
While team GB’s record breaking medal haul made the likes of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Bolton’s Jason Kenny household names they will have to go a long way to match the level of fame and notoriety Harris achieved.
Harris takes time out during a grass track race
Twice named sports personality of the year he was selected for the 1948 London Olympic after a public outcry at his exclusion – the selectors originally overlooking him because he chose to train in his native Bury, rather than join the rest of the squad in the capital.
A five time World Champion, his statue still looks down over the third bend of the Manchester Velodrome, passed a thousand and one times by the class of 2008 in their preparations for Beijing.
Things could have been very different for Harris though. Born in Birtle Moor, near Bury, on 1 March 1920, his musician father died when he was six years old and he had never even seen a bicycle when he left school without any qualifications in 1934. He started work as an apprentice mechanic in Bury and this helped him save enough money to buy his first bike at the age of 14.
Reg in action in 1947
From there, his rise was rapid. In stark contrast to the top class facilities enjoyed by cyclists training in Greater Manchester today, Harris won his first race in 1935 on a grass track in Bury. He joined the Lancashire Road Club and his early promise convinced him to change jobs to give him more time to train.
This was an age before lottery grants and professional funding so he moved to a job at a local paper mill that paid enough over the winter for him to take the summer months off to compete.
It worked, with Harris claiming his first victory in a proper velodrome in mid 1936. He won the sprint race at the Fallowfield Stadium in Manchester, a venue that would be named after him many years later.
This success saw him entered for more competitions and he repeated the process of working over the winter and racing in the summer for the next two years. In the summer of 1938 he went up against the British sprint champion and beat him – propelling him onto the national selectors’ radar.
The coming of war
The Second World War put his cycling career on hold for five years, when he was called up to be a tank driver in Africa. It was bad timing for Harris. After joining the Manchester Wheelers’ Cycling Club he had qualified for the World Championships in Milan in 1939. Having travelled with the team to Italy, he was told to return home before a single race had been run as a result of the war.
Harris at the World Championships in Milan 1951
Discharged from the army on medical grounds in 1943 Harris went straight back to the cycling and won three titles at the British Championships in 1944.
With war still raging in Europe, he was invited to perform in a series of exhibition races in Paris in 1945 and became a huge favourite of the Parisian crowds. His popularity saw cycling group Claud Butler offer him a job and the use of their equipment. Once the war was over, this investment helped him claim his first World Amateur Sprint title in 1947, once again in Paris.
The victory, at the age of 27, raised huge expectations that Harris would become Olympic champion on home soil in London in 1948.
Olympic injury scares
Everything looked good until the Bury bomber suffered two horrendous injuries in the run up to the games. Three months before the opening ceremony, he was involved in a road accident and fractured two of his vertebrae. It was testament to Harris’s infamous will to win that he got back on his bike and continued to train hard. But just three weeks before the Olympics were due to start he broke his elbow after falling during a 16km race.
Receiving his Sportsmen of the Year Award in 1950
Undeterred, he continued to train wearing a plaster cast and unbelievably, thanks to the public insisting on his inclusion, he was on the start line in the Olympic sprint and tandem sprint finals. Understandably, the injuries took their toll and his broken body meant he could only claim silver medals in both.
He immediately turned professional ruling himself out of any further Olympic appearances. He won the World Championship sprint title three years running between 1949 and 1951 and returned to claim a fifth title in 1954. A measure of these achievements can be seen in the fact that Britain had to wait more than half a century for its next World Champion, Chris Hoy 54 years later.
In a time when success in any sport, not just football, made you a housewive’s favourite, Reg Harris did wonders for cycling. He was a national celebrity and his world titles saw him twice named Sportsman of the Year by the UK Sports Journalists’ Association in 1950 and 1951.
Reg Harris statue at Velodrome
Retirement and comeback
He retired in 1957 to manage the Fallowfield Stadium where he’d cycled in his first competitive velodrome race more than 20 years before.
He launched the Reg Harris bicycle manufacturing firm in Macclesfield but after that, and a series of other business ventures, failed he made a dramatic competitive come-back in 1971. Still in love with the sport in 1974 he reclaimed the British title at the age of 54 and continued to cycle well into his twilight years.
Honouring his memory
He died on 22 June 1992, reportedly riding his bike near his home in Macclesfield. His record reads five world titles, five world records and two Olympic silvers. A bronze statue of him in action was unveiled in 1994 on the third bend of the velodrome at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester.
Injury meant Reg Harris may not have hit the heights of his Olympic successors 60 years on but he is the man responsible for making the first ripples on the world cycling scene that eventually led to the current tidal wave of Manchester-based British success.
last updated: 27/08/2008 at 12:26