Reg Harris and Bradley Wiggins: Two cycling heroes
- 25 July 2012
- From the section Magazine
Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins is being feted, but when the last London Olympics took place Reg Harris was a very different British cycling hero, writes Robert Dineen, author of a new biography.
Earlier this week, Bradley Wiggins wheeled a bike down his driveway, smiled for a small press corp, and pedalled out towards the Lancashire countryside.
British cycling's new superstar then embarked on a training run remarkably similar to the one often followed by the first man to earn that status.
As a keen student of his sport's history, the new Tour de France champion might be able to tell you a little about Reg Harris, too.
A household name in the 1940s and 1950s, Harris won five world sprint titles, two Olympic medals and broke several world records.
In dominating his sport like no Briton had ever done, he was also twice named Sportsman of the Year - the precursor to the BBC Sports Personality award - and later inspired a bronze statue that overlooks the track at Manchester Velodrome.
Born into poverty in Bury - barely 15 miles from Wiggins's home - Harris was quite a different personality to Wiggins.
While the latter is a reluctant hero who has admitted to being uncomfortable with the attention focused on him over the past month, Harris was a showman who revelled in the adulation during a golden era for cycling.
It was an age when thousands cycled to work and almost as many rode for leisure at the weekends.
As a result, Harris raced in front of huge audiences at home and across Europe almost every week, was the first cyclist to appear at a Royal Variety Performance and his statue spent a decade in Madame Tussauds.
"A champion must take to the arena smiling, perfectly turned out and apparently full of confidence," Harris, a consummate crowd-pleaser, once said. "You must develop and put across a personality - become your own public relations officer."
Harris exploited his fame differently, too. While it's been suggested Wiggins likes to wind down with a pint and perhaps a rugby league match at Wigan Warriors, Harris preferred to visit an expensive restaurant and to drink fine wine, stocking thousands of bottles in his cellar.
When not racing on two wheels, Harris often competed in sports cars against the finest motor racing drivers in the country.
Yet in at least one aspect of their characters, Wiggins and Harris had something important in common. There are those who note that a tough upbringing and, specifically, an absent father defined both men.
Wiggins's dad, Gary, a hard-drinking Australian track rider, abandoned the family home when his son was aged only two and had no contact with him again until Wiggins had turned 17. Even then, however, their relationship was tortuous. Wiggins did not attend his father's funeral when he died after an attack by unidentified assailants in 2008 after a drunken night in New South Wales.
Yet this was a watershed moment for Wiggins and his career. As Brendan Gallagher, his biographer, wrote: "He took stock on long, contemplative rides. He vowed not to let his talent go to waste like Gary."
Within a year, Wiggins had defied all expectations to finish fourth in the Tour de France. On Sunday, he crossed the finish on the Champs-Elysees as the first Briton ever to win the race. As Chris Boardman, a former world cycling champion and Olympic gold medallist, said: "It showed how the sport allows you to overcome your background."
Harris's upbringing was slightly different. He was born to a single mother, Elsie Hargreaves, who later married twice, to Ezebon Holding, then Joe Harris, though neither man took a leading role in her son's life.
Harris claimed that he benefited from not being subject to the pressure that a father might place on a son, insisting that "the last person a boy needs around when racing is his father".
In private, though, many people who knew Harris sensed that he was ashamed of his background, hence the lie that he upheld for all his life - Harris claimed that his full name, Reginald Hargreaves Harris, was derived from the names of his father and stepfather.
"Reg wasn't confident, I was close enough to him to know that," said Pete Brotherton, a former pursuit rider and training partner of Harris. He knew about Harris's childhood.
"He never talked about it but that was a big factor. Many sportsmen are sportsmen for a reason. Either they had a rough upbringing or they don't feel confident in themselves, so they try to make themselves part of an elite. Reg made himself confident with his performance. He had to convince himself he was No 1."
Brotherton felt that Harris had to be the best in every aspect of his life, not only on the track, but with his choice of car, his wine, even his clothes. He liked three-piece suits, hand-made shirts and bespoke shoes.
He was known also for the trail of beautiful women that he squired. "He was besotted by them," Tommy Godwin, a former team-mate of Harris, said. "He loved them and he thought they loved him."
At a time when little scrutiny was paid to sportsmen's private life, the public did not know about this side to Harris, and perhaps would not have cared much anyway.
Like Wiggins, he was heroic to them for what he achieved on the bike. Also like Wiggins, he achieved so much partly because his background was so tough.
Robert Dineen is a Daily Telegraph journalist and author of Reg Harris: the rise and fall of Britain's greatest cyclist.