Readers bitten by Britain’s cycling bug may have visited Manchester’s velodrome, now the National Cycling Centre, opened in September 1994 and the centrepiece of the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
Inside, a magnificently athletic bronze statue of a cyclist – alert, hunched, powerful – casts his piercing gaze over the velodrome’s Siberian pine track. However, it’s not Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, or Mark Cavendish, but Reg Harris, a man born in Bury, a few miles down the road, who became world cycling champion five times, won two Olympic silver medals and was twice named Britain’s sportsman of the year.
It is six decades since Harris won the last of his five world titles, but in Robert Dineen’s well-researched biography he emerges as a compelling character, a sportsman with a non-sporting hinterland who enjoyed a life filled with paradox.
Britons adored him, not least because of his background. He was a working class boy who, through sheer hard work, rose to the very top on merit, an important consideration in post-war Britain.
Behind this image, however, was another, more ruthless Reg. On the day of his wedding, for example, Harris's soon-to-be father-in-law said to his daughter, "I'd rather walk you to your grave than down the aisle to marry this man." Harris would eventually marry three times, in between which (and usually during), he was an inveterate womaniser.
Following a hugely successful track career, Harris retired in 1957 and ultimately launched a string of businesses. These included the establishment of Reg Harris Bicycle Manufacturing in Macclesfield, but his commercial nous rarely matched his on-track prowess and he suffered a series of business failures. Though he would eventually re-claim the British professional cycling crown in 1974 at the age of 54, he may instead have expected to be reaping the benefits of his commercial acumen.
There’s no doubt that he spent a lot of money for he had a penchant for expensive cigars, finely tailored suits, fast cars, visiting the finest restaurants and rubbing shoulders with glamorous women and some very dodgy characters, all a far cry from today’s often one-dimensional sportsmen. Dineen has written a marvellous book about a genuine character, the like of whom the sporting world may never see again. Outstanding.