Leicester is a city blessed with its fair share of sporting heroes, from Foxes and England football stars Gary Lineker, Peter Shilton and Jamie Vardy – to World Cup-winning rugby captain Martin Johnson and his dominant Tigers team of the late nineties and early noughties.
Away from football and rugby, there is four-time World Snooker Champion, the Jester from Leicester, Mark Selby. In boxing, there is Tony Sibson and Rendall Munroe, both European and Commonwealth champions who went on to challenge for world titles.
Cycling is also a sport with a rich, if less celebrated, tradition in the city. The former 3,100 seater Saffron Lane Velodrome was built for the 1970 World Cycling Championship and was home to the British National Track Championships for several decades before it fell into disrepair.
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The velodrome was also the venue where British Cycling Hall of Famer and former World Pursuit Champion, Leicester’s Colin Sturgess, won three British National Individual Pursuit Championships – in 1989, 1990 and 1991.
In the late 19th century, Leicester was a center of the bicycle making industry. There were Barron of Albion Street, Clay of Belgrave Gate, Curry of Painter Street, Davis of St James Street, Edlin of Frog Island, Fox of New Bridge, and Spiers of Queen Street.
The Halford Cycle Company was founded in 1902 and took its name from its first premises at 9, Halford Street. Leicester also attracted thousands of people to top national and international cycle races held in the city at the time.
Out of this bygone cycling craze emerged perhaps the greatest Leicester sportsman you’ve probably never heard of. It is now 125 years since the tragic death of British bike racing pioneer Bert Harris, acclaimed as Leicester’s greatest sporting hero of his era.
His dazzling career as a racing cyclist was prematurely ended when he crashed during a race in Aston, Birmingham. He died from his injuries two days later on April 21, 1897.
He had just turned 24 years old at the time of the accident. On the day of his funeral, people turned out in their tens of thousands to pay their last respects to the champ.
Harris, who became Amateur Track Champion of England and later National Professional Champion, became an internationally-known name in the sport. He must rate as one of the great sportsmen to emerge from Leicester, yet today it’s doubtful if many local people have heard of him at all.
Born in Birmingham in April, 1874, he moved to Leicester with his family as a boy. They settled at 4, Portsmouth Road, in Belgrave – one of the new roads of the time.
His father encouraged him to take up cycling – starting on a new Rapid with solid tires and flat handlebars in schoolboy events at the age of 14. Belgrave also had his own nationally recognized cycling and athletic stadium at the time he was living there.
Most of Harris’s racing days were spent as a member of the London Polytechnic Cycling Club. Some of his Midland opponents, jealous of his membership of the famous club, even dubbed him the Poly Provincial Pup.
This greatly amused Harris, who had PPP stencilled on his traveling bag. In the 1892 season, he won more first prizes than any other rider in England and netted more than £ 600 in prize money. Harris turned professional in 1894 and signed for the Humber team.
In 1895 Harris was reigning national champion and in 1896 – ‘his best ever racing year’ – he went to Australia, a visit which coincided with a micycling mania that hit the continent. Harris’s total ‘bag’ of prize money in Australia was more than £ 800 and trophies worth nearly £ 300.
His luck was destined to run out on Easter Monday 1897 when he was booked to race in a series of pro events at the newly-built steeply-banked cement track at Aston, Birmingham. In Dick Swann’s book called Bert Harris of the Poly: A Cycling Legend, published in 1974, the author tells how, prior to the meeting, Harris had a premonition of disaster.
Before leaving Leicester, he is reported to have said his goodbyes to neighbors and friends. And he even told his father he felt he’d never sleep in his own bed again. Sadly, he was right.
In Birmingham, Harris had finished second in a quarter mile handicap race, despite riding the last 80 meters on a punctured tire. Apparently, he had resigned himself to being unable to compete in the next 10 mile event, but an amateur cyclist lent him his front wheel.
After four miles with the field traveling at 27 miles an hour, reports of the day indicate that Harris appeared to catch the wheel of the cycle in front and hit the cement bank. Another rider fell on top of him.
Unconscious and bleeding from a head wound, he was taken to Birmingham General Hospital. He recovered briefly on the way and told a friend he was ‘beat’. He said the same thing to his father, who had rushed back from Cardiff to his bedside in hospital.
Harris, sadly, succumbed to his injuries. His funeral was held on April 26, which included a cortege from his home in Belgrave to Welford Road Cemetery. The Leicester Chronicle reported it as “Such a scene at a funeral has never been equalled in Leicester”.
Crowds of people lined the two-mile route to pay their respects. When it arrived at Welford Road, the procession was met by cyclists and athletes from across the country. They paid for a memorial stone at the cemetery erected by the cyclists of England.
As a mark of his popularity and stature within the sport, it reads: “In token of the sincere respect and esteem in which he was held by wheelmen the world over. He was ever a fair and honorable rider and sportsman and his lamented death cut off in its prime one of the brightest and most genial spirits of cycledom. ”
RIP Bert Haris – Leicester cycling legend.