Leicester’s greatest sportsman you’ve probably never heard of
Leicester is a city blessed with its fair share of sporting heroes, from Foxes and English football stars Gary Lineker, Peter Shilton and Jamie Vardy – to World Cup-winning rugby captain Martin Johnson and his dominating La Tigers side. late 90s and early 2000s.
Away from football and rugby, there is four-time world snooker champion, Leicester jester Mark Selby. In boxing, there’s Tony Sibson and Rendall Munroe, both European and Commonwealth champions who fought 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 hosted the British National Track Championships for several decades before falling into disrepair.
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The velodrome was also where British Cycling Hall of Famer and former pursuit world champion, Colin Sturgess of Leicester, won three British national individual pursuit championships – in 1989, 1990 and 1991.
At the end of the 19th century, Leicester was a center of the bicycle manufacturing industry. There was Barron from Albion Street, Clay from Belgrave Gate, Curry from Painter Street, Davis from St James Street, Edlin from Frog Island, Fox from New Bridge and Spiers from Queen Street.
The Halford Cycle Company was founded in 1902 and takes its name from its first premises at 9 Halford Street. Leicester also attracted thousands to the top national and international cycle races held in the city at the time.
From this past cycling craze emerged perhaps Leicester’s greatest sportsman that you’ve probably never heard of. It has now been 125 years since the tragic death of British cycle racing pioneer Bert Harris, hailed as Leicester’s greatest sporting hero of his day.
His meteoric racing career ended prematurely when he crashed during a race in Aston, Birmingham. He died of his injuries two days later, on April 21, 1897.
He had just turned 24 at the time of the accident. On the day of his funeral, people turned out by the tens of thousands to pay their last respects to the champion.
Harris, who became England’s amateur track champion and later professional national champion, became an internationally recognized name in the sport. He must be considered one of the great sportsmen to come out of Leicester, but today it is unlikely that many locals have heard of him.
Born in Birmingham in April 1874, he moved to Leicester with his family as a child. They settled at 4 Portsmouth Road, Belgrave – one of the newer roads at the time.
His father encouraged him to ride a bike – starting with a new Rapid with solid tires and flat handlebars at school children’s events when he was 14. Belgrave also had its own nationally recognized cycling and athletics stadium during the time he lived there.
Most of Harris’ racing days were spent as a member of the London Polytechnic Cycling Club. Some of his Midland opponents, jealous of his membership in the famous club, even dubbed him the Poly Provincial Pup.
This amused Harris, who had stenciled PPP on his travel bag. In the 1892 season he won more first prizes than any other rider in England and won over £600 in prize money. Harris turned pro in 1894 and signed for the Humber team.
In 1895 Harris was the reigning national champion and in 1896 – “his best racing year” – he traveled to Australia, a visit which coincided with a cycling mania that hit the continent. Harris’ total ‘bag’ in Australia was over £800 and the trophies worth almost £300.
His luck was destined to run out on Easter Monday 1897 when he was contracted to compete in a series of professional events at the newly constructed cement track in Aston, Birmingham. In Dick Swann’s book Bert Harris of the Poly: A Cycling Legend, published in 1974, the author recounts how, prior to the encounter, Harris had a premonition of disaster.
Before leaving Leicester, he would have said goodbye to his neighbors and friends. And he even told his father that he felt he would never sleep in his own bed again. Unfortunately, he was right.
In Birmingham, Harris had finished second in a quarter-mile handicap race, despite covering the final 80 meters with a flat tire. Apparently, he had resigned himself to not being able to participate in the next 10-mile event, but an amateur cyclist lent him his front wheel.
After four miles with the field rolling at 27 miles per hour, reports for the day say Harris appeared to catch the wheel of the bike ahead and hit the cement embankment. 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 “beaten”. He said the same to his father, who had rushed from Cardiff to his bedside in hospital.
Harris, unfortunately, succumbed to his injuries. His funeral took place on April 26, which included a procession from his home in Belgrave to Welford Road Cemetery. The Leicester Chronicle reported it as “Such a scene at a funeral has never been equaled in Leicester”.
Crowds of people lined the two-mile route to pay their respects. When it arrived at Welford Road, the motorcade was greeted 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 in the sport, it reads: “In token of the sincere respect and esteem in which he was held by helmsmen throughout the world. He was always a rider and a fair and honorable sportsman and his lamented death. off in his prime one of the brightest and most genius minds in cycledom.”
RIP Bert Haris – Leicester cycling legend.