Title: Reg Harris - The Rise And Fall Of Britain's Greatest Cyclist
Author: Robert Dineen
Publisher: Ebury Press
Order: Ebury Publishing
What it is: A biography of Britain's five-time track sprint World Champion, Reg Harris, by Daily Telegraph journalist Robert Dineen
Strengths: Harris's is a story that has too long been out of print.
Weaknesses: The whole thing seems somewhat opportunistic and poorly thought out.
Track sprinting - match sprinting - is possibly the purest cycling discipline there is. It is the true test of head and legs and, down through the years, very little in it has changed. Read reports from early road races and you sometimes wonder if you're really reading about the same sport you watch today, so much has changed. But pick up a story about a match sprint from way, way back and it reads pretty much the same as the story of a match sprint today. Pick a sprinter from the past and it's much easier to see in him a star of today than it is, say, in seeing in Bradley Wiggins the shadow of Odile Defraye or Léon Scieur.
But what do we really know about track sprinters of the past? Consider for a moment how much we actually know about track sprinters of the present. I'd hazard a guess that most could name five (Gregory Baugé, Anna Meares, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Jason Kenny) with another one or two named depending upon your own nationality. How many stars of the past could you name? Compared with road sprinters of the past - Erik Zabel, Mario Cipollini, Sean Kelly, Freddy Maertens, Rik van Looy etc - not many at all.
Let's try a different tack. How many track pursuiters, past or present, could you name? For a moment you might scratch your head but then the names would come: Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy and Graeme Obree and Taylor Phinney and Jack Bobridge and Fasuto Coppi. Think harder and you might be able to drag up names like Jens Lehman, Viatcheslav Ekimov, Bert Oosterbosch, Francesco Moser, Rudi Altig, Roger Rivière, Ercole Baldini. The reason you might be able to name them - and a host of others - is because they all translated success on the track into success on the road. You might be able to name them because you know about them from other exploits, not just their track pursuits.
How many track sprinters have done the same? Let's do something really dull and boring and look at a list of all the track sprint World Champions, first to latest (you don't actually have to look, this is more for reference, you can skip ahead to the next paragraph if you wish):
|Amateur World Champion||Professional World Champion|
|1893||Arthur Augustus Zimmerman|
|1895||Jaap Eden||Robert Protin|
|1896||Harry Reynolds||Paul Bourillon|
|1897||Edwin Schrader||Willy Arend|
|1898||Paul Albert||Georges A Banker|
|1899||Thomas Summersgill||Marshall (Major) Taylor|
|1900||Alphonse Didier Nauts||Edmond Jacquelin|
|1901||Emile Maitrot||Thorvald Ellegaard|
|1902||Charles Piard||Thorvald Ellegaard|
|1903||Arthur L Reed||Thorvald Ellegaard|
|1904||Marcus Hurley||Iver Lawson|
|1905||James Benyon||Gabriel Poulain|
|1906||Francesco Verri||Thorvald Ellegaard|
|1907||Jean Andre Devoissoux||Emile Friol|
|1908||Victor Louis Johnson||Thorvald Ellegaard|
|1909||William J Bailey||Victor Dupré|
|1910||William J Bailey||Emile Friol|
|1911||William J Bailey||Thorvald Ellegaard|
|1912||Donald McDougall||Frank Kramer|
|1913||William J Bailey||Walter Rütt|
1914 -1918, Not Held
|1920||Maurice Peeters||Bob Spears|
|1921||Henry Brask Andersen||Piet Moeskops|
|1922||Thomas Johnson||Piet Moeskops|
|1923||Lucien Michard||Piet Moeskops|
|1924||Lucien Michard||Piet Moeskops|
|1925||Jaap Meijer||Ernst Kaufmann|
|1926||Avanti Martinetti||Piet Moeskops|
|1927||Mathias Engel||Lucien Michard|
|1928||Willy Falck Hansen||Lucien Michard|
|1929||Antoine Mazairac||Lucien Michard|
|1930||Louis Gérardin||Lucien Michard|
|1931||Helge Harder||Willy Falck Hansen|
|1932||Albert Richter||Jef Scherens|
|1933||Jacques Van Egmond||Jef Scherens|
|1934||Benedetto Pola||Jef Scherens|
|1935||Toni Merkens||Jef Scherens|
|1936||Arie van Vliet||Jef Scherens|
|1937||Jef Van De Vijver||Jef Scherens|
|1938||Jef Van De Vijver||Arie van Vliet|
|1940-45 Not Held|
|1946||Oscar Plattner||Jan Derksen|
|1947||Reginald Harris||Jef Scherens|
|1948||Mario Ghella||Arie van Vliet|
|1949||Sid Patterson||Reginald Harris|
|1950||Maurice Verdeun||Reginald Harris|
|1951||Enzo Sacchi||Reginald Harris|
|1952||Enzo Sacchi||Oscar Plattner|
|1953||Marino Morettini||Arie van Vliet|
|1954||Cyril Peacock||Reginald Harris|
|1955||Giuseppe Ogna||Antonio Maspes|
|1956||Michel Rousseau||Antonio Maspes|
|1957||Michel Rousseau||Jan Derksen|
|1958||Valentino Gasparella||Michel Rousseau|
|1959||Valentino Gasparella||Antonio Maspes|
|1960||Sante Gaiardoni||Antonio Maspes|
|1961||Sergio Bianchetto||Antonio Maspes|
|1962||Sergio Bianchetto||Antonio Maspes|
|1963||Patrick Sercu||Sante Gaiardoni|
|1964||Pierre Trentin||Antonio Maspes|
|1965||Omar Phakadze||Giuseppe Beghetto|
|1966||Daniel Morelon||Giuseppe Beghetto|
|1967||Daniel Morelon||Patrick Sercu|
|1968||Luigi Borghetti||Giuseppe Beghetto|
|1969||Daniel Morelon||Patrick Sercu|
|1970||Daniel Morelon||Gordon Johnson|
|1971||Daniel Morelon||Leijn Loevesijn|
|1972||Robert Van Lancker|
|1973||Daniel Morelon||Robert Van Lancker|
|1974||Anton Tkac||Peder Pedersen|
|1975||Daniel Morelon||John Nicholson|
|1977||Hans Jürgen Geschke||Koichi Nakano|
|1978||Anton Tkac||Koichi Nakano|
|1979||Lutz Heßlich||Koichi Nakano|
|1981||Sergei Kopylov||Koichi Nakano|
|1982||Sergei Kopylov||Koichi Nakano|
|1983||Lutz Heßlich||Koichi Nakano|
|1985||Lutz Heßlich||Koichi Nakano|
|1986||Michael Hübner||Koichi Nakano|
|1987||Lutz Heßlich||Noboyuki Tawara|
|1989||Bill Huck||Claudio Golinelli|
|1990||Bill Huck||Michael Hübner|
|1994||Marty Wayne Nothstein|
|1995||Darryn William Hill|
|2000||Jan Van Eijden|
There's not many names on that list you'd know excepting for their track sprinting. For track sprinters, there's not really a lot else to do (other than the Keirin). The physical attributes that carry them to success in best-of-three bouts of three laps round a track don't translate well into success on the road. Track sprinting is its own private world.
All of which is by way of explanation as to why so few people today, outside of the UK, know who Reg Harris was.
Scanning my bookshelf, I could find reference to Harris in, I think, only three books: Chris Hoy's autobiography, Richard Moore's biography of Hoy and the rise of British Cycling, Heroes, Villain & Velodromes, and Tim Hilton's One More Kilometre and We're In The Showers. In the two Hoy books you learn how Harris cast a long shadow in the UK track scene, how his career was as much a brake on the ambition of young track sprinters (they were forever being told they were never as good as Harris was) as it was an inspiration. In Hilton's book you get a glimpse of just how popular Harris was in his day, and why.
In his day Harris was popular. His five rainbow jerseys led to an autobiography (Two Wheels To The Top) and two biographies (George Pearson's Reg Harris: An Authoritative Biography and Roger St Pierre's The Story of Reg Harris). His athletic endeavours earned him a gong (OBE) and that ultimate (but somewhat fatuous) measure of sporting popularity in the UK, the Sports Personality of the Year Award. He earned enough to feed a passion for fast cars, and enough to raise himself up from the dirt-poor backstreets of Bury to a comfortable home with land attached. Harris fronted ads for Raleigh: everyone knew that Reg rode a Raleigh.
In the fifty or so years since the first Sprint World Championships, six Britons preceded Harris (Thomas Summersgill, Arthur Reed, James Benyon, Victor Johnson, William Bailey and Thomas Johnson), all as amateurs, the last of them twenty-five years before Harris came along. No Briton had ever won the Professional title. Harris was as much a pioneer on the track as men like Brian Robinson, Tom Simpson and Barry Hoban were on the road in later years. What happened after Harris? In 1954 - the year Harris won his last professional title - Cyril Peacock won the amateur world title. And then came the years of waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Until Chris Hoy switched to the sprint after the UCI axed the kilo and a Briton again won the title, in 2008.
Harris's popularity wasn't just limited to the goldfish bowl of the UK. Like the Americans Arthur Zimmermann and Major Taylor before him, he was a star on the Continent too. And powerful: he was a patron, a member of the train bleu, a cappo di tutti capi in cycling's mafia, a man you wouldn't want to cross if you wanted to make a go of it in the track scene on the continent. A word from him and race organisers would neglect to invite you to their races.
Harris mixed with stars of the road when they took their Winter vacations on the track, coining in the lucrative appearance fees their success on the road had entitled them too. Dineen tells a story from once such encounter.
"Trevor Fenwick recalled a story that Harris told him about a night out in Denmark that illustrated his attitude to this other sport. Hugo Koblet and Rik van Steenbergen, two leading road cyclists, were involved. 'They met up with three other women and arranged to go back to the hotel, but the riders went in a taxi and the women followed them on their bikes,' Fenwick said. 'Reg thought this hilarious.' Each man was in competition the next day. 'Van Steenbergen complained that Reg had been leading him astray. Reg said to me: "You would think it had been me pulling his pisser." It was all right for Reg, but road men had to look after themselves more.' Fenwick saw little guilt from Harris over his many infidelities. 'When telling me about his adventures, Reg would say, "I am only doing what other businessmen do when they are away."'
That "other sport" referred to by Dineen is not road cycling but what Dineen, in one of his many euphemisms, refers to as Harris's "libidinous deceits." Harris, you see, was a bit of a ladies' man. And Dineen is from that class of British journalist that obsesses over the sexual peccadilloes of the rich and famous (Dineen's other obsession is that other British perennial: class). While Dineen spends a lot of time discussing Harris's three wives and many mistresses, one of the awkward issues with Reg Harris - The Rise And Fall Of Britain's Greatest Cyclist is that few of those women shared their stories with Dineen.
Harris's sporting life is a pretty compelling story that moves through success and set-back. Success: the 1947 amateur World Championships. Set-back: the 1948 Olympics. Success: the 1949, '50 and '51 professional World titles. Set-back: defeat in '52 and '53. Success: Harris's fourth and final professional title. To expand the story add in his first visit to a Worlds, Milan in 1939 on the eve of war, when the British squad beat a tactical retreat on the eve of competition fearing the world was on the edge of a new world war. Then add in the fade to grey of Harris's professional career and the story of what happens when a champion cyclist hangs up his wheels. The story can then be topped and tailed by Harris's rise through the British amateur ranks and - in a piquant twist - his return to amateur competition in the early seventies when he added another British championship title to his palmarès.
To explain what Reg Harris - The Rise And Fall Of Britain's Greatest Cyclist is really about, let's take two passages from the book, early and late. The first comes from the prologue:
"spend eighteen months researching his life, and you discover that the man behind that legend is far more complicated than those fans could ever have known. You learn for example, that he found the circumstances of his childhood so shameful that he kept them secret all his life. You find that the most powerful people in the sport conspired against him, yet still he prevailed. You are told also that he was as ruthless away from the track as he was on it, and made more enemies than he did friends. Gradually you learn that he was defined as much by his pursuit of women as that of success. In short, pick away at the surface of his life, and you discover that much about it was not quite as it seemed."
From that, you might be able to work out that Dineen's biography is one part Lance Armstrong's War (the world against Reg Harris and Reg Harris against the world) and one part Paul Howard's Sex, Lies And Handlebar Tape. Let's now jump to another quote, this from toward the end of the book. An important source for some of the story Dineen tells is Harris's daughter from his first marriage, Marilyn Harris:
"'Promise me that you will write a sympathetic portrait,' she said. Should those close to him read the book, I expect they might finds aspects of it difficult. I hope that they do not judge it to be opportunist, inspired by its conflicts and criticisms. I set out hoping to write the life of a hero whose story had not been properly told. Only researching it did I discover him to be more intriguing than I could have imagined. I promised Marilyn that I would try."
How well does Dineen pull of the task of telling Harris's story? Well, he strives for balance. For just about every negative thing that can be said about Harris, Dinnen strives to find something positive to say. Sometimes this involves Dineen over stretching himself (such as when he imbues Harris with a false prescience in predicting bike lanes and the future of British Cycling). Other times it involves taking a bucket of whitewash to problematic issues. Especially the doping issue.
Harris - like many of his generation - is generally considered to have doped. In Harris's day, it's important to point out, there were no rules telling you not to dope, they didn't arrive until the 'sixties. But doping was still a moral issue. An issue that riders, fans and the media were increasingly conscious of.
Dineen acknowledges that Harris employed the services of a soigneur who was well known for the contents of his little black bag, Louis Guerlach. There are also Harris's admissions that he had tried doping but, finding it didn't work, gave up on it:
"Yes, I experimented with drugs, in world record attempts and important races, but never in World Championships. But I found that my nerve control was harmed by it. It was a failure, although I am not ashamed to admit that, had I found it a success, I would have used it in world-title events."
According to Dineen's version of the story, Harris doped twice for competition and then never again. He may have used amphetamines when driving to and from races (lots of people did in those days, in all walks of life) but those two competitive occasions apart, Harris raced clean. So what was he doing working with Louis Guerlach?
"'Guerlach was the big dope soigneur of the time but Reg didn't use him for drugs,' Pete Brotherton said. 'He hired him so nobody else got to him. That was the deal: Guerlach had to stay with Reg.'"
The manner in which Dineen takes a couple of pages to dismiss the doping clouds that hang over Harris is infuriating on its own, but even more so in light of Dineen's repeated assertions that the only reason Harris missed out on a gold medal in the 1948 Olympic sprint was that his opponent, Mario Ghella, was doped to the eye-balls. Similar claims are made about other riders Harris came up against. Does Dineen really subscribe to the 'dirty cheating foreigners, noble clean Britons' school of thought?
He certainly gives the impression he does. Consider this story. A typical match sprint is one rider against another. In 1951, the world championship format was changed to three riders, at the prompting of a powerful French bloc within the UCI. The motive? An attempt, Dineen insists, to stymie Harris (who had won the professional title twice already) and punish him for spending the Winter of 1950/51 riding on rollers on the cabaret circuit in the UK instead of attending exhibition events on the Continent. Not that this stopped Harris making it three titles on the trot in 1951. Though it is rolled out again as an excuse for Harris's failures in 1952 and 1953. After which the UCI reverted to the two-up format and Harris secured his fourth professional title.
Were Harris's two back-to-back professional sprint titles in 1949 and 1950 reason enough to change the rules to block him? Well look back at that long list of sprint World Champions and judge for yourself. Thorval Ellegard won three on the trot between 1901 and 1903 and that wasn't a problem. And Piet Moeskops had strung four victories together between 1921 and 1924 without it being a problem. As had Lucien Michard between 1927 and 1930. Jef Scherens had stretched the record to six between 1932 and 1937. So why put the brakes on Dineen just because he'd won it twice on the trot? Was it really those dastardly French trying to block a brilliant Brit? Really?
Let's move on to the next problem with the way Dineen tells his story. All of cycling is a murky world. As fans, we know that. As fans, we know that cycling is part sport, part spectacle. We accept the existence of events like critériums, even knowing that they are run off to a script. We accept the deals done - fiscal and otherwise - in the peloton in real races. Track cycling is a bit more difficult than road racing though. The balance between sport and spectacle is out of whack. In track cycling, outside of the Olympics and the World Championships (and, today, the World Cup events) most other races are exhibition events: a chance for fans to see the stars of the day in the flesh. Back in Harris' day, there was a thriving exhibition circuit. Where a lot of races ran to a script. This causes Dineen all sorts of problems. As does the fact that riders sometimes offer money to opponents in order to ensure a World Championship victory. If money can buy a win, what really is the sporting value of victory?
Dineen's solution to this issue is as simple as his solution to doping: all of Harris's major titles were hard earned, of others the same cannot be said. When Antonio Maspes defeated Harris in 1955, winning the first of his six professional titles, Dineen notes that Harris had been offered a fee to throw the race in the Italian's favour:
"'I never thought twice about accepting the offer,' he said. Apparently he understood that guilt was corrosive. 'Acquiescing in a transaction of that nature would have started an inward deterioration that could have had only one end.'"
Harris himself did buy a national title. Having retired from the pro circuit in the 1950's Harris made a comeback in the 1970's, taking a tilt at the 1971 UK sprint National Championships. Everything was fixed for Harris to win. Except for one rider, Australia's reigning world champion in the sprint, Gordon Johnson, who had been invited to compete as an overseas entrant. Once Johnson defeated Harris the NCU were lobbied to prevent non-British riders competing in future National Championships (oh the irony). It was 1974 before Harris tried his next comeback, this time successfully. Everyone knew it was a joke but everyone played along, the fans and the mainstream and cycling media alike. Which reaction allows Dineen to wax philosophical:
"It seemed people were more interested in stoking Harris's legend than in questioning the legitimacy of his win. Just as he needed their adoration, it seemed they needed to exalt him. Perhaps that is not unusual in cheating's long history. Maybe we are often complicit in demanding of our sporting heroes feats that are narrowly beyond them."
Antoine Blondin would have blushed.
The issue of Harris' comeback could have been a useful opportunity for Harris to consider how accurate his biography's subtitle (The Rise And Fall Of Britain's Greatest Cyclist) really is. Britain's road cyclists had by then been making names for themselves on the Continent. And, while the UK forgot how to produce track sprinters, it sure knew how to produce pursuiters: Norman Shiel and Hugh Porter had donned rainbow jerseys (four, in Porter's case) in the years between Harris retiring and making his comeback. Beryl Burton was a multiple World Champion on the track and the road. Harris was already being eclipsed by the early seventies. Arguing that he hasn't been totally eclipsed today would, in my view, be a difficult task. Thankfully it's not a task Dineen takes on: the notion that Harris is Britain's greatest cyclist is simply taken as read, no proof needed.
Some of the telling of Harris's story Dineen does pull off: the first part of Harris's career, up to when he turns professional in 1949, is well done. Too much of the rest though is weak, the private and sporting strands poorly woven together. Issues are raised and then forgotten about (Harris's relationship with his mother, a child he had by one of his lovers etc). Overall, though, Dineen is to be congratulated for putting the story of Reg Harris back on bookshop shelves. Somewhere within the pages of Reg Harris - The Rise And Fall Of Britain's Greatest Cyclist is a story that's worth reading about.