IT’S fascinating to live in Britain as cycling breaks from the pack of sports and attacks hard at the public consciousness.
We Irish have already lived through a two-wheel boom — 25 years ago Stephen Roche capped a gilded age for the sport at home by winning the Tour de France in the same year as he claimed victory in the Giro d’Italia and the World Championship.
Now Bradley Wiggins, a son of Kilburn, has made his way back across the channel with the Maillot Jaune in his holdall.
A measure of how far British cycling has travelled came last Saturday, when the nation was stunned at Team GB’s inability to deliver a Pall Mall gold medal for sprinter Mark Cavendish.
Wiggins, though, claimed first place in Wednesday’s time trial.
This dominance of road cycling is entirely new for British competitors. Before the highways and mountain lanes were conquered, this country established a carbon-grip on track cycling: Chris Hoy had won four Olympic golds (now five), Wiggins himself had won three.
And long before Cavendish and Wiggins and Hoy, the hard yards were peddled by Reg Harris.
An illegitimate child born into the unrelenting poverty of great-depression-era Bury, Harris grinded and glided his way to the top of the sport and was world champion an incredible five times between 1947 and 1954.
Harris was a gifted, dedicated athlete with a dark side. As well as ruling cycling in the middle of the century, he revelled in the fruits of his success: money, celebrity, fast cars and beautiful women. Astonishingly for such a marquee figure, a lot about Harris’ life was unknown. He bore many secrets and the moulding of his Gatsbyesque persona had gone unexplored. Until now.
Step forward Robert Dineen, who has burned shoe leather and the midnight oil and every other cliché you can think of during exhaustive digging that has led to a new book on Harris.
Of course, Dineen doesn’t do clichés. How could he when he learnt his craft at The Irish Post? The Hertfordshire-born writer (son of Co Cork parents, Anne from Fermoy and the late Liam from nearby Glanworth, who moved here in the mid-1970s) worked at this paper during the early Noughties.
“I was fortunate to be given a job in sports journalism there,” says the former sports editor. “I learnt the basics and then fell in love with the job.”
He has since served GQ, The Sunday Times, The Times and is now employed on The Daily Telegraph sports desk.
He wrote Reg Harris, The Rise and Fall of Britain’s Great Cyclist, over the course of a year — April 2011 to April 2012 — while working at the Telegraph. He’d graft for two hours before his shift began each day and devote his two days off — and holidays — to the project. The balance between writing and research — countless hours at the newspaper library in Colindale and the British library and interviews up and down the country — was “roughly 50/50,” he says.
“It wasn’t an easy book to write,” adds Dineen, “but it was hugely enjoyable.”
So, is it any good? Well, Dineen is a friend and former colleague so some may view my account as biased. I can only assure those people that if I didn’t find the book compelling I wouldn’t have written anything, or spoke to Dineen, about it.
The truth is this book is compelling. I won’t give away too much, but there was more than enough detail uncovered that could have allowed Dineen to put Harris’ reputation through the shredder and scatter the remains at the foot of his statue at the Manchester Velodrome. Yet, crucially, Dineen does not do that.
Harris is not spared his foibles and skulduggery, but the writer has presented a three-dimensional protagonist — a man who was ruthless in the pursuit of victory, careless with people’s hearts and ostentatious with his wealth.
But here was a man who was also a visionary — he foretold the growth of leisure and utility cycling a good half-century before it came to pass. He was also capable of acts of extreme loyalty and kindness. Just one example is how he insisted Neville Tong recover at his house after fracturing his skull at Harris Stadium in Manchester.
Tong spent six weeks as at chez Harris, with the great man even running his guest to-and-fro the hospital.
“I only ever rode in one meeting with him,” said Tong. “I think he felt responsible because it was his ground.”
“Reg was a complicated guy,” says Dineen.
In tirelessly exploring all facets of his character, Dineen does his subject the ultimate service: he gets right to the nub of a man who, all those decades ago, lit the fuse which ultimately led to today’s cycling explosion in Britain.
Harris reached for the heavens; he gritted his teeth and stamped on the pedals until he travelled at superhuman speeds. Sometimes, you hoped, he managed to out-sprint the hurt of a sorrow-filled background. Sometimes, he clearly did not.
This well-written, rigorously researched and faultlessly fair book tells you why.
With enough attention to detail to satisfy the serious cycling aficionado and enough insight to engage anybody who has ever paused to consider the human condition, Dineen’s words and Harris’s tale deserve a wide audience.
* Reg Harris, The Rise and Fall of Britain’s Greatest Cyclist is published by Ebury Press. Available from good bookshops and Amazon now.