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|Posted: Thu Apr 07, 2005 12:00 pm Post subject: Film planned about Leicester cycling legend
|From the Leicester Mercury
DID BERT FALL OR WAS HE PUSHED?
BY SARAH STAPLES
10:30 - 07 April 2005
The clock, he knew, was ticking. Champion cyclist Bert Harris had seen this race in his dreams. In his premonition, it ended in the twisted, mangled wreckage of a racing bike, and a death. His own.
With a heavy heart, the stocky bookies' son from Belgrave walked the dusty streets he had known since childhood, saying solemn goodbyes to friends and family before taking leave to meet his fate.
There would be a big bank holiday crowd at the cycle track in Aston, Birmingham.
Bert, with his handsome looks and modest manner, was one of the day's star attractions.
"The Kid," as he was known, had taken the cycling world by storm.
Three years earlier, he was crowned the first Professional Champion of England.
He toured Australia, thrashing their champion and winning £800 in prize money. This was at a time when a skilled worker in England earned £85 a year.
He was the darling of an adoring public, especially female fans. Newspaper headlines called him "The Invincible Harris" and crowds of 20,000 "CENSORED" to see him ride.
He had lived in Paris, touring the lucrative European circuit, but home was where the heart was.
His father and family still lived in Belgrave, where his racing career began.
On Easter Sunday, 1897, he was due to race at a meeting in Bolton, but while travelling there by train, he became so upset that his father, who travelled with him, persuaded him to pull out.
There was racing the next day, Easter Monday, at Aston.
This time, Harris was persuaded to take part, but he was so convinced he would die, he visited friends and family to say goodbye.
At first, his winning ways showed no signs of stopping. He came second in a quarter-mile sprint, despite his bike picking up a puncture.
Harris didn't have a spare, so that should have meant that he couldn't take part in the main event of the day, the 10-mile, but fate intervened and a fellow competitor loaned the 23-year-old his wheel.
At the four-mile mark, he was in the middle of the pack and travelling at about 27mph when the crowd saw him fall heavily, smashing his head on the cement track.
He briefly regained consciousness, telling a friend, Will Jordan: "Oh Will, this time I am beat."
He was taken to Birmingham General Hospital, where he slipped in and out of consciousness.
Days later, on Wednesday, April 21, he died.
The cause of the crash is unknown. At the time, some wondered if the borrowed front wheel was faulty, others if Harris had simply made an error and touched wheels with another rider.
Leicester cycling historian Roger Lovell believes The Kid could have fallen victim to a race-fixing plot.
He says: "There was a rumour going round that they were going to give Bert what was called 'The Chop' - with another rider deliberately crashing into his front wheel.
"Some of us think that the reason Bert had his 'premonition' was that somebody might have suggested something."
Roger, who is making a 25-minute documentary about Harris's life later this year with film-maker Stewart Charles, is alluding to race-fixing.
Large bets would be placed on a cycle race, but if a bookie or punter knew that a favourite wasn't going to win, he could lay his money on a rider who was placed at longer odds.
"I would think it was more likely that he was deliberately knocked off. That is why I don't think he had a premonition. I think someone had warned him before the race," says Roger.
"Cycle racing was probably the biggest sport in the country at the time, with huge amounts of money being gambled on it."
Tens of thousands of people lined the route of Bert's funeral procession, while hundreds watched the graveside proceedings.
The procession stopped in Belgrave Gate for nearly an hour and then they made their way to Welford Road Cemetery. People were climbing up trees to watch.
One man who will watch the documentary with interest is Roderick Harris, step-nephew of Bert, who lives in Gilmorton. He says he is "rather chuffed" about the project.
"I'm all in favour of it," he says, "I think one of the most remarkable things about Bert was that he was very, very small in stature, but was riding against men who were a lot taller."
All that promise ended in a split second at Aston on Easter Monday, 1897, cutting a career off in its prime and leaving a mystery that will probably never be solved. The racing hero they called 'Invincible Harris' was, at the very end, flesh and blood.
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