It must rank as one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history…

Fourteen years after retiring from cycling, former world champion Reg Harris decided he wanted another tilt at the British sprint title.

The year was 1971 and Harris was 54 years old. He hadn’t trained in earnest since his last professional race in 1957.

Former world sprint champion Reg Harris at the Fallowfield racing circuit, August 1971

Former world sprint champion Reg Harris at the Fallowfield racing circuit, August 1971

Undeterred, the Bury-born athlete lined up at the start of the British Championships in Birmingham – then stunned the cycling world by riding away with the bronze medal.

Three years later, with more preparation behind him, he turned bronze into gold at the British championships at Leicester. Leading challenger Trevor Bull was beaten into second place.

Harris reigned as champion for just a year as he was narrowly edged out by Bull in the 1975 sprint final. By this time he was 58 – and a widely recognised example of dedication and commitment to his sport.

World sprint champion Reg Harris, right, training with fellow cyclists Bill Brown, Norman Dove and George Lewis, January 1948

World sprint champion Reg Harris, right, training with fellow cyclists Bill Brown, Norman Dove and George Lewis, January 1948

In all, Harris was world sprint champion five times from 1947 to 1954. He also won two silver medals at the 1948 Olympics just three months after breaking his ribs in a road accident.

Harris was born as Reginald Hargreaves at Garden Street in Birtle, Bury, in March 1920. He took the name Harris when his mother, Elsie, remarried.

His first job was as an apprentice motor mechanic. He bought his first bicycle at the age of 14.

Up on the bank: Reg Harris training at the Manchester velodrome in April 1949

Up on the bank: Reg Harris training at the Manchester velodrome in April 1949

Harris joined the local section of the Cyclists’ Touring Club and started competing in time trials. He won his first race in 1935 – a half-mile handicap held on a grass track in Bury.

In 1936, Harris took a job in a paper mill as it paid him enough in the winter to spend the summer training and racing.

After competing on grass tracks in Lincolnshire, he won his first competition at Fallowfield Stadium – a circuit he was to revisit many times in his career.

Ready for action: Reg Harris prepares to compete at the Fallowfield racing circuit in August 1971

Ready for action: Reg Harris prepares to compete at the Fallowfield racing circuit in August 1971

At the end of 1938 he joined the Manchester Wheelers’ Club and was selected for the British team at the world championship at the Velodromo Vigorelli in Milan.

Harris actually travelled to Milan early to get to know the velodrome, but the team was recalled to the UK at the outbreak of World War II.

He served as a tank driver in North Africa but was declared medically unfit in 1943. He ignored medical advice to compete in – and win – the 1,000 yards’ sprint in the 1944 national championships.

Reg Harris in the lead at the Fallowfield racing circuit, August 1971

Reg Harris in the lead at the Fallowfield racing circuit, August 1971

Harris retained the title in 1945 and won the world amateur sprint title in Paris in 1947. By this time he was working for bicycle manufacturer Claud Butler.

Expectation was high that Harris would win three golds at the 1948 London Olympics – the sprint, tandem sprint and the one-kilometre time trial.

But three months before the games he broke two ribs in a road accident. Worse was to follow when he fell in a ten-mile race at Fallowfield and fractured his elbow.

Des Fretwell, front right, wins the Poco Holmes point-to-point event in Middlesbrough, August 1982

Des Fretwell, front right, wins the Poco Holmes point-to-point event in Middlesbrough, August 1982

With only weeks to go before the Olympics, Harris was forced to train in a plaster cast.

He still won two silver medals, finishing behind Italy’s Mario Ghella in the sprint and riding with Alan Bannister in the tandem sprint.

A fortnight later, he won bronze in the 1948 world championship sprint in Amsterdam.

Riders from Manchester Wheelers’ club climb the bank at the Fallowfield racing circuit, July 1962

Riders from Manchester Wheelers’ club climb the bank at the Fallowfield racing circuit, July 1962

His battling spirit captured the hearts of the British public as he was voted sportsman of the year in 1949 ahead of footballer Billy Liddell.

Harris turned professional after Amsterdam and started racing for Raleigh. He was one of the most familiar sports personalities of the 1950s, rivalling footballer Stanley Matthews and racing driver Stirling Moss.

He won the world professional sprint championship in Copenhagen in 1949 and defended the title two years running in Belgium and Italy. He won his final world title in Cologne in 1954.

Harris was voted sportsman of the year for a second time in 1950 and retired from racing in 1957 to devote himself to business. He managed Fallowfield Stadium and owned the Reg Harris garage on the Wilmslow Road in Didsbury in the 1960s.

Then came his extraordinary comeback at the 1971 British championships.

Harris died in Macclesfield in 1992. He was 72. His life is commemorated by a memorial at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester.

His achievements have inspired many cyclists at the Manchester Wheelers, including Olympic time-trial rider Des Fretwell and 4km individual pursuit gold medallist Chris Boardman.

Chris Boardman wins Olympic gold ahead of German champion Jens Lehmann in the 4km pursuit race in Barcelona, August 1992

Chris Boardman wins Olympic gold ahead of German champion Jens Lehmann in the 4km pursuit race in Barcelona, August 1992

Fretwell competed at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 while Boardman represented Great Britain in Barcelona in 1992.

Known as ‘The Professor’ for his meticulous preparation and attention to detail, Boardman broke the world hour record for distance travelled three times.

He is also well-known for using the revolutionary Lotus 108 time-trial cycle made by the sports car manufacturer of the same name.

Gold medal winner Chris Boardman at Manchester Airport with wife Sally-Anne and children Edward and Harriet, August 1992

Gold medal winner Chris Boardman at Manchester Airport with wife Sally-Anne and children Edward and Harriet, August 1992