Bomber happy to get on his bike for pounds and points
Sunday 22 June 2008
About 275 kilometres along the magnificent Baltic coastline from Stockholm is the city of Vastervik. Once a bustling timber port, it is now a popular tourist attraction which doubles in population during the extraordinarily light summer months.
One of the more unlikely visitors to this picturesque destination is Chris Harris, one of Britain's leading speedway riders, who makes a regular pilgrimage in pursuit of pounds, points and the best domestic competition in the world. The journey from his home in Coventry to Vastervik's speedway circuit is one he has undertaken for three years, about a dozen times a season, but he feels it is his destiny.
"I did not perform brilliantly at school. All I ever wanted to do was ride bikes. Thankfully, I had some ability for speedway," he says, having had just three hours' sleep following an evening race at Belle Vue in Manchester and an early-morning plane trip to attend the latest Swedish meeting. "Having been brought up on a farm, I couldn't work in an office, nine to five. I haven't got the brain power for that."
Welcome, then, to the demanding life of a modern speedway rider. Few British sportsmen embark on a more tortuous weekly professional schedule. Throughout the domestic season, which begins in March and reaches its climax in October, the Cornish-born 25-year-old will attend 130 meetings, racing for three teams: the Elite League champions, Coventry Bees (any time during the week); Vastervik (home and away meetings every Tuesday); and KM Ostrow in Poland (most Sunday nights). To the detriment of his carbon footprint, but to the benefit of the low-cost airlines, Harris made 80 flights around Europe in six months last year.
"It can be lonely. The travelling gets you down but you have to deal with it. I'll sleep in a van, on a plane or at the airport," says Harris, nicknamed Bomber. "It catches up on you."
Harris will be there when the Speedway Grand Prix circuit arrives in Cardiff on Saturday. It was at the Millennium Stadium 12 months ago when, in his debut season, Harris announced himself to the world's elite. Overtaking the former world champion Greg Hancock on the last corner of the grand final, Harris became the first home winner of a British GP since 2000. "I'm capable of winning on the world stage consistently. It'll take a couple of years but I have to be prepared to keep plugging away."
Although his form has waned, credit for that Cardiff ride should also go to the members of Team Harris – his manager, Chris Anderson, organises the travel, while mechanics Steven Midgley and Norrie Allan ensure that his 11 engines and eight fixed-gear bikes – with no brakes and top speeds of 70mph – are operational and transported safely.
All Harris needs to do is turn up and ride. Given that his three club contracts are performance-related, it is no surprise everything is meticulously planned. "The better you are, the better deal you get," he says. "But if I don't score a point in a meeting, I don't earn anything – and the mechanics still get paid."
The recognition Harris earns from racing abroad makes it all worthwhile. Last Tuesday, less than an hour after producing his best performance of the season, in which he was the joint highest points-scorer in five heats – helping Vastervik to a 56-40 win over local rivals Elit Vetlanda live on Swedish television – Harris was surrounded by local fans.
Speedway has a high profile in Scandinavia, but viewing figures have also quadrupled in Britain. "Footballers make me laugh when they moan about three matches a week," Harris says. "They only run round after a ball. We get knocked down, battered and bruised, then get back on our bikes. How can they be tired? That's prima donnas for you. They should try speedway."
Life and times
Born: 28 November 1982, Truro, Cornwall.
Vital statistics: 5ft 5in, 9st.
Rides for: Coventry Bees (British League); Rybnik (Polish League); Vastervik (Swedish League); Slangerup (Danish League).
Individual honours: British champion 2007, British Grand Prix winner 2007.
Team Honours: Elite League champion 2005, 2007; Elite League KO Cup Winner 2006, 2007; Premier League champion 2000; Craven Shield winner 2007; Premier Trophy winner 2002; Conference League champion 1998; Conference League Knockout Cup 1998.
Interests: Football, motorcross, gym.
Extras: Before taking up speedway he was a farmer. Injuries suffered due to speedway include cracked shoulder blade and broken wrist.
The British Speedway Grand Prix is liveon Sky Sports 1 from 7pm next Saturday
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