#43 in the list of senior British men to have represented GB (1982-1985)
Rohan John Harlow was born in Kent on 15th October 1966. His early skating days were on the Herne Bay Pier Pavilion, venue for many British Championship events in the 1950's and 1960's. Harlow's initial skating exploits, however, centred on hockey rather than speed. Herne Bay itself has a population of just 35,000 and the community spirit was strong in this seaside town.
Former British speed champion, Jim Lipyeat, was one of Herne Bay's citizens, having won the 1959 One Mile Championship on his home track of the Pier Pavilion, and had a desire to kick start the former Herne Bay United speed club. Gathering together a group of youngsters, Lipyeat set about doing just that. Rohan Harlow was one of those youngsters.
In 1976 the Herne Bay United club took to the track for the first time in over a decade. Harlow's first race would be on 30th January 1977 in an 500 metres scratch race for 6-11 year olds held at the Pier Pavilion, Herne Bay and hosted by his own club. In his first race Harlow came home in 3rd place in a time of 1 minute 42.9 seconds. On the 8th May that year the first ever British Championship for under 12 years was held at Granby Halls and Harlow would finish 3rd. Aged just 10, Harlow had secured his first British Championship medal. It was a taste of things to come for the youngster and by July he was winning races in his age group.
On 16th July 1978 the British Championships were held on Southampton for the very first time. Still in the 7-11 years age group Harlow again took to the track, (Herne Bay United now having changed their name to Herne Bay Flyers) and this time he would win the 500 metres event. There was still only one Championship for this age group each year at this particular time and Harlow's victory was storming. In just 500 metres he would win the title some 4 seconds ahead of his nearest rival. His time of 59.60 seconds was the first (and only) time an 11 year old British skater had gone sub one minute for the distance on a road circuit.
In 1979 Harlow moved up an age group and throughout the year found the racing tough against the likes of Graham Hodder (North London), Steve Swain (North London) and Mark McGrath (Birmingham), but by 1980 he was again emerging as one of Britain's talented youngsters. That year the very first European Championships for juniors was held in Italy with Venice (track) and Finale Emilia (road) being the venues. Harlow was selected along with four other boys and four girls. He would compete in eight out of ten events across these two Championships, only missing out on two events (the 10000 metres on road and track) because of farcical domestic rules at that time that prevented British youngsters competing in distances over 5000 metres. At those Championships countries were allowed to enter up to four skaters for each event. Harlow would be the highest placed British skater in seven of the eight events with a highest placing of 10th (four times in fact).
Shortly after the team returned home the British Championships were again held on Southampton over the weekend of 16th and 17th August. In the 12-16 years age group there were two Championships to be contended, the 500 metres and the 3000 metres. The winner of both events was Harlow's Herne Bay team mate, David Jackson, who was too old to attend the junior European Championships but because of a quirk in how age groups were determined domestically meant that he was still eligible for the 12-16 years back in Britain. In the first event, however, the 500 metres, Harlow would disappointingly finish out of the medals. Adrian Wordsworth (Alexandra Palace) and John Quinney (Herne Bay) would take silver and bronze, two boys whom Harlow had beaten in almost every distance just a few weeks earlier in Italy. In the 3000 metres, though, it was to be a different story. This time Harlow made no mistakes, and although beaten by Jackson, Harlow certainly gave his team mate a run for his money to finish a close second.
In 1981 Harlow really came of age showing at the start of the season that he was now capable of winning races in this higher age group. On the weekend of 24th and 25th May the Championships moved to another new venue, Palmer Park, Reading. In both the 500 metres and 3000 metres Harlow would come away with both gold medals. His subsequent inclusion into the British team for the 1981 Junior European Championships held in Pamplona, Spain, would also see success. In the 5000 metres on the road Harlow would finish a close second behind Fabian Prott (France) and forge his name into the history books as being the first British junior skater to win a medal at a major international championships.
Harlow was no stranger to international competition. The Herne Bay club were regular holders in the late 1970's and early 1980's of an international event that became a huge success on the British domestic calendar and in October 1981 was a winner in the 12-16 years category. In addition, living just a stone's throw away from the port of Dover meant that Harlow could quite frequently make the short trip across the Channel and take part in tough international club events on the continent. Strongly supported by enthusiastic parents Harlow's hard work and dedication was soon paying dividends.
Early in 1982 Harlow made a request that at that time was unheard of. At just 15 years of age he requested that he been given special dispensation by the then Roller Speed Committee to race the season as a senior skater. This meant that he would be pitted against the likes of Senior European Champions John E. Fry and Mick McGeough, with McGeough having won two medals at World Championships a year earlier. Most people thought it crazy. One such person was former international and British Championship medallist Tom Bartlett who reportedly told the young Harlow:
"..you'll never win anything as long as you have a hole in your arse."
A small few thought it inspired. None more so that Harlow's father, John, a sometimes outspoken character who made no bones of telling people exactly what he thought. Whilst this attitude may not have endeared him to some around the racing circuit, if nothing else it gave Harlow junior a belief in his own abilities.
The 1982 British Championships were held over two weekends. The first, the 6th June at Palmer Park. The first race was the mens 5000 metres and Harlow found himself in the first heat alongside current senior internationals John E. Fry (Mercia) and Lee Macavoy (Alexandra Palace), as well as rising stars Darren Cobley (Birmingham) and David Jackson (Herne Bay Flyers). Harlow went on to win the heat, notably knocking Fry out of the competition. It was a major coup for the youngster and made some people sit up and take note. But this was just one race. The final was won by McGeough with Macavoy and Jerry McGrath (Birmingham) second and third respectively to complete the medal line up, but few people noticed a strong finishing Harlow coming in a commendable fourth. A couple of hours later, however, all that would change.
The final event of the day was the Senior Men's 20000 metres. It was no small field with no fewer than 37 skaters taking to the track. The race had been up and down with the usual one or two attacks and then Harlow went on a breakaway. Nobody gave the youngster a chance and everybody let him go expecting him to "cook himself" off the front. The pace of the race was extremely slow compared to previous years (in fact the winning time of nearly 51 minutes would be the slowest recorded in Britain) which allowed Harlow to get himself a gap of around 300 metres, almost three quarters of a lap on the 480 metres circuit. With a round 6000 metres to go Harlow's team mates of David Jackson, John Quinney and Gary Burgess came to the front of the pack and took turns to reel Harlow in. It was not a popular move with Harlow, who to this day still smarts at the thought of being "fetched back" by team mates. Having been caught, Harlow once more sat back in the pack and regained his composure. Many thought him spent, but Harlow had other thoughts. The race came down to a final sprint and at 600 metres, the new 5000 metres British Champion, Mick McGeough, took his team mate, Kevin Partridge to the front of the group for a lead out. As McGeough, now a spent force, moved over to leave Partridge the front it was evident that Partridge had not got the legs to see it through. Emerging from the sprint in the lead with 200 metres to go was none other than 15 year old Rohan Harlow. Chasing down the finish line like his life depended on it Harlow crossed the line first ahead of team mate John Quinney and a rapidly fading Kevin Partridge. It was a stunning victory. Aged just 15 years and 234 days, Rohan Harlow had become the youngest ever senior British Champion since the first Championship was raced for back in 1894. It was a euphoric moment for Harlow and his family, and for the sport in Britain it was the beginning of a new era.
Harlow continued to impress throughout 1982 and by September, still a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday, he had found his way on to the senior national team, taking part in the European Championships in Jesi and Santa Maria Nuova, ironically alongside Tom Bartlett who was making his first return to the national team since 1978. Whilst Harlow's results were not particularly noteworthy, he had still set yet another benchmark in British speed skating history by becoming the youngest ever member of a senior national team. With fewer skaters being allowed at World Championships, Harlow was left out of the GB World team in favour of experience in the form of John E.Fry and Mick McGeough and Herne Bay team mates David Jackson and John Quinney alongside Birmingham's Darren Cobley, all of whom had yet to win a British title.
As the 1983 season unfolded Harlow began where he had left off with victories in the Herne Bay International. As winter turned to spring suddenly Harlow found himself out of form, relatively speaking of course. In fact, between October 1982 (start of the 1983 season) and the start of the 1983 British Championships, Harlow had failed to take a medal of any colour in any domestic competition. The "lesser" Championships (i.e. Relay Championships, Counties Championships and Open Handicap Championships) were held on Tatem Park, London on 10th July. Harlow still could not find a medal winning performance and although his own team, Herne Bay Flyers, went on to win the Relay Championship, they did so without him, favouring recent addition to the team Jeff Finlayson over Harlow as fourth man. Perhaps his performances 12 months earlier really were a fluke? Well, anybody who believed that was just about to have their theories blown away. The British Championships returned to Palmer Park a week later and once again the 5000 metres was the opening event. This time Harlow was up against Darren Cobley, now skating for the strong Mercia club, in his heat. Cobley would win the heat ahead of Harlow. Like the 20000 metres 12 months earlier, the 5000 metres final was relatively slow (the winning time over 10 minutes), but coming to the bell lap Harlow struck for home. Clocking a time of 44.60 seconds for his last lap of the vast 480 metres cycle circuit ensured that victory was his. Cobley would finish just 2/10ths of a second behind him and McGeough a little way off in third, but at 16 Rohan Harlow was now a double British Champion and any doubts about his abilities were now all but gone. A week on from that and Harlow added a third British Championship gold to his name by winning the 1500 metres at Tatem Park and finishing third in the 10000 metres.
Once more Harlow was called up for Great Britain for the European Championships in Cremona, Italy. He skated just one event on the track, the 20000 metres, finishing 14th. On the road, however, he competed in all five individual events with a highest placing of 8th in the 1500 metres. He was left out of the relay in favour of Ian Ashby, John Quinney and Darren Cobley. Quinney and Cobley had already got a bronze medal from the relay on the track alongside John E.Fry, but the British trio on the road could only manage fourth. Harlow believed had he been amongst them he could have helped the team on to a medal winning performance, but it was not to be this time.Unfortunately for British skaters the World Championships of 1983 were held in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The events of the Falkland's War 12 months earlier meant that Britain would not send a team under advice from the Foreign Office. It was another blow for Harlow as another chance of competing on the highest stage went begging.
Harlow's name was now the name on everyone's lips. Few skaters had made such an impact on the skating scene and especially one so young. 1984 was to be another successful year for Harlow but in different ways. Yes, he was now a triple British Champion and also had made himself a regular on the British team, but 1984 was to be a defining moment and a year that would show onlookers what it was that Harlow was really all about.
A year earlier John E. Fry had made moves to get the first purpose built banked track for speed skating in Britain built at the recently formed Birmingham Wheels Project. Obtaining plans for the 200 metre track in Mar del Plata, Fry managed to secure an identically sized facility in the heart of the West Midlands, albeit the surface was one of asphalt and not the terrazzo tiles that raced the South American track. The track itself was laid in early 1984 and by June was ready to host the British Championships, albeit the surroundings were a mixture of mud and rubble, but the track was a joy to skate.
Fry and his Mercia team mates, most notably former European Champion John Mullane, who had come out of recent retirement, had the benefit of training on the track right up until the Championships. Not only had Fry and Mullane the benefit of having competed on Mar del Plata, but wheel selection was critical. Fry and Mullane found a set of wheels that felt perfect for the track, a set of 98 shore hardness Bones. The down side was that they only had one set between them.
On the weekend of the Championships there were five individual titles to be contested. From the off it was the Fry/Mullane show. All other skaters trailed in their wake as the pair shared the titles between themselves. What became apparent to the eagle eyed Harlow was that whoever was wearing the "Bones" he knew the race was on for them. Knowing this Harlow made sure that he tracked the correct skater each time. First off was the 300 metres time trail. Fry won with Ian Ashby second and Harlow dead heating for third with John Mullane. Next came the 5000 metres and this time it was Mullane first, Fry second and again bronze for Harlow. The last race of the day was the 10000 metres. Fry took the victory with Harlow managing to get silver. Harlow was tracking the right skater but just fell short when it came to the final sprint.
Day two of the Championships started with the 1500 metres. It was like Groundhog Day as Mullane put THE wheels on and secured his second title of the Championships. With one Championship left, the 20000 metres, it was once again Fry's turn to wear the "Bones". Harlow knew that to stand any sort of chance of winning he had to be in the lead at the bell. As the last lap was signalled he was just that, but Fry was tight on his back. Harlow came off the bend high and Fry slipped an easy pass up his inside. Down the back straight it was business as usual as Fry, now in the lead, eased and composed himself for the last bend. What Fry didn't bank on is Harlow's "never say die" attitude. Harlow had kept the momentum down the back straight and as Fry eased, so Harlow came on to him like a train. Off the last bend the pair were in a neck and neck sprint for the line, but Fry, having eased had given Harlow the one thing he needed, the scent of victory. Harlow crossed the line first and regained his 20000 metres title. Fry may well have been complacent, and against any other skater may well have got away with it, but not against Harlow. He knew that the race was only over once the winner had crossed the line and not before.
In August Harlow was called up for the World Championships in Bogota, Colombia. Finally he was about to compete against the world elite. It was his first World Championships and a baptism of fire for the 17 year old. Bogota is at altitude and Harlow found the going difficult. He didn't break into the top ten in any event and came away from the championships feeling a little deflated. His first World Championship outing did not go as well as expected. Harlow tried to dissect his performance and as well as the altitude concluded that he may have been slightly over awed by the experience. Whether he was correct in his analysis at that time will remain unanswered, but what is certain is that he came back from Colombia looking to set the record straight.
The European Championships in September were held in Venice, Austria. Again, Harlow was in the team, but in just the few short weeks since the World Championships he had matured into a class skater worthy of note. His individual results were proof of that with a silver and bronze on the track and another silver on the road, but the icing on the cake came in the very last event, the relay. Alongside Fry and Cobley, Harlow made up one third of the British team. The road circuit was deemed to be a "goat track" with two right hand bends thrown into the mix. Throughout the race the British trio were well in with a shout of a medal and this likelihood increased as near the end of the race Italian skater, Ermes Fossi, caught the skate of Fry in one of the right hand bends and fell heavily, putting one of the favourites out of contention. As the race unfolded it came down to just two countries battling it out for the gold medal, Britain and France. Harlow was on to finish for Britain and was changing over from Fry. As Fry gave Harlow the last relay push they were assured of a silver medal, but for Harlow this was not enough. As the skaters received the bell for the last lap Harlow tucked in behind Frenchman Thierry Penot. Off the last bend Harlow was once again faced with a neck and neck sprint to the finish. The finishing straight was long and for what seemed like an age no one could discern who was going to win. Straining every sinew Harlow raced for the line...and won! It was an outstanding show of strength, speed and above all determination. This is what Fry had to say about it:
"The relay is a team effort but no other British skater around at that time could have done what Harlow did in the last straight of that relay. Give him just the slightest whiff of victory and he will go all out to get it and more often than not will achieve it."
Still only 17 and Rohan Harlow now had a European gold medal hanging round his neck. The last day of the 1984 season, 30th September, rounded off with another victory for Harlow, this time in the Southern Counties Championship.
In 1985 Harlow was joined in the senior ranks with his younger brother, Ashley. Ashley was every bit as good as his older sibling, having been a double Junior European gold medallist a year earlier, but whereas Rohan's strength lay in his strength and his ability to wind up to a high top end speed, Ashley was the consummate sprinter. Together they made a formidable pairing. The 1985 British Championships were again on Birmingham Wheels, but this time there was no Fry/Mullane domination. The balance of power had shifted and this time it was the Harlow's that were the one's to beat. On the 13th July Rohan took the 1500 metres title and helped Ashley take gold in the 5000 metres. The following day Fry was victorious in the 300 metres time trial with Rohan second and Ashley third. The final race, the 20000 metres saw another victory for Rohan and in so doing became the first skater to lift the trophy three times. A week later was the Alexandra Palace International on Tatem Park. The event was boosted by the inclusion of several elite skaters from around the world who would be taking centre stage at the London World Games to be held at Crystal Palace a few weeks later. Included in that line up were World Champions Bobby Kaiser (USA) and Donny Van Patter (USA). At that period in their career both Kaiser and Van Patter were recognised as the best in the world and trend setters for taking on and beating the mighty Italians. On the weekend of the international, both Kaiser and Van Patter swept all before them as one expected, but one skater who gave them food for thought during that competition was Harlow. Holding his own against the American duo Harlow got himself noticed and in the 3000 metres was within a whisker of an upset.
A week on from that and Harlow was competing for Great Britain alongside Fry in the World Games, the first time Britain had been represented in the event. Harlow put in some fine performances but the show still belonged to the Italians and Americans.
At the European Championships in Cassano d'Adda, Italy, Harlow could not repeat his medal haul from Vienna, but did manage yet another silver in the 20000 metres on the road. The World Championships were in Colorado Springs, USA, in September, again a venue at altitude. Harlow was selected once more but again came up short. Skating in four of the six individual events he struggled to make the top 20 in any of them. He returmed home to retain his Southern Counties title and to help Herne Bay Flyers win yet another relay title, but on the horizon was another breed of skater and one that would show cracks in the Harlow armour.
By 1986 a trio of skaters had emerged from Cambridgeshire with only one racing tactic on their mind. Attack. Mark Tooke had been around for a while and tried to employ these tactics as a lone skater. The tactic had worked on and off resulting in Tooke sometimes finding himself a lap up on the rest of the field and by default, the eventual winner. But now with team mate Andrew Newton and like minded Hugh Doggett employing the same tactics, the face of British skating was facing yet another evolution and one that Harlow struggled to defend against.
Also in 1986 Herne Bay Flyers had their very own banked track built, no small thanks to Harlow's father, John, who had stumped up some considerable cash to get the facility built. But the idea that the track would benefit Harlow and complement his training was flawed. The track was just 166 metres, the shortest size of track allowed for international competition at that time. Harlow, with his big power strokes found the tight bends tricky and the tarmac surface devoid of "rebound" to allow him to get the maximum from his push stroke. The track better suited his younger brother, Ashley, who with his quick leg speed and agility looked completely at home. All that said, the 1986 British Championships were held on the track on the weekend of 19th and 20th July and in the 1500 metres Harlow was just 1/100th of a second from winning the title but even his second place was taken from him when he was relegated to third place for an infringement. It would be the only British Championship medal Harlow would take on his home track.
Throughout that year Harlow also switched tactics. Whilst he still wanted to win, primarily his efforts now went into helping his brother secure victories with long lead outs and chasing down break aways. The result was that Harlow would be dropped from the British team in favour of the new boys, Tooke, Newton and Doggett. His place on the team would never be regained.
A few weeks after his 20th birthday on 26th October 1986, Harlow turned the clock back and managed third place in the 300 metres time trial on Tatem Park. It was his last Championship medal and last performance of any note. He made cameo appearances throughout 1987 and even entered the British Championships of that year at Tatem Park, but Harlow was a shadow of his former self, failing even to qualify for the semi finals of the 1500 metres. On the 5th July 1987 and still only 20 years old, Rohan Harlow called time on his skating career.
For a period in the late 1980's and again in the early 1990's Harlow used his experience and sporting knowledge to support British teams as part of the backroom staff. Since then, however, his attentions have turned towards rugby, where his son Paddy, is showing all the signs of the same grit an determination once shown by his father.
It is hard to believe that Rohan Harlow was just 20 years old when last graced a track, or that his career spanned little more than a decade. Even now his exploits and achievements are still recognised as pivotal moments within the sport of British speed skating. In just 10 years he was crowned senior British Champion on six occasions; won no fewer than six major international medals, one of which included a European gold medal; became the youngest ever British Champion in almost 90 years of competition; but above all showed the British skating fraternity that give him the slightest scent of victory and he would fight tooth and nail to make it his...and for that Rohan Harlow will always be remembered as a British skating legend.