Making her name in women’s cycling as an amateur from the late 1950s, Beryl Burton is little known in sporting circles outside of bicycle racing enthusiasts, but at her funeral in 1996, Eddy Merckx l declared “the patroness of us all”. Although not the rider’s first biography, a new book titled “Beryl – In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete” by Jeremy Wilson, will not only address the truly amazing athletic performances of this “Yorkshire Housewife”, but look at the person, much more complex than the few press articles about his accomplishments would suggest.
The author was fortunate in his sources and had the opportunity to interview not only Burton’s immediate family, but also friends, members of cycling clubs and international competitors, many of whom are now in the eighth and ninth decade of life. Additionally, the author spoke to a number of outstanding sports personalities in other disciplines, sports psychologists and, as we will see, an aerodynamics expert to come up with a truly unique experience.
Beryl Burton began her extraordinary streak of success as a time trialist in 1958, finishing second in the BAR contest for British Best All-Rounder (BAR) in the 25, 50 and 100 mile events, but the following year at 22, she took the top spot – and would go on to do so until 1983. This unbroken 25-year dominance is unprecedented in any sport and unlikely to ever be surpassed. Turning every race into a time trial, despite lacking tactical savvy, she still managed to win 12 national road race titles and two world championships. Add five World Track Championships for the 3,000m pursuit and her total of all types of championship titles rises to 129. Her incredible 12-hour time trial record of 277.25 miles set in 1967 wasn’t bettered by a man until two years later and a woman on a modern tt bike only in 2017. Is this the only example of a woman in a sporting event setting a record better than a man ? It seems so. And she is the only woman ever to be invited to the Grand Prix des Nations time trial, where she started 12 minutes before the first man and acquitted herself well there, taking race officials by surprise. with its speed.
What were the circumstances of his sporting life? By all accounts, she and the friends of the Morley Cycling Club lived a pretty tough life in post-war Britain, with scarce money and few luxuries. His life appears to have been shaped by early childhood trauma, depression during a critical school exam, followed by serious health problems and a period of infirmity due to rheumatic fever. The way to school being closed to her, she threw herself into office work and met her future husband, Charlie Burton, who introduced her to cycling. Riding with the Morley club, she couldn’t keep up the first year, rode with the group the second, and dropped everyone else the third on her way to the Nationals.
To describe the cycling scene depicted in the book as “basically” as an understatement. Much of it is so worn that you sometimes have to laugh in disbelief. Charlie, who looks pretty much like a saint, was an excellent mechanic and gave up his own cycling aspirations when he recognized how good his wife was, was often the one who slept under a bush or, later, in a car, when there was no money for his accommodation. Hostels and buddies’ couches were often the best thing to do and since the Burtons didn’t have a car, they cycled to race starts or managed to get lifts. Everyone seems to have had a hand in the circumstances, but the stress of worrying about a flat tire because you couldn’t buy yourself a new one for next week’s race or dealing with childcare doesn’t wouldn’t have helped the sportsmanship much. And that was a time when women’s sports (except in the Eastern bloc, interestingly) had no status. In Britain, time trials were organized by a different organization to road races and international events and, although the time trial people seem to have been very supportive, the author’s account of the behavior of the British Cycling Federation towards women is an appalling story. Funding was scarce, despite the fact that women won far more medals at international level than men. Despite her incredible cycling talent, Beryl Burton was consistently overlooked for events, which were quite few given that the Olympics and World Championships have been so slow to add women’s events. It’s still amazing that it wasn’t until 1984 that the Olympics held a women’s road race – and Beryl Burton tried to make the UK team for it, aged 48 !
Burton had no coach and apparently no training plan, except to just roll, roll, roll. Along with the insane mileage she’s clocked up, she’s also worked full-time and managed the Burton house. She didn’t allow televisions or telephones in the house to avoid distractions and it seems the only time she sat was in the saddle of a bicycle or while knitting. She comes across as a private person, sometimes very direct, maybe even a bit harsh. The author explains how “elite athletes” differ from simple “the elite” the kind of athlete who qualifies for an Olympic team but is not a multiple medalist. Superelites often face some kind of early trauma that shapes, pushes and “led” is clearly the adjective for Beryl Burton. Cycling was central to her family life, with her at the center of it, and her obsessive nature demanded a degree of sacrifice that few, even with remarkable athletic talent, would contemplate. Beryl Burton attributed her success to all those miles she walked (as well as a healthy diet), while Charlie suggests to the author that there was clearly some sort of genetic advantage as well. But it was her truly relentless will to win that showed she was no mere Yorkshire housewife, a will that intimidated her rivals for more than two decades and caused a family crisis in 1976, when her daughter Denise beat her in the women’s national road race. Beryl has never been a person to settle for second place, although one is struck by what is apparently a superelite characteristic of receiving little joy from winning but moving on to the next competition. For some, the fear of losing is far greater than the joy of winning. There was certainly no financial reward as Burton never gave up her amateur status and the recognition, which she didn’t seem to particularly desire, was pathetically distributed outside the cycling community (although she received OBE and then MBE honours).
It’s hard to understand how anyone (self-coached, skimping on equipment, working full-time) could be so successful in such a diverse array of disciplines, from track cycling to short time trials. and medium distance through absolute marathons while riding. 100 mile or 12 hour events. In a wonderful move, the author seeks to answer the “what if” question as to how fast Beryl Burton in her prime would have been on a modern time trial bike today. A time trial of similar stature (even wearing a wig to replicate Beryl’s curly hair!) and corresponding to her position was placed in a wind tunnel on one of Burton’s real Raleigh competition bikes, then changed to wetsuit, aero helmet and on a modern Cervelo. P5 for the same test. This book is worth this chapter alone if one attempts to put Burton’s accomplishments into perspective.
Beryl Burton died of a heart attack when she fell off her bicycle while delivering invitations to her 59th birthday party. In the 25 years since, women’s cycling has struggled to the top and she would have been delighted with the World Championships held in Yorkshire in 2019, where Annemiek van Vleuten rode away from the field in a solo 100 breakaway km. So many things have improved for athletes, from funding to training to nutrition…and opportunity. “Beryl” is a great book about someone who was great before his time, who rolled over to another drummer. In the words of Charlie: “She was good.”
“Beryl – In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete” by Jeremy Wilson
338 pp., ill., hardcover
Pursuit Books, London, 2022
The book was released on July 7, 2022 by Profile Books
Hardcover | 336pp | £20
The book is available at many outlets, including AMAZON.