Beryl Burton

Watching the play about the life of Beryl Burton, last week, Ride Velo couldn't help but notice some similarities between her and her namesake, Maurice Burton, whose pro cycling life we featured recently. Both riders were from working class families who discouraged them to take up cycling; both showed the same steely grit and determination against the odds but were ultimately not given the recognition they deserved for all their great achievements. And neither could take it when beaten by their own children! Maurice pushed his son Robbie into a hedge when beaten up Star Hill, and Beryl refused to shake hands when beaten by daughter Denise in the National Championships. 

The start of another time trial for multiple British champion Beryl Burton - somewhere in North Yorkshire. A typically low key and casual arrangement for the starter and pusher-off ... Starting No. 70 Beryl is riding a Ron Kitching branded frame and wearing the colours of Morley CC By Brian Townsley - Beryl Burton, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42549030

The start of another time trial for multiple British champion Beryl Burton - somewhere in North Yorkshire. A typically low key and casual arrangement for the starter and pusher-off ... Starting No. 70 Beryl is riding a Ron Kitching branded frame and wearing the colours of Morley CC By Brian Townsley - Beryl Burton, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42549030

And both cyclists were at odds with the white male dominated world of cycling - Maurice as a mixed-race rider with a Jamaican father, and Beryl as a woman. As her daughter, Denise, says, "Men dominated the sport and the federations. There was no prize money or sponsorship money; you did it for the love of it." Now I know that there have been professional women cyclists for decades, but Beryl was the first woman to beat a man on equal terms, back in 1967.

Her greatest sporting achievement, and the one for which she will forever be known, was cycling the furthest distance in 12 hours - a whopping 277.25 miles - a record which still stands to this day (for women - the record for men was retaken two years later). The astonishing thing about this ride is that despite setting off two minutes after the male riders, she overtook them, all 98 of them, one by one. Finally she came across the men's champion, Mike McNamara, and drew alongside him. Maybe to smooth over the awkward moment, she offered him some Liquorice Allsorts for energy. "Yeh, ta, love," he famously replied, and with that she was off and beat the men's record as well as the women's!

Beryl Burton 1967 from the Dutch Archives

Beryl Burton 1967 from the Dutch Archives

The final scene of Maxine Peake's Beryl is a homage to her huge achievements where the actors bring out the numerous trophies that she won during the course of her career on the road, track and in time trials. These include an MBE, followed by an OBE; winning the Women's World Road Race Championship in 1960 and 1967; dominating on the track in the individual pursuit where she won World Championship medals almost every year for three decades and was crowned Champion no less than five times! Even more amazingly, she won the Road Time Trials British Best All Rounder title for 25 consecutive years. How surprising, then, that Beryl Burton never turned professional!

One noticeable omission amongst all the silver and gold were any Olympic medals which our modern star riders like Pendleton, Trott and Storey seem to collect like stamps. But women's cycling had such a lowly status in those days that it wasn't included in the Olympic Games until 1984 when Beryl had reached the grand old age of 47 (though she was still competing!)

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Yes Beryl Burton née Charnock was a very modern woman. Born in 1937 in Leeds, she was introduced to the sport that was to become her lifetime's obsession by her husband Charlie Burton. Quickly, though, Beryl began to out run Charlie on their outings with Morely Cycling Club. But rather than be offended by her superior talents, he was happy to take a back seat and become her soigneur instead, lovingly tending to her determination and desire to win.

Pregnancy didn't stop her and neither did motherhood. Daughter Denise Burton-Cole told the BBC: "I was born into cycling, literally. If I didn't go on my bike, I didn't go anywhere because they didn't take me in the car." Not surprising then that Denise started her cycling career by winning the title, 'fastest schoolgirl' aged 13. They raced against one another on several occasions, and raced together on a tandem, but in 1975 Denise out-sprinted Beryl at the National Championships. On the podium, Beryl was furious and refused to shake Denise's hand. "I don't think she knew why she did it," Denise said. "If she was alive today, I don't think she'd know. She desperately wanted to win and I beat her and she took it very hard."

Beryl Burton in 1967 - she excelled in the individual pursuit

Beryl Burton in 1967 - she excelled in the individual pursuit

Probably the most surprising thing about Beryl's story is that she had been warned off all vigorous exercise by doctors and health professionals after suffering from rheumatic fever as a child. Despite having spent 15 months in hospital and a convalescent home, Beryl refused to give up exercise and slow down. She had heart arrhythmia too, but her catchphrase "I will make my mark" was the stronger voice in her head and her desire to win and compete pushed her beyond what anyone thought possible. She proved the doctors all wrong - up to a point. 

Beryl Burton continued to race until the age of 49, when she won her last Best All Rounder title and finally agreed to stop competing after suffering a couple of bad crashes. She still rode for pleasure, however, and was out on her bike delivering invitations to her 59th birthday party when her dodgy heart finally gave up. That was 20 years ago, back in 1996. 

So that's where the analogy with Maurice Burton ends really. Maurice turned 60 last year and to mark the occasion he embarked on a road trip to Seville with a mate. On one day as he was crossing France, Maurice managed to clock up 212 miles in just 11 hours averaging 19.1 miles an hour. He was pretty pleased with that! But it still doesn't beat the incredible record that Beryl set back in 1967. Champion!