beryl burton: harder, better, faster, strongerBack
Some sports are about bursts of energy, about concentrating mind and body into a moment of peak physical performance.
A 100m sprinter focuses everything on ten seconds of performance. For a long jumper, it’s about one perfect contact with the take-off board. Get everything right, at the right time, and in ten seconds you can break a record, or win a gold medal, and keep that honour for years.
Cycling is different. The two days of Tour de France action that will visit Yorkshire in July are just the tip of the iceberg of that competition; there are 19 more stages, few of less than one hundred miles each, with only two rest days. Top class cycling isn’t about bursts of brilliance; it’s about endurance as well as speed, about sustained physical and mental performance.
Beryl Burton was different again. Beryl was born in Halton and lived most of her life in Morley, and simply listing the honours BB won in domestic and international cycling doesn’t even begin to tell the story of one of Leeds and Britain’s greatest athletes. What has to be understood is that Beryl won them again, and again, and again, and again, dominating cycling for thirty years in a way nobody has before or since.
“People will either give up or burn out before they achieve what she did,” says Beryl’s daughter, Denise Burton-Cole.
From 1959 to 1983, the British Best All Rounder time-trials belonged to BB; she won the title, in which riders are ranked by their average speeds in individual time-trial races over the course of a season, 25 consecutive times. And she just kept getting faster; in her first winning season, Beryl’s average speed was 23.724mph, increasing steadily to a peak of 26.665mph in 1976.
That year the winning men’s speed was a mere 25.97mph, recorded by Phil Griffiths; overall Beryl was faster than the men’s Best All Rounder thirteen times.
“Twenty-five consecutive years as the British Best All Rounder,” says Denise, still marvelling at the achievement. “And her career had started before then – she was winning things two or three years before that, and winning for two or three years afterwards as well.”
Winning, for Beryl, is what it was all about.
“She liked to win,” says Denise. “There’s no doubt about it, she liked to win. She liked to perform her best, and if she didn’t feel as if she done her best, then that wasn’t good enough. She always wanted to improve.
“Her character played a big part, because she was a very determined woman, and quite single minded. If she wanted to do something, she would do it. She had illnesses as a child, but she overcame those and became physically and mentally a very strong person. Nothing much got in her way if she wanted to achieve something.”
Those childhood illnesses kept Beryl out of school for two years, and an irregular heartbeat had doctors concerned that she should avoid strenuous exercise – even as she was becoming one of the strongest athletes of the twentieth century. Whereas today Beryl would have benefited from a medical team to monitor her health and tailor her training to attaining peak fitness, her amateur status meant that she didn’t even have the benefit of the best training methods of her own day – her team was Morley Cycling Club, her support was her ever-present husband, Charlie.
“She would not have done what she did without my dad,” says Denise. “She admitted it herself – she needed my dad to be there. He devoted all his spare time to my mother and her cycling.
“She had a very professional attitude – incredibly professional. It was just that she did it for nothing. Which was a bit of a shame, but never mind!
“When she was in the racing season she was quite a solitary person. It was as though she always had her mind on doing the next thing. She would become more pensive before a race, and she would do a lot of knitting – she’d be knitting away like mad before a race, or in-between races at a track event, because it helped keep her concentration, and it stopped her from talking to people as well. She would be ultra-quiet and thoughtful before a race.”
That’s the paradox of Beryl’s competing as an amateur – she had to work harder than most professionals to be professional. Today’s cycling enthusiasts like to wonder and debate how much more Beryl could have achieved with the funding, facilities and support available today, or even if more competitions had been open to her to enter – she won seven world titles, but women’s cycling didn’t become an Olympic event until Beryl was already 47. She had raced into a new class where the only competition was herself.
“She was asked to go professional by Raleigh,” says Denise, “but there were no other professional women. All she would have been able to do was record-breaking, but she wanted to stay part of the cycling scene – to do the time-trials, be the British Best All Rounder, do the track and pursuit and the road races. She didn’t want to just do solitary record-breaking events – although she would have smashed them all, and I doubt many of them would be broken now!”
The longevity of Beryl’s career was matched by the longevity of her records. She set 50 new national records, cutting her own times down by as much as 15%. Her final 10 miles, 25 miles and 50 miles records stood for 20 years each; her 100 miles record for 18, her 30 miles for 10.
Most famously, her twelve hour record – 277.25 miles cycled in 1967 – still stands, and was the men’s record for two years; even today, only a select few have beaten it, and in setting it, she overtook Mike McNamara as he set the new men’s national record. On her way past she offered him a Liquorice Allsort as a sporting gesture – which he took.
Although cycling didn’t make Beryl rich – she worked on a rhubarb farm when she wasn’t racing – it did bring her recognition.
“She was quite well known, especially in the sixties,” says Denise. “The media were quite in awe of her and there were stories in the newspapers. But let’s face it – cycling was not a well-known sport, and it was not a particularly highly rated sport either, so to win the awards that she did was jolly good really.
“To get the MBE and the OBE [in 1964 and 1968], in days when they were very choosy about who they presented them to, was fantastic – she felt very honoured to receive those from the Queen.”
Beryl was followed into cycling by Denise, with both representing Britain at the 1972 World Championship, and daughter beating mother in the 1976 National Road Championship.
“I was brought up in south Leeds, so to get anywhere I had to go on a bike, because nobody would take me and I couldn’t afford to go on the bus. As a child I’d been taken out in a sidecar, a seat on the back, on a trailer, so I was well used to cycling and its ways, and when I got my own bike when I was about nine that was it – I was off. I loved riding a bike, and I still do. So I just followed on from what my mum did, and as long as I was entering the same events, that meant I got a lift there as well!
“We had a good club scene then. When I started racing at the Morley Cycling Club, there were lots of people my age who all joined – there was my friend Anne, and then lots of boys which was great for young teenagers like us! We went all over the place.”
Denise can still point to a few long-standing achievements of her own, while enjoying the renewed interest in cycling, and in her mother’s life, brought about by the Tour de France.
“One of my own records was only broken about two or three weeks ago,” she says. “An East Bradford Cycling Club Record! I was told the other night – the girl who broke it said she was so embarrassed she wouldn’t come and tell me. But I told her it was wonderful, and about time too!
“I live in Ripon and this year I have seen more cyclists than ever. The Tour de France is coming past here and a lot of them are doing the route – it’s brilliant, I love seeing them. Mum would have loved it too, if she was alive she would be getting my dad to drive her up somewhere like Kidstone or Buttertub’s to see it.”
Beryl died in 1996, just short of her 59th birthday, while out delivering party invitations on her bike, but her achievements live on in the record books and in Maxine Peake’s play for Radio Four, Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels, which is being produced for the stage at West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of the Yorkshire Festival celebration of the Grand Départ.
“I think secretly she would have been very pleased,” says Denise. “She wasn’t one to boast or anything like that, but she would have been very pleased and very honoured. I’m sure Maxine will do a wonderful job.
“I’m looking forward to it very much, and I think she deserves it. Some people have never forgotten her, but I think it’s fantastic to bring her back to light for people who don’t know about her, so they can realise what she achieved.”
Those achievements – the long list of titles that Beryl Burton won, the long list of records that Beryl Burton set, and the great many years for which Beryl Burton was so much better than anybody else – will always be there.
“She had a wonderful career,” says Denise. “It was the length of her career, not just what she achieved. People have achieved since, and the support that they have now, with the British Cycling performance plan and everything, is second to none, and has been proven because they’ve had some wonderful champions, Olympic and World. But she achieved without any of that, because that’s the way it was then.
“I don’t think it will ever be equalled. It just can’t be. It’ll be a heck of a long time before it ever is.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 14