Beryl Burton. British Legend

by Hugh Gladstone on 29 June 2021
In the end, her relentless drive was possibly what killed Beryl Burton, but during her lifetime it is also what defined her. Even as a schoolgirl playing ball by herself in the playground she would set exacting standards. In her autobiography Personal Best, she explained that every time she failed to reach her target, it would result in an inward ticking off. “I would even bite the ball with frustration and annoyance,” she wrote. Her daughter, Denise Burton-Cole, thinks that more so than any physical attributes, Burton’s gift was her determination.

“She just had her own ideas of what she was going to do and she did it,” Denise recalled. “Nothing stood in her way.” The results produced by this determination were outstanding. In the history of British cycling, no one before or since has been quite so dominating. And while Burton’s bread and butter was Britain’s low-key but hugely popular time trialling scene, where she ruled the roost for a whole quarter of a century, she also proved her ability on the world stage, winning no less than seven world road race and pursuit titles. Had the World Championships then included a time trial as it does now, who knows how many more world-beating performances the Yorkshire native might have produced. As for the Olympics: it’s another case of what if? Women’s cycling wasn’t introduced to the Games until Burton was 47.

“We always talk: ‘What would Beryl have done today with the track at Manchester, all the equipment and support’,” said Malcolm Cowgill of Burton’s Morley Cycling Club. “When you think about it, the Eastern Europeans were souped up to the eyeballs. How many gold medals did that cost her? Back then, the Women’s World Road Race was run over ridiculous distances like 25 miles. If it had been what it is now – say 80 miles – she’d have been the last one standing. It’d be tailor made for her.” But history is what it is, and Burton’s palmarès is staggering enough without any hypothetical aero-bars, training camps and sports psychologists (things she might have dismissed as ‘fancy fads’ anyway).

Self-funded and without a formal coach, Burton won such an overwhelming number of honours that giving a definitive total seems a risky business. One might overlook an obscure team result somewhere. Or simply get the maths wrong. Breaking the statistics down into more bitesize chunks, Burton was the national pursuit champion 13 times and won the road title on 12 occasions. Moving on to time trials, the numbers go up a whole other level. She was 18 times the national 100-mile (160km) champion, 23 times the national ‘50’ (80km) champion and 26 times the 25-mile (40km) champion. Burton was already over 40 years old when the Road Time Trials Council introduced a national 10-mile (16km) title. Yet she also won that four times. In addition to these titles, Burton was, for 25 successive years (between 1959 and 1983), winner of the British Best All-Rounder competition. She set new records time and time again, reducing them during the course of her career by as much as 15 per cent. In 1963, she was the first woman to go under the hour for 25 miles, and subsequently bust the two and four-hour barriers for the ‘50’ and the ‘100’. All of these she significantly improved on. Most of her ultimate records stood for the best part of 20 years while disc wheels, skinsuits and faster conditions on dragstrip courses came along.

Sweet Succes

Although most of her records have now tumbled, Burton still holds the women’s 12-hour time trial record, set over 40 years ago in 1967. At 277.25 miles, Cowgill pointed out that it is a distance many men would still be happy with now. “Only the very best, people like [long distance specialist Andy] Wilkinson, have surpassed it,” he said. At the time it was absolutely phenomenal. Not only did Burton improve on her own 1959 figure by 27 miles, but she recorded a distance that for two years stood ahead of the men’s record.

Her ride also gave rise to time trialling’s favourite anecdote. One of Burton’s most famous idiosyncrasies was offering witticisms to riders she caught. Dave Taylor, press secretary at Cycling Time Trials, said: “The only experience I had with Beryl was being caught by her in a ‘25’ in Essex. As she passed me she said ‘Eh lad, you’re not trying’ where upon she disappeared up the road.” The story was no different in the Otley CC ‘12’ when she caught Mike McNamara, who himself was on the way to recording a new men’s national record – 0.73 miles shorter than the figure she set. In her book, Burton recalled the sympathy she felt as she approached him: “Poor Mac… his glory, richly deserved, was going to be overshadowed by a woman.” Recognising the need to make a gesture as she passed, Burton offered him a liquorice allsort from a bag she had in her back pocket. “Ta love,” McNamara had replied, then popped the sweet into his mouth. Years later, McNamara’s Rockingham Cycling Club honoured that moment by presenting Burton with a giant version of the sweet at their annual dinner.

Family time

Although Burton’s autobiography demonstrates she clearly had a soft centre, her gritty determination and steely demeanour gave her a reputation for being “as hard as nails”. Cowgill said: “She wouldn’t suffer fools, that was for sure.” Even her daughter admitted she had to read the autobiography for some insight on her mother. “She wasn’t a person to talk a lot about her career,” Denise recalled. “In fact, she wasn’t a person to talk a lot at all. She thought it was a waste of energy, perhaps!”

Of course no one knew Burton as well as her husband Charlie, who was still regularly getting out on his bike in his 80s. The pair had met after Beryl – who had a childhood affected by a nervous disorder – left school and started working in a clothing factory. “I used to go to work on a bike,” he recalled. “She said ‘I’m gonna get one of those’ and I said ‘oh yeah’, and didn’t think anymore about it. “But we started chatting a bit more and I lent her one of my bikes and she used it to go up to the [cycling] club or go dancing at the dancehall. From then on, we just started going out cycling.

“First of all, she was handy but wasn’t that competent: we used to have to push her round a bit. Slowly she got better. By the second year, she was ‘one of the lads’ and could ride with us. By the third year, she was going out in front and leading them all. By then it was 1956 and she decided to do a bit of time trialling because I was dabbling at it.” As Beryl began to show her potential, Charlie’s own cycling took a backseat. “I know she wouldn’t have been as successful without my father there,” said Denise. “He cycled to work and back but he gave up everything else. He did the bikes, drove her about and did a lot for me too, when I was at home. He’s as much a champion as her, really. Her success was shared between them.” Having grown up going touring in a sidecar attached to her father’s bike, and later riding with her parents on club runs, Denise also became an international cyclist.

Quite uniquely, in the early 1970s, the mother and daughter were joining each other for national team trips together. In 1973, Beryl won the National Road Championship ahead of Denise. Three years later, their positions were reversed and the mother gave rise to another of those legendary anecdotes by refusing to shake hands with her daughter on the podium. “I was too overjoyed at winning, and I didn’t take any notice of anything like that,” recalled Denise, charging that most of the fuss was media hype. In her book, Beryl offered an explanation: “I thought Denise had not done her whack in keeping the break away and once again I had ‘made the race'[…] It was not a sporting thing to do […] I can only plead I was not myself at the time.”

Fighting fit

The mother and daughter soon reconciled but, despite getting older, Beryl Burton’s competitive spirit never did seem to fade. “She was still trying to achieve things when her health deteriorated in the last 10 years of her life,” recalled Charlie. “Her times were getting slower in the time trialling… so she was never happy or content with that. She was always trying to thrash herself back into shape. “She was still pushing right up to the end; trying to get back to her former glories.” Inevitably, this all proved too much. One week short of turning 59, in May 1996, Burton – in whom doctors had always observed a curious heart rhythm – headed out to deliver some invitations for her birthday party. Those were the last pedal strokes she’d ever make.

In the end, her relentless drive was possibly what killed Beryl Burton, but during her lifetime it is also what defined her.

On her bike, on roads close to her Yorkshire home, Britain’s most prolific racing cyclist collapsed and then died. “I would have thought it was all the pushing she’d done to herself both mentally and physically,” said Denise. “Your body eventually says it’s about time you should rest, but she didn’t. She did more than anybody. “I remember when she used to train she’d do more miles than was ever needed. That was her. She wouldn’t have done anything else. Pushing her body was the way she did things.”

Beryl Burton is commemorated in a memorial garden in Morley. A huge mural of her in action adorns the back wall.


This article was published in Cyling Weekly (Decembre 2009) and republished in Etappe#04 (2014).

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