PEZ Bookshelf: The Greatest – The Times and Life of Beryl Burton
Book Review: We have made reference in the past to Britain’s Beryl Burton, one of cycling’s most remarkable record-setting athletes, and now comes an excellent new biography that looks beyond Burton’s numbers to try to understand how this Yorkshire housewife was so driven to achieve what she did. Considering what she did with what was available to her in the circumstances, the reader can only wonder what would have been possible for her today.
British author William Fotheringham is no stranger here and his latest book, “The Greatest – The Times an Life of Beryl Burton,” is another fine example of cycling history taken in the context of society as it was then. Beryl Burton’s own autobiography is a book that leaves out so much in comparison, focused on her sporting achievements as if they were something that was the sum of her life – although perhaps that really was almost all that mattered to her. The accomplishments are dizzying: she won 96 national titles between 1957 and 1986; 15 medals at world championships between 1959 and 1973, including seven world titles; complete dominance of women’s time trialling in Britain for years, and speeds that rivalled all but the very best men’s. And she actually beat the best male time triallists in Britain on September 17, 1967 when she rode 277.25 miles in 12 hours, setting a new competition record.
As the author notes: “…she became the only woman in cycling history to hold a record of this kind outright, better the best male time for the distance under identical conditions. It was a feat that appears to have been unmatched in any endurance sport.” This was the famous time trial where she passed a male competitor (who was actually on his way to setting a new men’s record) and offered him a licorice allsorts candy as she swept by—which he accepted.
British cycling legend Beryl Burton in the national champions jersey in action on her bike in the Pennine Road Race, England, UK. A quiet, reserved individual, she represented her local cycling club, Morley CC and remained an amateur cyclist all her live, doing part-time work on a rhubarb farm to make ends meet. Such was her dedication to the sport she had neither a television not telephone at her home.
The author has clearly done extensive research for this book and his interviews with Burton’s now-octogenarian husband Charles, her brother and her daughter, as well as those she raced against, male and female, provide a much fuller picture of the woman known to all and sundry as BB. She came from a modest background in Yorkshire and was apparently keen on school but was described to her face as “a stubborn little mule” by one of her teachers. Family life was unsettled and apparently strict and seemingly unhappy. The biggest trauma of her childhood seems to have been a state exam, the ’11-plus,’ This was a fork in the road for school children, determining if one could take a path leading to a professional career via grammar school then university, or end up at a secondary school that would take you to a future of manual labour.
Although she worked hard to prepare for the examination, but, as she put it, she “completely froze,” a sentiment with which many can sympathize. The failure to pass the ’11-plus’ resulted in such stress that Beryl Burton came down with rheumatic fever and side effects. She was unable to speak and paralysed on one side, an effect that lasted for months. She was bedridden in hospital for nine months, followed by 15 months’ convalescence in a home run by nuns where she received few family visits due to the problem of travel. Rheumatic fever can damage heart muscles, which it does in 50 percent of cases, and Burton was advised to avoid exercise and if she were to ride a bicycle she should get off and walk up hills.
The racing cyclist Beryl Burton with her bike. A time-trialing legend and considered to be the most successful British female cyclist ever. Image shot 1960. Exact date unknown.
It seems that a good part of Beryl Burton’s life was motivated by the disaster of the ’11-plus’ results. She came into cycling after meeting Charles Burton at her first job. He was a rider with the local cycling group, the Morley Road Club and she joined him and his friends, gradually building up strength and speed. She and Burton were married in 1955, when she was barely 18; he was seven years older and a steadying influence. As Beryl became the star athlete of the family, Charlie seems to have served as the uncomplaining factotum, chief organizer, mechanic, moral support, a role he also played when their daughter Denise began to race as well.
There is much in the book about the insular cycling world of Britain, where there were almost no professionals and certainly no money. The British had developed their own weird culture of the time trial, races aimed at near invisibility on courses that were themselves semi-secret. There were some road races but nothing that could compare with what was happening on the Continent and certainly not much for women. The UCI only introduced women’s world championship road races in 1958 and time trials in 1994 (I had to check this latter date because it is hard to comprehend).
Beryl Burton – World champion in 1967 (photographer unknown).
So Beryl Burton made do with Charlie and cycling to and from races. One historian has written: “After just five years in the sport she had already won everything there was to win five times over, world championships as well as every time-trialling honour, yet she persisted, constantly pushing back the boundaries of the possible.” He went on to add: “Her achievement was a triumph of pure amateurism, pure self-discipline. She had no coaching, no science and only the most basic equipment and machine. Everything she knew and everything she achieved she did by herself.”
Her training looked like something East Germans would admire (minus the drugs) and consisted of working hard on a rhubarb farm with plenty of physical labour and then going out for 100 mile training rides several times a week. She rode time trials constantly and prided herself on how hard she worked. Since she was not paid, there was no time off from family responsibilities – cooking, baking, cleaning, ironing – and her primary relaxation appeared to be knitting useful things. Her records stood for many years and those who broke them have had the latest in equipment and techniques—aero bikes and helmets, focused training, specialized diets and, yes, sponsorship – so one can only wonder what BB might have done with these tools given her extraordinary natural talent.
Mother punctures, daughter waits.
As a Yorkshire housewife she seems to have been an amiable person but on the bike… well, that was another story. Her competitive streak was so powerful that it was not enough to beat others but to crush them. She played a psychological game as she passed her victims, letting a word or two to indicate she was not so impressed with your efforts before dropping you. Because the time trial community was fairly small, riders would be constantly up against the same opponents and it must be said that her near 25 year dominance of women’s time trialling in Britain must have put off a lot of riders, who would simply quit due to the futility of it all. And nothing says “fierce competitor” more than what happened when Denise Burton beat her mother at the national championships in 1976 and family life fell apart.
Beryl Burton – Starting a English time trial (photographer unknown).
Beryl Burton could not stop competing and it was only in the early 1980s, as her health began to decline, that she began to be beaten by younger competitors. Her will to win was enormous, even if in the end it simply amounted to passing other riders rather than coming first. And in the end perhaps the doctors were right after all—Beryl Burton was found dead next to her bicycle on May 5, 1996, having suffered a fatal heart attack while out delivering invitations to her upcoming 59th birthday party.
BB as most remember her, smiling with the Sunday morning time trial safely behind her.
“The Greatest – the Times and Life of Beryl Burton” is a superb examination of a life lived on its own terms. Beryl Burton was an exceptional athlete, a person of some courage and great determination, who flourished in her chosen metier and showed that she was greater than the very limited stage upon which she was permitted to act. Cycling personalities are worth celebrating and her accomplishments should not fall into obscurity. Happily, the UCI Road World Championships of 2019 were held in her Yorkshire and on the familiar roads of Harrogate, a world of cycling changed since her prime.
“The Greatest – The Times and Life of Beryl Burton” by William Fotheringham
286 pp., illus., hardcover
YouCaxton Publications, 2019
Suggested Price: GBP 20.
Photos supplied by the author, unless otherwise stated.
The book is self-published so it is available from selected retailers in the UK, but mainly through these internet sites:
www.islabikes.co.uk (UK sales only)
www.williamfotheringham.com (UK and international, signed copies)
When not hiding his enjoyment of licorice allsorts, a form of sugar doping created accidentally in Sheffield, England in 1899, Leslie Reissner may be found trying to find some comfort in his pure amateurism and lack of science on the bicycle at www.tindonkey.com.