The story of Britain's greatest forgotten athlete

·17 min read
Beryl Burton is pushed off at the start of a club time trial in Wetherby during the early 1970s - Brian Townsley
Beryl Burton is pushed off at the start of a club time trial in Wetherby during the early 1970s - Brian Townsley

It is a unique and yet instantly recognisable sound. The whirring of a bicycle wheel freely rotating until it slowly stops, not because a brake has been applied but because the momentum from the last push of a pedal has gradually ceased.

It was the fading sound that accompanied the last breath of Beryl Burton after she collapsed on the side of the road in May 1996, aged 58, while out riding her bicycle on the outskirts of Harrogate. It was also the sound that cut poignantly through the silence during an afternoon play on BBC Radio 4 some 16 years later, when the actor Maxine Peake recreated her sudden death. The play, written by Peake herself, was then adapted for the theatre in 2014, and a capacity audience for the opening night at Leeds Playhouse included Burton’s daughter, Denise, and her then 85-year-old husband, Charlie.

Denise gazed across a theatre filled with more than 1,000 people who had known little of her mother’s extraordinary life only two hours earlier. ‘People were sobbing,’ she says. ‘It was surreal. Just incredible.’ And then, as a projector replayed rare footage of Burton powering along on two wheels, the statistics from a career that was quite plausibly the finest in all cycling history were narrated by Peake.

‘Time trialling: British Best All-Rounder, champion 25 successive years. The first woman to beat a time of one hour for 25 miles. The first woman to beat a time of two hours for 50 miles. The first woman to beat a time of four hours for 100 miles. Track racing: 3,000 metres pursuit, world champion five times, national champion 13 times. The first woman to beat a time of four minutes. Road racing: world champion twice, national champion 12 times. In 1967 she became the only woman to beat a men’s competition record, riding 277.25 miles in 12 hours. Awarded the MBE in 1964 and the OBE in 1968. Beryl Burton.’

Then 27-year old Beryl pictured in Leeds after being named in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 1964 - Getty Images
Then 27-year old Beryl pictured in Leeds after being named in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 1964 - Getty Images

As the curtain came down, people rose to their feet and cheered the accomplishments of a Yorkshire champion who had literally pedalled herself to death just a few miles up the road. Beryl Burton was the greatest sportsperson most people have never heard of. To my mind, she was also the most extraordinary athlete that this country has ever produced. It is an opinion that has only hardened during four years researching and writing a book about her life.

Peake had only discovered Burton shortly before the London Olympics in 2012, when she was given a second-hand copy of Burton’s autobiography by her partner Pawlo Wintoniuk with a handwritten message. ‘Get yourself a curly perm and there’s a film part in this,’ he wrote. The more Peake read, the more she became baffled by Burton’s relative anonymity, especially at a moment when cycling was booming and champions like Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Laura Trott, Victoria Pendleton and Mark Cavendish were household names.

‘I was transfixed, just fascinated that this woman in the late 1950s and 1960s had been so successful,’ says Peake. ‘Her story is mind-blowing. Why didn’t I know her? Why hadn’t Beryl filtered through to the mainstream? I thought it was criminal.’

Timing provides one part of the answer but the overarching explanation is simple. This was an era in cycling of shocking institutional sexism. The sport was more than 50 years behind swimming and athletics in gaining inclusion for women at the Olympics, and the first year of any female equivalent of the Tour de France was also 1984. Even then, it has only been staged intermittently until the big relaunch this summer of a women’s event – Le Tour Femmes – to finally compare with the men’s race.

Beryl Burton still excelled. With little more than a tent, a camping stove and their bikes, the Burton family went out and routinely conquered the world.

Burton on her bike as she is about to start the RTTC 50 miles, England, 1976 - Alamy Images
Burton on her bike as she is about to start the RTTC 50 miles, England, 1976 - Alamy Images

To continually win the prestigious British Best All-Rounder (BAR) competition – for the time triallist with the fastest annual average speed over 25, 50 and 100 miles – for a quarter of a century represents the longest individual winning streak in any serious sporting competition. A second incomparable achievement was her world best in 1967 for the distance cycled in 12 hours, when she not only set a new women’s landmark, but decimated an entire field of 99 men and beat their record. She handed the men’s champion, Mike McNamara, a liquorice allsort as she caught and passed him.

It would take two years for a man to regain ‘their’ record. Despite all the vast advances in bicycle technology, Burton’s women’s record stood for half a century.

Thanks to extensive modelling of her various time-trial records by sports scientists and experts in aerodynamics, which were carried out in a wind tunnel at Silverstone exclusively for the book, we can now say with certainty that she would have surpassed even today’s best athletes on the same modern-day cycling equipment.

Burton’s motivations are as fascinating as her achievements are stunning. An early school report described her as a ‘stubborn little mule’, and a perfectionist streak was evident in her reaction to a tutor who once disfigured her English book with corrections in red ink. ‘I went berserk,’ she said.

She was academically at the top of her class when she sat her 11-plus examination at Coldcotes Primary School in October 1947, but, unable to harness her burning desire to succeed, she froze once the test began. Within hours of the ordeal finishing, she had developed a high fever, collapsed and was rushed to St James’s Hospital in Leeds, where she was diagnosed with Sydenham’s chorea and rheumatic fever, an attack of the nervous system brought on by the stress. ‘I was shattered – an abject failure,’ she later said.

Paralysed down one side of her body, barely able to speak and unable to control sudden involuntary movements, the young Beryl did not leave Ward 19 of the hospital for nine long months, before spending a further 15 in a Southport convalescent home run by nuns. Convent life during the late 1940s typically began with 5am prayers followed by a routine of meditation, study, dishwashing, ironing, sewing and darning – all timed by the clang of a bell – before lights out by 9pm. Family visits were not allowed, even over Christmas 1948, but, after spending her 12th birthday some 73 miles from her family in Leeds, she was finally declared physically fit enough to go home.

Beryl racing in 1964 - Bernard Thompson/Cycling Time Trials
Beryl racing in 1964 - Bernard Thompson/Cycling Time Trials

There is a growing body of academic literature and research that draws a correlation between childhood trauma and exceptional achievement. It was a thesis that first emerged through the work of Victor and Mildred Goertzel, who in 1962 studied more than 400 super-high achievers and found that 75 per cent of their subjects faced unusually severe difficulties during their formative years, such as the loss of a parent, abuse, serious illness or extreme poverty.

Comparable findings were revealed in 2016 by UK Sport in a study of Britain’s most successful Olympians. In later interviews, in which the line of questioning would inevitably involve trying to fathom how she remained so determined to keep on winning, Burton would invariably refer both to her illness and 11-plus ordeal.

‘I felt as though I had been cheated – I was determined that somehow I would make my mark,’ she later said, predicting that ‘psychiatrists and educationalists may read something into what happened to me’.

She had been provided with a long list of medical ‘dos and don’ts’ following her convalescence in Southport. Her pulse was irregular and a scar had formed on her heart. Doctors concluded that she would be risking her life by exercising too intensely and, should she ride a bike, she was told to walk up any hills and avoid getting out of breath. Rarely in medical history has a piece of advice been so emphatically ignored.

Beryl with Charlie and their daughter Denise, both of whom slept in the family’s three-wheeled car during the trip, in Belgium for the 1963 World Championships - Len Thorpe
Beryl with Charlie and their daughter Denise, both of whom slept in the family’s three-wheeled car during the trip, in Belgium for the 1963 World Championships - Len Thorpe

Beryl left school at 15 and got a job. Working in the same tailor’s factory in the centre of Leeds was Charlie Burton, who invited her on one of the Morley Cycling Club’s Sunday-morning rides. Morley club rides could last from dawn to dusk and regularly surpassed 100 miles.

They would go out in all weather conditions, even though cycling clothing was much more basic than now: knitted woolly jumpers, cardigans and hats for the cold, long nylon socks tucked into several pairs of trousers and a clear plastic sheet in the wet. Beryl would scoop up rainwater in the plastic sheet and take sips when she felt particularly dehydrated. It was an extraordinarily tough apprenticeship and, in what was a largely male and adult group of about 25 regular riders, few allowances were made.

So did she enjoy it? ‘I can’t recall. What I do remember is that I wasn’t going to be beaten by anything,’ she said in her 1986 autobiography, Personal Best. Her father did not stand in her way but made it clear that there would be no compromise to the weekly household chores. In a show of immense self-discipline and determination, she simply got up at 6am to dust and polish the floors before departing at 8am for an all-day ride. She was not yet 16.

Beryl Burton and Henry Cooper are presented with Top Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year at the Savoy Hotel, 1967 - Getty Images
Beryl Burton and Henry Cooper are presented with Top Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year at the Savoy Hotel, 1967 - Getty Images

Her progress over the next seven years would be staggering. The first of 122 individual national titles was won in 1958 and she would become Britain’s first women’s world cycling champion in Liège a year later, aged 22. She followed that up with world titles in Berlin, Leipzig, Milan, Frankfurt and Heerlen, consistently beating continental opponents who trained full-time and, in the case of the Soviet Union and East Germany, were also backed by a fully state-sponsored training programme.

Burton’s strictly amateur status meant that she never earned a penny from cycling and Charlie, whom she married shortly before her 18th birthday in 1955, would travel across Europe to support her and the British women’s team. He would routinely sleep in the family’s three-wheeled car, or even in ditches and under hedges. In complete defiance of social norms, Charlie simply gave up his own competitive cycling ambitions and dedicated his life to a range of tasks in support of Beryl – chief mechanic, chauffeur, masseur, psychologist; tasks for which Sir Dave Brailsford’s Team Ineos now has a staff of more than 60.

Burton’s global dominance during the 1960s was of sufficient fascination for the Soviet Union to dispatch two coaches to visit the Yorkshire rhubarb farm on which she laboured full-time to get a better understanding of how she kept beating their best riders.

Beryl and the family post-race, alongside a teammate, in 1965 - Bernard Thompson/Cycling Time Trials
Beryl and the family post-race, alongside a teammate, in 1965 - Bernard Thompson/Cycling Time Trials

A journalist at Le Monde once said that, had Burton been French, Joan of Arc would have taken second place. Her international celebrity was such that she was invited to race as far afield as Australia, Africa and America, and she was years ahead of her time in opting to spend an early spring month off work abroad, generally in Benidorm or Mallorca, for warm-weather training. As her numerous letters to friends back home confirm, she would cycle from the airport with all her belongings in a saddlebag and live an entirely self-sufficient month alone, or with Charlie, eating the local produce and amassing thousands of training miles.

Recognition or money never remotely motivated Burton, and so what remains is a largely unknown story of breathtaking achievement and copious charm. At its root is the humble simplicity and bloody-mindedness of a woman who was as pure and unquestioning in loving her chosen sport as anyone who ever lived. A woman who thought nothing of cycling 170 miles home to Leeds from London after completing a morning 50-mile time trial. Or who could be seen vomiting by the side of the A1 in Yorkshire from the sheer effort of her training and then later sitting in the corner of the Lighthouse Café near Doncaster, complete with a mug of tea and the knitting that she always carried in her saddlebag.

Burton was still racing in 1993, despite increasing health challenges, supported as ever by her husband Charlie - Phil O’Connor
Burton was still racing in 1993, despite increasing health challenges, supported as ever by her husband Charlie - Phil O’Connor

‘I can still picture her – a pair of plus fours, no socks, plain black leather cycling shoes and a lime green woolly cardigan,’ says Chris Sidwells, a friend and cycling historian.

The bike was also her primary mode of transport and the focal point for every social activity or holiday. It became nothing less than an expression of self. In a speech to the Sports Journalists’ Association in 1970, preserved among hundreds of previously unseen documents, letters and photographs, including handwritten talks and notes in the months leading up to her death, she began by outlining that overriding feeling. ‘Cycling, for me, isn’t just a sport – it’s a way of life,’ she said.

And yet Beryl Burton’s story is not some unblemished fairy tale. There were later difficulties in her relationship with daughter Denise, who would grow from an infant permanently parked on an accompanying bicycle seat to one of the main threats to her mother’s cycling dominance.

Some of the stories about how Burton would treat Denise – given her absolute tunnel vision about meeting her own cycling needs – do not make for easy reading or listening. There was the time that Denise beat her into second place at the national 1976 road race championships and she refused to shake her daughter’s hand on the podium. Or when she did not interrupt her warm-up before a World Championship race to check up on Denise after she had suffered a serious crash.

Sue Mott, a former Telegraph sports journalist, has never forgotten the afternoon she spent interviewing Burton in 1982. ‘I don’t think I’ve met a sports champion since who had the same absolute ice-sharp obsession – even sportspeople celebrated for their focus,’ she said. ‘Not Steve Redgrave, not Andy Murray, not even AP McCoy. She seemed tiny, sinewy, every molecule of her being converted to energy production.’

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Burton would refuse to stop racing or even cut back on her relentless training schedule despite multiple health warnings. The family tried. Her friends tried. Doctors tried. When she died of heart failure aged 58, she was still training to win and had entered the national 10-mile championships the following weekend.

The key learning from more than 100 interviews I’ve done with family, friends, teammates and fellow cyclists, is clear. Beryl Burton was incredible but, like most obsessive champions, the human sacrifices were considerable. I had started out suspecting that she was Britain’s best cyclist. I finished believing that she stands comparison with any athlete in history. And, at a time when sport can often leave us feeling cynical, an embodiment of its most noble values.

‘We put in same hours and make same sacrifices’

Burton’s prize for her 12-hour ride in 1967 that surpassed both the women’s and men’s records? The precise sum of £1/10 shillings. And yet for Mike McNamara, the fastest in an entire field of 99 men whom she also caught and beat? Almost  three times as much at £4.

The discrepancy will come as little shock to anyone who rode in an era when prizes for women cyclists were as likely to be pouches of washing powder or hair-curling tongs as money and trophies. Rather more surprising, however, is what happened when one of sport’s greatest records was finally beaten.

Alice Lethbridge, a biology teacher from Surrey, achieved that feat some 50 years later in 2017, but her £40 prize was only the same as the third-placed man that day.

“Prize allocations in time trials are still completely down to the discretion of the organiser,” Lethbridge explains. “Some are brilliant, but a lot of organisers will say, ‘I am not giving the winning woman the same as the leading man because she is racing against fewer people’.

“Being told that our performances are not equal to men’s is a common theme when we raise this. But when you have ridden a time that was really high on the all-time list and you are getting less than the leading man who is nowhere near top of the men’s list, you do think, ‘What more can I do to be respected as a cyclist in the same way as the male competitors?’ ”

Cycling was more than 50 years behind swimming and athletics in allowing women into the Olympics in 1984 at Los Angeles, and the very fact that the Tour de France Femmes – a women’s race finally to compare to the men’s Tour de France – is being relaunched this year tells its own story.

Previous incarnations were staged only intermittently between 1984 and 2009.

Vast disparities also remain inside the women’s professional peloton and, even for the history-making winner at the top of La Super Planche des Belles at the end of the eight-stage race on July 31, the €50,000 (£43,000) first prize will be a mere tenth of what is on offer to the men.

Such discrepancies were highlighted in a parliamentary debate earlier this year following the launch of The Telegraph’s “Close the gap” campaign for fair prize money in sport. Backers of the campaign include the cyclists Lizzie Deignan and Laura Kenny.

“As female athletes, we put in the same number of hours and make the same sacrifices, yet our rewards are completely different,” said Kenny, Team GB’s most successful female Olympian. “What message does this send?”

Deignan was awarded a first prize of just £1,313 compared to more than £25,000 for the men when she won the first women’s Paris-Roubaix last year.

There is at least now a minimum wage for leading women’s professional cycling teams, but you do not have to scratch far beneath the surface to hear multiple stories of unpaid “professional” riders also working full-time outside the sport. Lethbridge, who is 37, combines her job as a teacher with representing Great Britain in the UCI’s Esports World Championships on Zwift and riding women’s WorldTour races for the AWOL O’Shea team.

Training is simply crammed in before school at 5am and between marking at weekends.

“For girls, it often has to be a hobby rather than a profession,” she says, even if being the person who broke Burton’s most famous record is the sort of accolade that money cannot buy.

“It was a spine-tingling moment – and even now, five years later, it still doesn’t feel real,” she says.

Another vocal champion for women’s cycling is the Eurosport presenter Orla Chennaoui.

“A survey by The Cyclists’ Alliance last year showed that there has been a growing wage disparity gap between the women’s world teams and the continental teams,” Chennaoui said.

“We have seen massive progress but, when you look at the continental teams, the number of riders not paid a salary had increased to 34 per cent in 2021.”

This reality makes prize-money critical on a practical as well as symbolic level but, having guest-edited the record-selling Rouleur magazine that exclusively featured women’s cycling, Chennaoui is certain that the interest is there.

“Women’s racing tends to be more dynamic and less formulaic,” she says. “It is all changing but disparities remain and you don’t want to be the sport that is left behind. Why be dragged into 2022?”

Adapted from Beryl: In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete, by Jeremy Wilson (Pursuit/Profile £20), which will be out on July 7 and is available on pre-order.

Think Serena Williams beating Roger Federer - Beryl Burton was that good
Think Serena Williams beating Roger Federer - Beryl Burton was that good
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