This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
On a cold October day in 1967, a lone rider caught sight of a fellow cyclist ahead. Pedalling perfect circles despite the high gear, this cyclist steadily closed the gap, calmly overtook and offered a liquorice allsort: “I thought a gesture was required.” The overtaken rider would go on to set a new men’s record for the 12-hour endurance time-trial; the confectionery-bearing leader would go one further and set the outright record. She was the only woman on the course, and her name was Beryl Burton.
Who? To ask is no rhetorical device; it is a genuine inquiry into how I — an amateur devotee of cycling and endurance challenges — had never before heard the name. It is a question I would revisit on finishing Jeremy Wilson’s comprehensive, engaging and accessible account of the life of one of Britain’s most exceptional athletes.
Burton was born into an era when the bike was for transport not sport, let alone for women. Following a turbulent childhood marred by illness and long periods away from family, she began cycling at 15, met her future husband at the local cycling club, and discovered an obsession that would shape every moment of her life.
It would lead to a lifetime of sporting brilliance spanning 30 years and 90 domestic championship wins. Burton particularly excelled in time trials — the so-called “race of truth”, with no recourse to drafting or team tactics — and for 25 consecutive years she triumphed at the national championships. That bears repeating: for a quarter of a century, not one British woman could surpass her in the ultimate contest of speed.
On the international stage, her palmarès included seven world championships. It could have been so much more, though, had there been access to Olympic competition, or if the British sporting authorities deigned to take any serious interest: “animals were more readily accepted than women”.
The early chapters of her life — and this book — follow a familiar pattern: balancing training, a manual job and a household, dominating major competitions with a support team limited to her husband and daughter who slept in their three-wheeled Reliant Robin, and receiving scant recognition for her achievements. The biography’s true success lies in its portrayal of Burton as more than just an athlete overcoming adversity and apathy.
Make no mistake: Burton was an elite sportsperson
To Burton, life was a stark zero-sum game between things that supported her cycling versus those that did not. Living in a house with neither television nor telephone (lest they distract), her husband Charlie and daughter Denise had no choice but to go with the grain of her career. Denise was brought up on a bike and ultimately raced herself. Whilst Burton respected her daughter’s cycling, she could not compute how to treat her any differently from a rival, however.
It is astonishingly rare for a parent and child to face off against each other in a national championship, yet that is precisely what happened in 1976. In the closing stages, two Burtons sprinted for the finish, but 20-year-old Denise had the youthful edge over her 39-year-old mother. Instead of celebrating, Beryl felt only anger and pain; she could not bring herself to shake Denise’s hand on the podium.
This disownment is the climax of Wilson’s book, and it is difficult not to pass judgement. He skilfully guides the reader through a rich collection of first-hand accounts, carefully arranged to allow a balanced view. We are reminded of the immense constraints on women’s sport, which forced Burton to be a champion, manual worker and still meet society’s expectations for working-class women.
This is not a story of a neatly compartmentalised double life of super-human achievement and domestic bliss; it is the tale of a champion driven by childhood trauma who forced colossal sacrifices at home in her relentless pursuit of competition. Despite journalists’ penchant to frame her as “an ordinary Yorkshire housewife”, make no mistake: Burton was an elite sportsperson. Before we pass sentence, Wilson’s narrative encourages us to extend the same latitude we grant other sporting heroes when confronted with their flaws and obsessive characters — this is the necessary perspective on her life.
It is amazing that a champion could be so good at the same time as forging the path for women’s participation: “She was,” as Wilson says, “ludicrously ahead of her time.” Wilson’s account is thoroughly researched, but he did not have to piece together fragmentary clues to recount Burton’s story. It was all there in plain sight. So, whilst I now know Beryl Burton, I have a bigger question: who else lies undiscovered?