Beryl: In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete

After a mid-winter break of a few weeks whilst I was busy editing the four episodes of Le Grand Tour films, the podcast returns in the New Year and the first episode of 2023 – number 062 – will feature a fascinating interview with the journalist Jeremy Wilson. He has written an award-winning book – none other than the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2022 – about the extraordinary life and cycling times of Beryl Burton. In the week before I spoke to Jeremy I spent many thoroughly enjoyable hours reading the book, making notes as I turned the pages in preparation for the interview. In this pre-podcast podcast post (OK, shameless publicity tease…) you can read what I jotted down. Those notes will hopefully whet your appetite for listening to episode 062 of The Cycling Europe Podcast which will be published on Sunday 1st January 2023. In the meantime… Happy Christmas!

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“Beryl: In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete” – Pre-Podcast Notes

  • Time trialling – the British standard race system after group races were banned
  • Beryl Burton (BB) suited to time trialling – she was out there on her own
  • Mike McNamara – overtaken by BB in a 12 hour time trial in which she he broke the men’s record and she broke the men’s record two minutes later! 
  • Tough childhood upbringing in Leeds
  • Signs of being competitive from an early age 
  • School report: “stubborn little mule”
  • 9 months in hospital at the age of ten (nervous system attack) followed by 15 months in a convalescent home in Southport 
  • Academic research shows childhood trauma in ‘super-elite’ athletes 
  • Not one for keeping / displaying memorabilia – World Champion shirts used as dusters, trophies kept in cardboard boxes 
  • Doctors told her not a ride a bike uphill 
  • Started off club riding with Morley CC at the invite of Charlie, her future husband – kept falling off and initially, no indication she would become a great 
  • Charlie very supportive, breaking with the then tradition of a 1950s man’s world (they married in 1955 when she was nearly 18) 
  • She could have stern words for Charlie if there was an issue with the bike 
  • Sadly, many people featured in the book are nearing the end of their lives; was it a case of research and write the book now… or never? 
  • Why, compared to other sports, did it take the UCI so long to welcome women cyclists at international competitions? 
  • Great contrast between her acclaim on the continent after winning her first world title… and the muted reception when she arrived home in Leeds. Only short mentions in local, regional and national press: “I was a double world champion in an international sport and it might as well have been the ladies’ darts final down at the local as far as Britain was concerned.?’
  • Reg Harris (in a column for Cycling in 1960): “In an article entitled A Star Who Needs a Spotlight’, Harris rightly asserted that Beryl would have been a certainty that year for Olympic gold had women cyclists been permitted, and wrote that she had ‘put numerous male cycling stars to shame in a manner never before achieved by one of the fair sex’. Having already achieved every available feat in her sport by the age of twenty-three, Harris concluded that there were now two options. The first, which he counselled against, was to keep setting new records and winning the same titles. Harris instead advocated effective retirement and an ambassadorial role that would include ‘numerous public appearances’ and ‘panel games alongside well-known celebrities of the sparkling screen’. He also suggested a future of ‘newspaper columns, interviews, receptions and trade shows’.
  • Next book: Nim Carline? ‘Legendary’ member of the Morley Cycling Club 
  • She had a lovely side to her but she was a hard person and had that cutting edge” (Margaret Allen, member of Morley Cycling Club having been told by BB that she didn’t want Margaret riding with her again.) 
  • BB never learned to drive
  • “Life is much harder up north – it’s cold and damp and you have to work to get anywhere in anything, she said in 1966. “I think southerners give in too easily and haven’t the same fighting spirit.”
  • Yvonne Reynders (rival in the 60’s) arrived at competitions with a trainer and two masseurs as part of the Belgium team which trained together twice a day. Had BB had such support, would she have been even better or was she so good because of the adversity?
  • She remained an amateur. To turn professional would mean exclusion from selection for the World Championships. “Earning from cycling or competing” was the choice she faced.
  • Worked for Yorkshire cycling entrepreneur Ron Kitching, an arrangement that worked well as she had access to bikes and kit without being sponsored. 
  • 2nd to Henry Cooper as BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1967, much to the relief of the BBC! MBE upgraded to an OBE in 1968.
  • The Mersey 24 (July 1969): two separate events for men and women but “…the day was structured in a way that would permit [BB] every opportunity to challenge the men”. But ultimately BB’s greatest defeat. (She retired with a knee problem.) 
  • She never attempted a 24-hour time trial again as the target of 500 miles had been reached by Roy Cromack in the 1969 race. She wasn’t interested in being the first woman to do so. Did she basically see herself as competing against the men?
  • Discussing the issue of potential Soviet doping and how, unlike in Eastern Germany where recent scrutiny has shed light on past events, there are questions still to be answered about whether doping was taking place or not in the former USSR: “And is it naive to assume that Beryl herself, who was ultimately still more successful than any Soviet rider, never succumbed to temptation? Sports history emphatically tells us that we cannot ignore these questions, even if the answers may sometimes prove nuanced, incomplete or unpalatable.” Bearing in mind her detachment from the cycling establishment, is this really plausible? Well… this question is answered at the end of that chapter about the Soviet Union cyclists. It seems extremely unlikely. 
  • Chapter 10: An Iron Curtain Rises – one of the most fascinating in the book. 
  • Interesting relationship between BB and Denise. Were they close? Could BB be close to anyone? The incident in Montreal. That’s just bizarre. Not a great mother!! “Beryl was ‘thrilled’ by news of the bronze medal and, while it seems sad that Charlie was not at least present for his daughter’s world championship success, Denise was long reconciled to how their family worked. ‘She would have been racing in a time trial and my dad always put my mum first. I don’t blame my dad for anything. He had a lot to put up with …’ Denise’s voice trails off and she seems to be recalling a particular incident before she then simply adds: ‘Oh dear. Sometimes, now that I am older, I think, “Dad, you should have stood up and said something.” He should have backed me up sometimes, but I understand. It was his wife.’”
  • The 1976 national road race championships: Denise beats BB and BB is not happy (she basically has a tantrum) – after having refused to give her a lift to the event in the family car!!! 
  • Wind tunnel tests: BB would still have the 25, 50 and 100 mile and 12 hour records if she had been using a modern bike / clothing set up. (Only the 10 mile record would have been lost – in 2016.)
  • Missed out on selection for the 1984 Olympics and the inaugural women’s Tour de France (she was offered a last-minute place in the latter but turned it down as she had already ‘processed’ not being included).
  • She stopped eating meat in her final years, ate very little and lost muscle. She had breast cancer and a mastectomy. 
  • Last major race in October 1995.
  • Quote: “‘She really shouldn’t have been still racing,’ says Denise. ‘She wasn’t very well for about ten years but there would still be no half measures, no easy pedalling. My mother always wanted to win, even when there were faster, much younger, girls. My dad wanted her to stop, but how do you convince someone who loves what they do so much?’ Did they try? ‘Yes, by telling her that it was not good for her health any more.’ And how did she respond? She would say, “Hard luck,” and carry on. She just kept going. She wouldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop.’


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