Beryl – wonder woman on two wheels

Russell Holden
In the Zone Sport and Politics Consultancy | @russinthezone

Jeremy Wilson
Beryl: In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete
338 pages, hardcover, ill
London: Pursuit Books 2022
ISBN 978-1-78816-292-0

It is a rare pleasure to enjoy a publication about an area of study that one is less than familiar with, however, Jeremy Wilson’s new account of the life of Beryl Burton ranks highly amongst the best sport books that I have read for some time. He effectively combines his skills as a sports reporter with those of an investigative journalist in explaining the uniqueness of Burton’s achievements,

On a personal level, my links with cycling can at best be described as tenuous. My late Father’s recollections of watching track cycling at a range of English and continental venues and stories about observing the Tour de France whilst visiting family in Southern France are all I have to draw upon. Yet Wilson’s analysis of how Burton sustained herself as a competitor in such a demanding sport over such a long period is rich and multi-faceted, utilising countless interviews with her colleagues and rivals both from the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.

This volume serves to shed light on the organisation and administration of a sport that did so much to deter the progress of females yet captivated the life of an unassuming Yorkshire women. Focusing on an under-reported sport, Wilson charts the career of the legendary Beryl Burton, Britain’s best all-round cyclist for a period of 25 years, most notably her achievements in the golden age of time trialling. Her triumphs are too many to mention, but a number in particular stand out. Burton was the first woman to beat a time of two hours for 50 miles, she was 3,000 metre pursuit world champion 5 times, road racing world champion twice, and in 1967 she became the only woman to beat a men’s competition  record, riding 277.5  miles in twelve hours. Burton is correctly described as a sporting phenomenon with her superiority in her chosen sport matched by her longevity as a participant with her championship winning years extending from 1968 to 1986, just ten years before her death at the age of 59.

And as T.S. Elliot wrote, “only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

Wilson reveals, through the extraordinary exploits of this competitor, and her remarkable inner strength, how she became a critical figure who helped to inspire a number of those who in recent times captured the imagination of the nation with their cycling their achievements, namely Chris Bordman, Nicole Cooke, Lizzie Deignan, Chrissie Wellington as well as the triathletes Alistair and Johnnie Brownlee. Burton was that rarity, an utterly accessible sportsperson, yet deeply private at the same time. In many instances it was her sheer cussedness combined with her strong and gritty nature that carried her beyond any obstacles in her way.

Maxine Peake
77 pages, paperback
London: Bloomsbury 2014 (Methuen Drama)
ISBN 978-1-4725-9610-9

Burton, with little more than her bikes, her incredibly supportive and dedicated husband Charlie, and a small tent and a camping stove, set out for many cycling events across Western and Eastern Europe. This was despite being constantly hampered by the institutional sexism of the cycling authorities. At different points in her career, she was juggling cycling with motherhood, running a household, and working full-time on a Yorkshire rhubarb farm. But Burton’s triumphs, as Maxine Peake, the much-respected actor, playwright, and campaigner maintains in her play Beryl, never filtered through to the mainstream. Her feats, qualities and ordinariness did not extend much beyond the cycling fraternity, though later in life her daughter Denise was keen to tell her Beryl’s story in terms of achievements and her shortcomings as a supportive mother. Peake’s work did much to bring Burton’s life to a new audience, though its tone was maybe a little too kind in its treatment of her complex and sometimes prickly character.

On the other hand, Wilson is firmer in his comments about the cost of Burton’s single-mindedness and the regular difficulty this brought to her daughter’s upbringing, particularly the awkwardness for her ultra-loyal husband Charlie in attempting to support their daughter’s needs and growing cycling prowess in her later adolescence.

The choice of Wilson to organise his volume into two sections is very effective. Part one entitled “Trailblazing,” charts her early years concluding with the establishment of Burton’s reputation as a winner and an earner of respect, whilst Part two, “Obsessed,” focuses more on her international glory, the status she earned across Europe including from within the Iron Curtain nations. It also examines her difficulty in ending her career and recognising her declining power, strength and growing anxiety about how to occupy her time. The bike was her primary mode of transport and the focal point for every social activity or holiday. In effect it constituted a way of life and an expression of self.

Beryl Burton, Champion of the 1967 UCI Road World Championships, flanked by Lyubov Zadorozhnaya and Anna Konkina. (Photo Jack de Nijs. Public Domain Dedication, CC0)

Wilson’s text is striking not just because of the portrayal of Burton’s sheer tenacity and iron will which shines through on every page, but also because it demonstrates the multi-natured struggles she had in being recognised as an athlete, cyclist and record breaker in her own right, a commitment which was endorsed by a small but tightly knit community comprising Morley cycling club (her home club) but also in the town where she grew up and worked.

Burton was marked out by her sheer relentlessness, brilliance, and mostly quiet belligerence, which rarely manifested itself publicly except when she behaved badly towards her daughter at cycling championships. Even her close friends and supporters found this behaviour inexcusable.

Her achievements have never been totally ignored but acknowledgement, as Wilson suggests, has been cursory and lacking in substantive appreciation of their scale and circumstance. Had Burton achieved comparable feats in another era or in a more popular sport her recognition both in the United Kingdom and overseas would have been far greater.

Ultimately, the reader is left with a conundrum. Cycling is an essentially lonely sport and Burton kept cycling until her heart stopped. With her chosen sport being a very solitary pastime, was she still chasing personal goals? Is it possible that Burton continued as long as she did in order to deflect from other issues that she never reconciled or revealed? Yet,     by continuing at one level to pursue her life-long addiction to bikes, she was able to exert her physical power and mental strength

As Wilson notes, Burton was brave and like many great sportspeople possessed an optimism and drive that extended beyond normal boundaries. And, as T.S. Elliot wrote, “only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

Copyright © Russell Holden 2023

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