Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Greatest: The Life and Times of Beryl Burton


Who is the greatest cyclist ever? Fausto Coppi? Eddy Merckx? Maybe Jacques Anquetil or Bernard Hinault? Respected British cycling journalist and biographer William Fotheringham makes the bold case that that mantle actually belongs to a lesser known name: British phenom Beryl Burton. In terms of span of career, number of titles captured, and absolute domination of her field, no one comes close to “BB,” explains Fotheringham.

These days Burton’s name isn’t widely known outside of Britain, but the career numbers she accumulated are astonishing--for any sport. From the mid 1950s to the 1980s, she won 90 domestic championships and 7 world titles; for 25 consecutive years she was the Best All Round female time trialist in Britain; her 100-mile record lasted 28 years and her 12-hour record an incredible 50 years. At her peak, she regularly beat some of the best British male cyclists in time trials--including eight-time Tour de France stage winner Barry Hoban. Her 1967 12-hour time-trial distance (277 miles) stood for two years before it was bested by a male cyclist.

All this Burton did with essentially no coaching, no science-based training, little support from British cycling authorities, and using the most basic cycling equipment. (Her husband once said that Beryl had no real strategy in a road race other than “get to the front and go.” It may have been crude, but it usually worked) And she achieved all this while raising a child and working on a rhubarb farm for most of her adult life.

Burton was from Yorkshire, a working-class hotbed for cycling in mid-century, but she didn’t take to cycling until she was a teen. Fotheringham paints a vivid picture of how cycling clubs were at their peak in 1950s Britain; for young Beryl Charnock, club cycling was a way to get away from family and to form new social bonds. In fact, that was how she met Charlie Burton, a fascinating character in this story. He recognized Beryl’s talent and their marriage became a curious kind of mid-century gender-role reversal. Charlie was her chief mechanic, soigneur, and logistics coordinator, but he also took on a surprising amount of child care. In the cycling world, people jokingly referred to him as “Beryl’s husband.”  

When Burton began to compete at an elite level, she encountered a frustrating lack of opportunities for women: for instance, there were no women’s races in the Olympics or Commonwealth Games and virtually no professional options in Britain. (In fact, Burton chose not to turn pro because she saw it as an unappealing dead end that would require her to move her family to Belgium to make any money at all.) In mixed events, she and other women had to put up with condescension, blatant sexism, and even hostility from some male riders (especially when they couldn’t accept being beaten by a woman). The book briefly delves into the careers of other women bike racers of the time, such as her Belgian rival Yvonne Reynders and Burton’s earlier compatriot Eilleen Sheridan. As Sheridan bluntly puts it, the biggest obstacle women faced was the complete lack of tradition of taking women seriously as cyclists in Britain.

As Fotheringham says, the sad thing about Burton’s career is that despite her unparalleled palmeres, she never got a chance to show just how good she could have been in her prime. Just imagine if British women cyclists had been supported in the same way men were--or, say, the way female athletes were in East Germany in the 70s.

One of the many pleasures of this book is the glimpse it gives of the unique world of British time-trialing in the twentieth century, something I first learned about in Tim Hilton’s delightful One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers (also the place I first learned about Beryl Burton.)  Time trialing is an incognito form of bike racing, secretive, discreet, just getting on with it, in a very British way. If road racing is the flashy show off hiding some deep insecurity, then time-trialing is the shy but confident introvert. Burton called it the “true side of the sport” of cycling and Fotheringham captures the almost mythical role of the TT in the English cycling imagination--something about the inconspicuousness of solitary riders battling the clock and oneself combined with images of the lonely beauty of the “solo cyclist in pastoral bliss,” as he says.

One of the most unique elements of Burton’s story is her relationship with her daughter Denise, who, not surprisingly, became a bike racer herself and ended up competing against her mother.  (Fotheringham says this is probably unprecedented in the annals of sport, but I don’t think so. In his 50s, hockey great Gordie Howe played alongside his two sons who were in their 20s, though they were on the same team. The closest parallel I can think of is in car racing, which, like time-trialling, is an individual sport: Dale Earnhardt Senior and Junior racing head to head.) But getting beat by her daughter--an inevitability that you’d think the parent would be ready for--rocked Beryl’s sense of self, leading to a mental breakdown, not to mention a strained mother-daughter relationship.

Burton as a bike racer is easy to document, but Burton as a person is much more complicated, and Fotheringham offers a nuanced portrait of what drove her, how she saw herself and her legacy, but also her blind spots and demons. She was the classic over-driven athlete, for whom competition became the central prism of identity. As Bernadette Malvern says, Burton was “addicted to winning,” and as is often the case, such addictions eventually play out in dark ways. 

Depending on how you look at it, Burton’s final years--during which she continued to compete as her body broke down and she could no longer win--are either a pathetic story of an athlete who doesn’t know when to pack it in or an inspiring tale of one who continued to find pleasure in a different kind of competition. As Fotheringham notes, if Burton had been a pure road cyclist, then it would be hard not to think the former. But time trialing is a different beast, and lots of people do it to an advanced age, racing only against the clock and themselves, not against a field of youngsters.

For a long time, Tom Simpson has been the darling of twentieth-century British bike racing, his early achievements and lost promise heightened by his dramatic death on Ventoux. It is the stuff of myth. But Fotheringham, who also wrote a biography of Simpson, convinced me that Burton is the more accessible British cycling legend. Because she remained an amateur, stayed in Yorkshire, remained connected to her working class roots, and continued to ride locally her whole life, she comes across as the classic humble, hard-working, stoic British star, a kind of “quiet superhero” of sport, as one of the book’s blurbs says, not a myth but a real and complicated person who achieved the truly extraordinary.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What a story! I want to learn more about Beryl!


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