Queen’s of Pain: Beryl Burton
We enjoy an exclusive extract from Isabel Best’s brilliant book, Queens of Pain: Legends and Rebels of Cycling, and discover what makes a ‘real’ champion
With powerful, punchy chapters on oft-forgotten cycling greats such as Eileen Sheridan, Jeannie Longo and Marguerite Wilson, ‘Queens of Pain: Legends and Rebels of Cycling’ written by Isabel Best, is a belting piece of detective work rounding up of the inspirational and tireless efforts of women cyclists across history who were out there riding against all sorts of adversity and doing it against the status quo.
A big recommendation for your book shelf, the stories are lively, the imagery is brilliant and the work involved in piecing it all together should be celebrated for both its fascinating storytelling and the fact that it is a valuable archive of women cyclists that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Here, we give you a sneak at the writer’s intro, then give a taster of what’s inside through the Beryl Burton chapter (there are 19 other brilliant ones inside).
A word from Isabel Best
The women in this book demonstrated their athletic prowess by dominating the races that were allowed them, or riding 1,000 miles continuously in terrible weather to set point to point records. They trained at 5am before going to work, or at 8pm after their children were in bed. They broke men’s records, rode through blizzards and had all the race cunning of a veteran directeur sportif.
They would ride for 100 miles to take part in a 10-mile time-trial and work 12-hour days, six days a week, travel on night trains so they could race on Sundays, then get the sleeper back for work on Monday morning. They set up their own clubs and races. They paid their own travel costs for the privilege of representing their country at international races. They pretended to be men so they could train on their local velodromes. They rode with broken collarbones or with their hands strapped to their handlebars after crashes. For their efforts, they were rewarded with pepper grinders, silk stockings, ironing boards, and, if they got really lucky, a year’s supply of laundry detergent.
This book finishes in the early 1990s, when women’s cycling finally became a professional sport to which (some) riders were able to dedicate their careers, not just weekends and holidays. However if there is a lesson to be drawn from these pages it is that women will get on their bikes and rise to the opportunities available to them. Parity with men’s racing remains a distant goal but there will be no shortage of available heroines the closer it gets.
The Beryl Burton Chapter
‘I hope it will not seem immodest of me to say so, but quite honestly I have lost count of all the medals I have won in my career,’ Beryl Burton once wrote. It wasn’t only Burton who struggled to keep a tally of her triumphs in the course of her more than 30-year racing career. ‘How many races she won in total, nobody has yet calculated; it may have been close to a thousand’, reckons British cycling historian Peter Whitfield.
How do you describe Burton’s achievements without resorting to empty sounding hyperbole? For a quarter of a century, she roamed the land setting records and then shattering them, year in, year out. She was not only the strongest woman, but quite often stronger than the men. Many would argue she was the greatest ever female rider. And yet, in all other respects, she was really quite normal; a Yorkshire ‘housewife’ who cooked meals for her husband and daughter, kept the house in ship shape, held down a day job, did a bit of knitting in what spare time she had and, for a special treat, would go to the opera from time to time in Leeds.
Burton should be a feminist icon, the Billie Jean King of cycling. Presumably, though, she didn’t need feminism; she already knew she was superior to most men. When she passed them in time trials, she would come out with some quip to remind them who was boss, like the classic, ‘eh, lad, you’re not trying’. If you’ve ever been locked in an argument with someone who claims that women’s cycling doesn’t merit the oxygen of media coverage that the men’s sport gets, and that the reason for this is that women are weaker, and therefore less interesting or meritorious, Beryl is your trump card.
Take her mythic 12-hour time trial, which she rode in 1967. Having started out behind 99 men she spent the next 12 hours inexorably overtaking them all until there was only one man left, Mike McNamara, who was well on his way to cracking a British men’s record of 9 years' standing. It was his greatest performance in a hugely impressive career. She passed him too, offering him a liquorice allsort to soften the blow – ‘ta, love’, he’s said to have replied – before she powered on to smash both the women’s and men’s records in one of the hardest time trial categories there is. She rode 277.25 miles, climbing off her bike 45 seconds before the 12 hours were over, because she felt she’d done enough. It took two years for a man to beat Burton’s distance.
It took a further 50 years and the advantages of a full kit of aerodynamic paraphernalia – carbon bike, disk wheel, tri bars, streamlined helmet and a skin suit – for a woman to do the same. This wasn’t the only instance of Beryl beating the men. In fact, it was a fairly common event in the mid to late 1960s – and not just in some half-bit time trial out in the back of beyond – but in prestigious events, such as the British 100 mile championships in 1966, where she beat the winner of the men’s championship, held a few weeks earlier on the same course, by 38 seconds. As one young male club rider put it in a TV documentary from 1986: ‘You only ever see one view of her and that’s a rear view. She goes by.’
Since we’re on the subject of national championships, this is the moment to mention she won 96 national titles. That’s right: 96. She was British road race champion a record 12 times, British 3,000m pursuit champion 13 times, and, in time trials, won pretty much every distance and category there was, from 10 through to 100 miles. Well, your friend who thinks female cyclists don’t warrant TV time might argue, the competition in national championships was probably weak and all she had to do was train for a few races in the year. So now let’s consider an award that in time-trialling circles in Britain holds more prestige than winning a national championship; the BAR, or Best All Rounder competition, given to the rider with the highest average speed, calculated to three decimal points, based on their best results in the course of the year over 25-, 50- and 100-mile distances. (The men’s BAR gets calculated on their best 50-mile, 100-mile and 12-hour results.)
To win the BAR you have to be at the top of your game throughout the season. You can never rest easy, because any exceptional time you post will be under attack from your rivals the following week. Burton won the BAR award 25 years in succession. It goes without saying that no one else has come even remotely close to such an achievement. OK, your friend will say, these BAR records are only relevant within an island community featuring amateurs working full-time jobs with only part-time training opportunities. It’s how she compared internationally that really counts. So let’s take a look at that.
In the 25-year period during which Burton utterly dominated her sport, the only prestigious international races in which female cyclists could compete were the world championships, which had been introduced in 1958, on the road and on the track. Burton won seven world championship gold medals out of a total haul of 15 in two completely different disciplines; two in the road race, and five in the 3,000m pursuit on the track (without, incidentally, having a velodrome to train on at home). The world championships did not introduce time trials, Burton’s great forte, until 1994. Had they existed in her time, there is no doubt that she would have doubled, if not tripled, her collection of rainbow jerseys.
But your ‘friend’, if you haven’t throttled him yet, is still insisting all these results mean nothing compared to what the pros (meaning male riders) achieved. He’ll be sitting there gleefully rubbing his hands, knowing you’ve got no response, because there are no races in which women can ride against the men. So we’ll never know.
Only, in Beryl’s case, there is in fact an answer to that too, because in 1968 she got to ride in the Grand Prix des Nations, which at the time was the de facto World Championship of time trialling. Held outside Paris, the Nations’ previous winners included Fausto Coppi, Hugo Koblet and Jacques Anquetil – who’d won it a record 9 times. Thanks to a bit of networking by the English cycling journalist, Jock Wadley, Burton ended up being invited to take part.
She had to ride it ahead of the men, and she wasn’t allowed to appear on the final classification, but for a couple of hours one Sunday afternoon, she got to ride the world’s top time trial, against the best men in the world, with all the trimmings – including a police escort and roadside fans. Wadley told the French press beforehand that he thought she could manage the 73.5km course at a speed of 40km/h. In the end she exceeded everyone’s expectations by riding a shade under 42km/h, with an average speed of 41.853km/h.
The time trial finished in a velodrome on the outskirts of Paris. While the crowds waited for the champions, track riders entertained them with a series of exhibition races. Wadley was following Burton out on the course and judging from the astonished looks on policemen’s faces, he realised no one was expecting her to come through so soon. Putting two and two together, he drove ahead to warn the organisers to clear the track, but no one paid him any heed. And so Burton arrived, well ahead of schedule, slap bang in the middle of another race. She completed her ride, which was supposed to feature two loops of the track, but, since the official timekeepers weren’t ready, turned into three, with the other riders circling at the top of the steep banking.
So how did she compare to the men? She was only one minute slower than the last rider and 12 minutes slower than the winner, Felice Gimondi, who was one of the best riders in the world and had set a new course record. She finished only eight minutes down on Luis Ocaña, who would become one of Eddy Merckx’s greatest adversaries. One French journalist noted that had the amateur men been taking part, she would have beaten eight of them based on their previous year’s performances.
This Yorkshire housewife, who had never received a penny in sponsorship, or any professional coaching, who could train only part-time in between working on a rhubarb farm and looking after her husband and child, rode a game of cat and mouse against the some of the best, professionally paid, technically and domestically supported time trial experts – men who could devote themselves entirely to training, racing and recovering: and still no-one could catch her.
How the hell did she manage it?
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Beryl Burton was in fact how unlikely it was that she became a cyclist in the first place. As a child she had suffered a traumatic experience that would affect her for the rest of her life. As a young girl she was a good, conscientious student, who enjoyed learning. Then she sat down for the 11+ exam that would decide her academic future. Her mind went completely blank. All she knew, when she walked out of the exam, was that she had completely failed in the most humiliating way.
Burton would later describe what followed as a nervous breakdown; she was rushed into hospital with rheumatic fever and chorea, an illness triggering involuntary muscle spasms and twitching. It must have been terrifying: she had to spend nine months in hospital, and a further 15 in a convalescent home. For a long time she was partially paralysed and unable to speak properly. Rheumatic fever often results in damage to the heart, and when she finally returned home she was told in no uncertain terms that she had to take it easy from henceforth. In other words: no sport.
Her first job on leaving school was in the office of the Leeds-based tailor, Sir Montagu Burton. ‘One day a bronzed-looking chap came into the office and attracted my attention immediately’, she later wrote. ‘I eyed him from top to bottom without, I hoped, making it too obvious. When my eyes alighted on his feet I thought “Oh dear, the poor chap must have something wrong with them.” In fact he was wearing cycling shoes, which I had never seen before.’
Charlie Burton (who bore no relation to the company’s founder) clearly took a liking to Beryl too, and before long was lending her one of his bikes, and not long after that, had talked her into joining Morley CC, his local cycling club, where she would join him on the Sunday club rides. The Yorkshire Dales offer spectacular, but unforgiving, cycling terrain. Even if the start of the ride was pleasantly downhill, ‘The rest of the day usually remained a blank. I would return home absolutely whacked’, Beryl recalled. ‘For weeks mother would ask me on my return home where I had been and usually I had no idea.’ Beryl was by no means an overnight cycling sensation. As Charlie later said, ‘First of all, she was handy but wasn’t that competent: we used to have to push her round a bit. Slowly she got better. By the second year, she was one of the lads and could ride with us. By the third year, she was going out in front and leading them all.’
Beryl and Charlie married shortly before she turned 18, and a year later their daughter, Denise, was born. By this time Beryl had started riding in local time trials, and was enjoying racing. Charlie bought a sidecar for Denise and the Burtons continued their club rides, while Charlie’s mother helped look after the baby so that Beryl could train and race. The young family went everywhere by bike, even going on touring holidays with Denise.
Around this time Beryl started working for another rider in the club, Nim Carline, who had a rhubarb farm. Burton would spend all day working on Carline’s farm, and then train with him after work. The farm labour was backbreaking and Carline treated Burton no differently to his male employees, but the training was even tougher. Carline was, in fact, another legend of Yorkshire cycling, whose speciality was the 24-hour time trial, in which he would eventually become a six-time national champion. He was also a keen mountaineer, who climbed in the Cairngorms, the Alps and later, the Himalayas.
‘He was such a hard taskmaster that I would wait in the house before a training run wishing that there was some way I could avoid it’, she later recalled. ‘I was in and out of the lavatory and perspiring even before I sat on the bike. There was no question of simply following him. I had to match him side by side, although toward the end of the stint I just had to follow his wheel, tears in my eyes, but determined that I would not drop behind.’ Burton would always insist that it was these gruelling training sessions that turned her into the crushingly powerful rider she became. Indeed, she never considered herself to have an exceptional natural talent, rather she felt it was her willingness to suffer, and to push herself to extremes, that gave her the upper hand. Her breakout season came in
1958 when she won not only her first, but her first three national titles, in the 25-, 50- and 100-mile time trials.
Later it would become a habit for her to break a record every time she won a national title. She would become the first woman to ride 25 miles in under an hour, the first to ride 50 miles in under two hours, the first woman to ride 100 miles in less than 41⁄2 hours, and then the first to ride 100 in under four hours, a time which, for male riders alone, had had the same mythic quality as Roger Bannister running a mile in under four minutes, and which had only been cracked by Ray Booty in 1956, at the start of Burton’s cycling career. It was simply inconceivable at that point that a woman could ride that fast.
The 1958 season also marked the last year Burton encountered a serious rival capable of consistently beating her. The year was dominated by a protracted duel with her friend Millie Robinson, who broke several records herself in the course of the year and finally became that year’s BAR, having come second the two previous seasons.
By 1959 Beryl was flying, winning the first of her 25 BAR awards and her first world championship gold medal, in the 3,000m individual pursuit against the Luxembourg rider and defending road race champion, Elsy Jacobs, in Liège. Despite being so nervous going into the final that she couldn’t lace up her cycling shoes, she managed to pull out all the stops when it mattered. ‘My competitive urge came to the top and I sought some kind of retribution against the gods for that damned 11-plus and the childhood ill-health’, she later wrote. The same year she also won the first of her British national road race championships.
Her strength, however, was also her greatest weakness in road racing, which rewards the crafty. She had no tactics. She just had one technique, and that was to crush the opposition. She would attack early and never be seen again, or she’d set such a high pace that her rivals would explode one by one in her wake. Her Achilles heel was that she had no sprint. In her autobiography she describes at least three world championship races where she considered herself the ‘moral victor’. She would spend the entire race ‘towing’ the lead riders around the course, who would refuse to share the burden of pacemaking and then outsprint her at the finish.
Could she have raced smarter with more support? There was no science to her training, which was simply to ride long, and hard. The British Cycling Federation didn’t offer coaches or training camps. Riders weren’t drilled on tactics. Indeed, budgets were so minimal, riders had to subsidise their attendance at the worlds, whether that meant covering their travel expenses or bringing their own spare parts. Charlie would cross Alpine passes on the back of a friend’s tiny motor scooter and sleep in tents in order to provide Beryl with the support she needed.
Bernadette Malvern (née Swinnerton) who came from a large Stoke-on-Trent cycling dynasty, recalls a race much later in Burton’s career, when she was ‘with a group of girls who she could not shake off. They just refused to be dropped so she jammed on her brakes and caused a crash behind her.’ Her bitterness about sprinters erupted most famously in terrible public spat with her daughter, Denise.
Denise had started racing as a teenager, and in the early 1970s grew into a formidable talent in her own right – she was even selected for the Great Britain team at the age of only 14. For quite a few years they took part in the same races, and so it was that in the 1976 road race national championships they both ended up in a small lead group, featuring one other rider, Carol Barton. In the final sprint, Denise prevailed against her mum. On the podium, Beryl refused to shake her daughter’s hand, and the event made headlines the following day. ‘It was not a sporting thing to do’, Burton later wrote, ‘I can only plead that I was not myself at the time.’ ‘I had worked very hard all my life, and fitted in my racing and training with a job as well as the household work’, she explained. ‘Rightly or wrongly I felt there were times when Denise could do more, and that Charlie did not support my point of view.’
British newspapers – which had previously given only cursory coverage of her extraordinary world championship gold medals and other achievements – now had a field day, portraying her as a terrible mother, so obsessed with winning she was incapable of celebrating her daughter’s triumph. And perhaps she was a bit monstrous. ‘She tried to psych me out right from the beginning’, Denise recalls of that race. ‘When it came to getting in the car to go to Harrogate, she wouldn’t let me in. So I said, “how am I supposed to get there?” and she said, “you’ll have to ride”, so I said, “you can at least take my bags then”. So she let my bags go in the car but she wouldn’t let my wheels go in. I had to put on those little gadgets that you fit across your spindle and your spare wheels can go on the front. I had to ride out to Harrogate from where we lived which was about 25 miles, maybe 20. I just thought, oh well, it’s a good warm-up. I rode out and then apparently when my dad dropped her off everyone said, “where’s Denise?” and he just turned around and picked me up.’ Denise says they never talked about what happened. They just got on with their lives, like they always did. ‘I had beaten her before in road races and pursuits, but it was a national championships, and it was in Yorkshire. That was the difference.’ When I ask Denise whether Beryl ever gave her any racing advice, it takes a moment before she can think of anything, finally remembering her mum reminding her to always have one rest day in the week. Another time she initiated her on the steep banking of a velodrome by getting her to follow her round. As for everything else, Denise was left to work things out on her own. ‘We never trained together. Never. She was encouraging for my racing and congratulatory up until I started being a rival.’
It wasn’t long before Denise moved out, and married a rider from another club.
Despite receiving offers to turn professional, Beryl remained an amateur throughout her career. Riding at such a high level naturally came at a cost, however, and most of her salary went on her equipment and expenses. For a long time the family couldn’t afford a car and Beryl would ride to or from races on the other side of the country as a way of saving money and getting more training in. When she and Charlie were invited to end-of-season parties held by cycling clubs, they would ride across Yorkshire and Lancashire to attend dinners in the middle of winter, ‘arriving home in time to meet the milkman’.
Peter Whitfield, in his book 12 Champions, talks of her riding over 100 miles to visit a journalist who needed to do an extended interview with her, then riding back the following morning. On another occasion, she rode some 200 miles to a club dinner in London, then rode home at 6am the following morning. ‘She didn’t notice when the A1 became the A1M, until a police patrol ordered her off the motorway’, he writes.
Beryl had a reputation for being down to earth and friendly, a rider without airs and graces who treated all cyclists as equals. Yet behind that easy going demeanour was a rider caught up in the grip of an almost terrifying determination. Winning became an addiction, one she could not withstand, even when her health suffered. Only two goals eluded her and caused her any regret; her unsuccessful attempt to break the hour record in Milan, which in retrospect can only be blamed on bad luck and a lack of time and resources, and a failed attempt at a 24-hour time trial because of a knee injury. It’s quite possible, had the knees held out, that this ride would have surpassed even her achievements in the mythic 12-hour, since with the times and distances she was clocking, she was set to explode the 496.3 mile record her training partner and mentor, Nim Carline, had set in 1966.
‘From a riding point of view I was in good shape and in no way distressed [...] But the pain from my knees was just too much’, Burton later wrote. ‘I climbed into the car with the veins behind my knees looking like plastic tubes and I could not bear to touch them myself, let alone allow anyone else to do so.’ The eventual winner, Roy Cromack, set a new record of 507 miles. ‘Without that knee problem, would Beryl have topped 500 miles and beaten Cromack?’ writes Whitfield. ‘Looking at the way she was riding, you would have to say yes: but you would also have to say that no sensible person would even have started that particular race.’ Later in her career Burton suffered a series of terrible crashes, yet fought against pain and doctors’ advice to defend titles or maintain her BAR standing. There was never any question of pulling out of a race, even if she was ill and knew she had no chance of winning. She would wade into battle regardless, and fight till the bitter end. On one occasion she rode a track world championship race with an injured hand strapped to the handlebar. The pain had made her fingers numb, so she couldn’t keep the bike upright. That determination applied to her career too. Beryl simply couldn’t stop. There was always another record to break, a title to defend, a new tally with a catchy round number to achieve. She became asthmatic, then anaemic. Her doctors begged her to stop riding, yet even when she ‘retired’ from competing for the BAR award, she still couldn’t stop chasing other victories. Perhaps the void of not having a race to win was too frightening to contemplate.
Asked in a TV interview in 1986, when she was 49, whether she enjoyed winning, she said, ‘not when I’m actually on the bike and I’m striving to win. Not now. I’ll think, “God, what on earth am I doing here? Why am I doing this?” And yet the bit’s between my teeth and I’m eyeballs hanging over the front wheel and I’m really giving it 100%. Yet I think: “why can’t I just go home and be like other people and go out for the day in the car up to the Dales or something like that?” It’s just this will to win and this determination to be number one. And you don’t know when it will go out – I may have it for another 20 years!’ she added, with a rueful laugh. As it happened, her body gave up first. Burton died ten years later, while out riding her bike, delivering invitations to her 59th birthday. Her heart, it seems, simply packed in. She had planned to take part in a 10-mile time trial the following week.
During her life Burton received many honours, including an OBE and an MBE yet she was always frustrated by the lack of recognition she received in the press, not just for herself, but for the sport. After becoming double world champion in Leipzig in 1960, Beryl came home, as usual, to a few cursory mentions in the national and local press. ‘It might as well have been the ladies’ darts final down at the local as far as Britain was concerned.’
I like to imagine Beryl’s ghost haunting the Yorkshire landscape. Our friend, who doesn’t think much of women’s racing, will be on a lonely road in the moors at dusk, grinding his way up a difficult incline, when another rider will silently overtake: too fast, in the grey light, for him to tell whether it’s a man or a woman. All he’ll really notice is the bent back, still and powerful, the fluid motion of the muscular legs spinning a huge gear, the old-fashioned steel frame, the silvery gleam of box-section wheel rims. As he sprints to catch up, this rider simply surges on with the same ease as if he or she were ticking off laps in a velodrome. Our friend will redouble his efforts, but he can only watch helplessly as the other rider, smooth as silk, disappears into the gathering gloom.
And then – did he hear that or imagine it? A voice in his ear: ‘eh lad, you’re not trying.’
Buy it today
From the fin-de-siècle velodromes of North America to the glamour and chaos of the first women’s Tour de France, Queens of Pain offers a sweeping panorama of female racing history.