Cycling legend Beryl getting ‘recognition she deserves’ as Tour de France visits Yorkshire

Denise Burton-Cole, daughter of legendary Morley cyclist Beryl Burton, at her home near Ripon. Picture by Tony Johnson
Denise Burton-Cole, daughter of legendary Morley cyclist Beryl Burton, at her home near Ripon. Picture by Tony Johnson
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An everyday housewife, dedicated mother and keen gardener, Beryl Burton was not your average sporting superstar.

The Morley mother-of-one excelled in an amateur career on two wheels that took her to an unprecedented 122 national titles over five decades, and, with the world’s greatest cycling spectacle visiting the Yorkshire roads she called home on July 5 and 6, Burton’s family feels she is finally getting the recognition she deserves for a glittering cycling career.

Among the headline attractions of the Yorkshire Festival 2014 – the first cultural celebration ever to precede a Grand Depart – actress Maxine Peake is paying tribute to the late sportswoman in a stage adaptation of her BBC Radio 4 production Beryl, while Leeds City Council chiefs have stated their desire to commemorate the cyclist’s achievements in a landmark year for British cycling.

Widely recognised as one of the greatest female cyclists of all time, Burton blazed an early trail for the likes of Otley’s Olympic silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead to excel at the sport on the international stage – she won the women’s world road race championship in both 1960 and 1967.

Denise Burton-Cole, the cyclist’s daughter, inherited the bug from her parents and went on to represent Great Britain on two wheels alongside her mother in the 1972 World Championships.

She said: “Mum’s getting the recognition she deserves, it’s lovely and heartening that people are so interested, I realise now just how outstanding she was.

“She died about 17 years ago, and the years before that she wasn’t the best in the country. So the years that she was the best were a long time ago – her first medal was in 1959.”

Burton lived and breathed cycling. Aged just 58 years, she died of heart failure while out on her bike delivering invitations to her upcoming birthday celebrations on May 8 1996.

Her passion for the sport saw her win 25 consecutive British Best All-Rounder time trial titles from 1959 to 1983, although her startling achievements are little known outside her hometown and outside cycling circles.

As an amateur cyclist for the duration of her lengthy career, Burton trained hard around a job in the Rhubarb Triangle in south Leeds as her husband Charlie, who is now 84, worked long hours to fund her cycling ambitions.

“We were just ordinary folk. Everything that was done was done out of their own pockets,” Denise said. “My dad worked full-time with an evening job at one point as well and mum worked part-time on a farm.

“He was a massive part of mum’s cycling, she wouldn’t have done what she achieved without him for as long – he was driver, mechanic and child minder.”

Burton paved the way for generations of female riders, not least her own daughter who went on to win bronze in the 1975 World Championship individual pursuit, but was also well capable of beating her male counterparts.

“It was very much done on a shoe string. She managed to get women’s cycling recognised – all the sports writers knew about it,” Denise said. “Women were a back seat to the men in cycling.”

The growth of women’s cycling later led to a female-only sister race being launched to the Tour de France in 1984 known as the Tour de France Féminin.

Aged 47 Burton wanted to compete in the inaugural race but was blocked by the sport’s governing body for not having the necessary road racing qualifications.

Now 30 years on, the Grand Depart is coming to the roads Burton tirelessly trained on over half a century and the first La Course women’s Tour event since 2009 is taking place in Paris in July.

Denise, who lives near Ripon, said: “Mum would have been out there riding her bike up to Buttertubs and out to the Yorkshire Dales and watched them at a high vantage point. She would have been thrilled to see it come here.”

The Beryl stage show will run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in Leeds, from June 30 to July 19. Visit www.yorkshirefestival.com.