Sporting bygones: Why Beryl Burton remains one of the greatest cyclists of either gender

Legendary Morley cyclist: Beryl Burton.
Legendary Morley cyclist: Beryl Burton.
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FOR the next week, as it hosts the UCI road race world championships, Yorkshire will be centre of the cycling universe.

Since the Tour de France Grand Depart in 2014, Yorkshire has become synonomous with cycling, but the Broad Acres has long had a reputation for producing some of the sport’s all-time greats, among them the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France, Brian Robinson.

Tom Simpson, who was this country’s maiden wearer of that race’s yellow jersey, spent much of his early years on the county’s roads and Lizzie Deignan, from Otley, is a former world champion and one of the finest riders of recent years.

However, one name stands above all the rest, and not just in Yorkshire cycling circles. Half-a-century after she was at her peak, Leeds-born Beryl Burton is still regarded as one of the finest racing cyclists, of either gender, the world has seen.

‘The Greatest’, therefore, is a fitting title for journalist and author William Fotheringham’s biography of Burton, published to coincide with the worlds being staged in her home county.

Burton dominated the road racing scene from the 1950s through to the 1980s, her race record filling eight pages of Fotheringham’s impeccably-researched book, but her story off the bike is as fascinating as that on it.

Born in Leeds in 1937, the young Beryl spent nine months in St James’s Hospital after a bout of rheumatic fever left her paralysed down one side. Introduced to cycling by husband Charlie, Burton won seven world titles and set records which for decades.

The most famous Beryl Burton story concerns an Otley Cycling Club race 50 years ago, in September 1969. Overtaking Mike McNamara, the country’s leading male time trialist, more than 270 miles into the race, she offered him a Liquorice Allsort. Fotheringham reveals Burton frequently had a chat to riders she overtook in time trials, often “you’re not trying hard enough” to the men and “come on chuck” for female opponents.

Burton’s prowess on a bike is undeniable, but she was a complex individual. Fotheringham’s book has been written with the co-operation of Beryl’s daughter, Denise Burton-Cole, herself a talented cyclist.

The duo were, for a time, competing at the same level and the author describes the mother and daughter relationship as “unusual, probably unique”.

Infamously, Beryl refused to congratulate Denise after being out-sprinted by her at the national championships in Harrogate in 1976 , though years later they teamed up to set a British tandem 10-mile record.

Burton died in May, 1996 after suffering a heart attack while delivering invitations to her 59th birthday picnic. Her memorial service was held in a church adjacent to what is this week’s World Championships finish line. It was a tragically early end to a remarkable life and one which deserves wider recognition. The book is available online via https://www.islabikes.co.uk/product/accessories/thetimesandlifeofberylburton/

Fotheringham will be hosting several talks and signings in Yorkshire this week, including at the Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, on September 27 and Harrogate Theatre the following day.