Excerpted from Queens of Pain: Legends & Rebels of Cycling by Isabel Best, published with permission of Rapha.
“Beryl the Peril”
“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 even 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 licorice 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.
In 1968 she got to ride in the Grand Prix des Nations, which at the time was the de facto World Championsip 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 realized no one was expecting her to come through so soon. Putting two and two together, he drove ahead to warn the organizers 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 Ocana, 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 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?
Read more about “Beryl the Peril” and other noteworthy cycling pioneers in Queens of Pain: Legends & Rebels of Cycling (Rapha, 2018).