The avvesome Beryl Burton killing it.

The avvesome Beryl Burton killing it.

Guest Article: Awesome British Women – Beryl Burton

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@RobSandy has done us a real favor with this article. The old gits among us remember Ms. Burton as a force-of-nature cyclist. She loved her bikes, she loved keeping her bikes working perfectly and she loved hauling ass on her bike. What’s not to love? 

VLVV, Gianni

There is a lot talked on this website about being pro, being a badass, the permutations of Rule #5 and Rule #10, but if one small anecdote can encompass all of these things, I like to think it would go something like this:

It’s the 17th of September 1967, and the National Champion Mike MacNamara is riding in the British National 12-hour time trial.  He is in great form and puts in what would be a new record distance of 276 miles.

Out on the course, however, he is surprised to find himself being overtaken, even though his next competitor started 2 minutes behind him. He is probably slightly more astonished when the cyclist passing him turns out to be a woman. As she passes, she digs into a bag in her jersey pocket and offers him a liquorice allsort.

“Ta, love,” he mutters as she cruises past and away into the distance.

The rider was Beryl Burton, on her way to setting a new record of her own, 277.25 miles in 12 hours riding at an average of 23 miles an hour, or 37.18 kph. As Mike MacNamara became aware at the finish, this was not only a women’s record, it was a national record (beating his own superb effort that day). Moreover, it is a record that still stands to this day.

“Poor Mac,” Burton later wrote. “His glory, richly deserved, was going to be overshadowed by a woman.”

Beryl Burton is probably one the greatest British cyclists in history, whether or not you make the distinction of her having been a woman, and allowing for the fact that virtually no one has heard of her. In the era before professionalism (which was offered to her during her career and refused repeatedly), when road races were banned on UK roads she was dominant in time trials. Her record for 10 miles (21 minutes, 25 seconds) stood from 1967 to 1993 – Twenty years. Her record over 25 miles (53:21) stood for the same amount of time. She also held records over 30, 50 and 100 miles which all stood for over 10 years. She was a different breed.

Yet even during her peak she was pretty much unknown by the British public and wider world. During her stellar year of 1967 she came 2nd in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year to the boxer Henry Cooper, which along with an OBE was her only public accolade, despite seven world titles, 96 national titles and being the best British all-rounder for 25 consecutive years.

Phil Ligget commented on Beryl’s achievement that year and the lack of acclaim which resulted;

“It was a coveted record, [and] had it been any other sport other than cycling, say it being a football icon scoring three goals against Brazil, it would have been front-page news. It almost slipped under the doormat, apart from the cycling magazines who knew the enormity of what she’d done. And as far as I know, it has never been done anywhere in the world either, where a woman has got up and beaten a man’s record in the sport.”

So, this is my case for Beryl Burton to be recognised as a total badass, and made an honourary Velominata. She was awesome.

But there is a sad epilogue to Beryl’s story, which perhaps epitomises Rule #5. Beryl suffered a childhood illness which left her with a scar on her heart, and one day in 1996 while she was out riding, delivering party invitations for her 59th birthday, her heart failed, and she died. On the bike.

// Awesome British Women // Guest Article

  1. Wow, what a story. Thanks for sharing that. 37 kph for 12 hours… that’s insane. And to die on the bike, too. Very sad but poetic, I suppose.

    I love that lead photo too. Sur la plaque all damn day.

  2. @RobSandy

    Great stuff! I just finished reading “Ride the Revolution” (I have a book review on PEZ forthcoming) and the first chapter is about Beryl Burton. Eddy Merckx is the Beryl Burton of men’s cycling.

  3. At first glance the title British Women made me think of Page 3.

  4. There’s even a play about her:

    https://www.wyp.org.uk/latest_news/beryl-on-tour/

  5. Excellent piece! Thanks for that. And I’m loving the tub under the saddle in the 3rd photo. That’s how it’s done! (although methinks she could use a truing of the front wheel–looks a whee bit off! )

  6. @Matt

    Wow, what a story. Thanks for sharing that. 37 kph for 12 hours… that’s insane. And to die on the bike, too. Very sad but poetic, I suppose.

    I love that lead photo too. Sur la plaque all damn day.

    Way to ride the big dog, remove the inner ring!

  7. Fantastic piece about a quite awesome cyclist.

    Thanks.

  8. @piwakawaka

    Look at that front ring! Guessing from the size it’s a 55 or 57.

  9. Just for a bit of context, the long distance time trialling scene was by no means a ‘niche’ sport in the UK back then, it was popular and highly competitive attracting most of the country’s top testers in an era when time trialling was dominant. In fact it’s only in the last two decades or so that road racing has finally eclipsed time trialling in Britain.

    And Burton’s achievement was no fluke either. I think it’s fair to say that in terms of comparison it’s like the men’s marathon record being beaten by a woman.

  10. @ RobSandy “So, this is my case for Beryl Burton to be recognized as a total badass, and made an honorary Velominata.”

    Ho-ly smokes, no case needs to be made for her at all (more a case for us to be in her company). It’s an absolute crime that she is not known, this story helps. It is also telling for what’s on the horizon: there’s going to be a day where woman are equal to men in some endurance events (middle distance and marathon running for instance). Beryl has shown that some have already been better than men.

  11. Some, many perhaps, feel that to extinguish, suddenly, in the midst of some grand but trivial pursuit is a poor or tragic death. I am not one of those.

    While the siren call of regaling the surrounding youth with stories, as I slip further and further into my own twilight, is strong; just as noble would be to be consumed by some great conflagration of muscle and sinew that shuffles off my mortal coil, saving for last, the smile on my face as I head into the great unknown.

    @RobSandy forgive my waxing poetic, but that epilogue is one of the best constructed paragraphs I’ve read.

  12. Also a very fitting time to post this thread as cycling history was made again today.

    http://www.cyclingnews.com/races/bridie-odonnell-hour-record-attempt-2016/results/

  13. Great stuff, Rob. Beryl Burton is one of my all-time heroes, and it’s always cool to see her recognised.

  14. @Baxter

    I read the script of that play – it’s excellent. Can’t wait to see it on stage when it comes to London.

    What a massive hero Beryl B is. Thank you @RobSandy for this excellent article.

  15. I pass by the Beryl Burton cycle route on my way to and from work. She was an incredible woman, a true force of nature, and above all a mind-blowing Cyclist. I saw an interview with her in her later years where she was pottering around in a garden, recalling what her GP said to her when she first started riding – “well love, you get off that bike and walk if the hill is too much.” Not a chance!

    I also like to refer to her as Queen B, even if that’s a bit soppy.

  16. Wow. Great article. I had never heard of her.

  17. “…when road races were banned on UK roads…”

    Can anyone expand on this?

  18. @MangoDave

    “…when road races were banned on UK roads…”

    Can anyone expand on this?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Cyclists%27_Union

  19. Great article Rob. That last photo is truly the epitomy of On the Rivet in every sense of the phrase.

  20. As much as she was too young to depart, that sure is on heckofa way to go out, if you love the feeling of pedaling a bicycle.

    Great work, Rob! I only know of her from someone previously bringing her up ’round here, which is not to say that I don’t welcome your contribution to my knowledge of Burton. Thanks for this!

  21. …despite seven world titles, 96 national titles and being the best British all-rounder for 25 consecutive years.

    How amazing is that – to be at the top of your game for TWENTY FIVE years?!

    Clearly Beryl dished out Rule #5 in spades!

  22. Lesson 2: How To Ride A Big Gear

  23. @RobSandy

    Thank you. BB was a boss and a class act, the Cogmother whose likeness will be carved into Mt Velomis.

    @Buck Rogers

    Might just be slit scan distortion from a Graflex roller shutter, but I’m going with pure unadulterated V buckling her wheel.

  24. One other biographical note of interest…

    The sort of competitive urge that drives someone like Beryl Burton is not without a down side.

    When her daughter Denise won the national championship in 1976, beating her mother, Beryl refused to shake her hand because she didn’t like the way she had raced.

    I guess they made it up because they continued to ride and race together but her daughter said she rarely spoke about her riding and even she learnt things about her mother from her autobiography.

    Determination and effort at that level often comes with a personal cost. The guy who just broke Tommy Godwin’s annual mileage record is another example.

  25. @RobSandy

    Great piece about an absolutely peerless rider.

    I’ll whisper this, but isn’t there a case for her being not only recognised as a total badass but also as the greatest the sport has known? If she dominated for 25 years then 525 wouldn’t appear to be a very big number.

    I’d best be off now, I’ve got a garage to clear out. There’s a bike in the somewhere and hopefully some form.

  26. @ChrisO

    One other biographical note of interest…

    The sort of competitive urge that drives someone like Beryl Burton is not without a down side.

    When her daughter Denise won the national championship in 1976, beating her mother, Beryl refused to shake her hand because she didn’t like the way she had raced.

    I guess they made it up because they continued to ride and race together but her daughter said she rarely spoke about her riding and even she learnt things about her mother from her autobiography.

    Determination and effort at that level often comes with a personal cost. The guy who just broke Tommy Godwin’s annual mileage record is another example.

    There was a kinda sorta relevant article posted re: Lindsey Vonn after she’d knocked off her 37th WC downhill win. Indeed it’s not out of question that kinda laser focused dedication, determination, and commitment can come with sacrifices elsewhere.

  27. @Nik_L

    Lesson 2: How To Ride A Big Gear

    A cyclist writes: “Fuck me, that’s a V to the power of awesome gear.”

  28. Fantastic write-up, @RobSandy. Cheers!

  29. Thank you. That is all.

    :D

  30. Thanks for the kind comments all. Glad you liked the article. The VMW has to take some credit for making me aware of Beryl, and I recall reading her palmares for the first time and being dumbfounded at how much she achieved, and also how little she was known.

    @ChrisO

    One other biographical note of interest…

    The sort of competitive urge that drives someone like Beryl Burton is not without a down side.

    When her daughter Denise won the national championship in 1976, beating her mother, Beryl refused to shake her hand because she didn’t like the way she had raced.

    I guess they made it up because they continued to ride and race together but her daughter said she rarely spoke about her riding and even she learnt things about her mother from her autobiography.

    Determination and effort at that level often comes with a personal cost. The guy who just broke Tommy Godwin’s annual mileage record is another example.

    Thanks Chris – I knew I could rely on Velominati to add some colour to the black & white picture that Beryl’s racing achievements provide. The dedication and competitive spirit that makes a drives a champion great often seems to make them ill-suited to ‘normal’ life.

    But it’s often the case that the most interesting sporting stories are those that reveal something of the character of the people involved, a light shining on who they were, rather than what they were capable of. The best example I can think of this is finding the stories associated with Hinault and Lemond more compelling that Merckx. Through Mercxk’s racing we find out what he could do, the rivalry between Hinault and LeMond tells us a lot about who they were.

    Or maybe I’m over thinking it. Cheers anyway.

  31. Great piece and fantastic to see a write up on Burton in Velominati. When I was getting into the TT scene in the UK (the Scottish part) in the early 80s, she was already a legend. I think if she entered a race, the hearts of other riders just sank. Second place would be the best they could hope for. Pretty much the same as when you saw G. Obree on the start sheet). Never got the recognition she deserved outside the sport.

    I’m bot sure how the British TT scene is now, but certainly through the 80s, the BBAR (British Best All-Rounder) competition for time triallists was fierce, and Cycling Weekly (aka The Comic) covered it diligently. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Best_All-Rounder

    From 1959 to 1983 Burton won the women’s classification. That’s domination and puts her in a select group with two other incredible women cyclists: Jeanne Longo and Marianne Vos.

    Love the pics of Burton posted above. Note: no water bottles. I suspect that she had then handed up to her if required. Also the gear she’s pushing on her Ron Kitching bike is massive. 54-12 I’d imagine. I think the crankset is a TA with long cranks – TA made chainrings bigger than the standard 52. Love too the positioning of the rear brake inside the stay bridge.

  32. damn she’s got tree trunk guns! would love to see have seen her race Paris Roubaix

  33. Oh, and one more thing. BB’s accomplishments were done on what is, by today’s standards, a regular, old school steel bike. Ok, the tires and tubs would have been top notch, but nary a hint of carbon anything, aero bars, skinsuit, aero helmet etc, etc. Imagine what times she would have done with today’s gear and equipment.

  34. @wiscot

    That’s domination and puts her in a select group with two other incredible women cyclists: Jeanne Longo and Marianne Vos.

    And you could definitely argue that it puts her in a class with just Vos as there is a “cloud of uncertainty”, to say the least, around good ol’Gramma Longo’s career results!

  35. @wilburrox

    @ChrisO

    One other biographical note of interest…

    The sort of competitive urge that drives someone like Beryl Burton is not without a down side.

    When her daughter Denise won the national championship in 1976, beating her mother, Beryl refused to shake her hand because she didn’t like the way she had raced.

    I guess they made it up because they continued to ride and race together but her daughter said she rarely spoke about her riding and even she learnt things about her mother from her autobiography.

    Determination and effort at that level often comes with a personal cost. The guy who just broke Tommy Godwin’s annual mileage record is another example.

    There was a kinda sorta relevant article posted re: Lindsey Vonn after she’d knocked off her 37th WC downhill win. Indeed it’s not out of question that kinda laser focused dedication, determination, and commitment can come with sacrifices elsewhere.

    I read one article on Vonn a few years back now and she came off as a nutjob. Sounds like she essentially ruined her family, ruined her parents marriage, then married her wacko coach/ski caretaker, which caused a split with her father. And now she’s split with that dude. And…was/is dating a guy who banged women in parking lots and on diner table tops while his wife and children were at home. Totally a guy I’d like my daughter to date!

    Vonn clearly uses her mental focus to stay sharp on the skis, but not off them. And the rah-rah atmosphere around her is exactly the reason I don’t like the Olympics.

  36. @Buck Rogers

    @wiscot

    That’s domination and puts her in a select group with two other incredible women cyclists: Jeanne Longo and Marianne Vos.

    And you could definitely argue that it puts her in a class with just Vos as there is a “cloud of uncertainty”, to say the least, around good ol’Gramma Longo’s career results!

    Agreed. I don’t think the Divine Ms Marianne has ever had a whiff of doubt as to her achievements, whereas for Mme Longo . . . cough, cough.

  37. @Ron

    @wilburrox

    @ChrisO

    One other biographical note of interest…

    The sort of competitive urge that drives someone like Beryl Burton is not without a down side.

    When her daughter Denise won the national championship in 1976, beating her mother, Beryl refused to shake her hand because she didn’t like the way she had raced.

    I guess they made it up because they continued to ride and race together but her daughter said she rarely spoke about her riding and even she learnt things about her mother from her autobiography.

    Determination and effort at that level often comes with a personal cost. The guy who just broke Tommy Godwin’s annual mileage record is another example.

    There was a kinda sorta relevant article posted re: Lindsey Vonn after she’d knocked off her 37th WC downhill win. Indeed it’s not out of question that kinda laser focused dedication, determination, and commitment can come with sacrifices elsewhere.

    I read one article on Vonn a few years back now and she came off as a nutjob. Sounds like she essentially ruined her family, ruined her parents marriage, then married her wacko coach/ski caretaker, which caused a split with her father. And now she’s split with that dude. And…was/is dating a guy who banged women in parking lots and on diner table tops while his wife and children were at home. Totally a guy I’d like my daughter to date!

    Vonn clearly uses her mental focus to stay sharp on the skis, but not off them. And the rah-rah atmosphere around her is exactly the reason I don’t like the Olympics.

    Yeah, put Vonn in the same category as Hope Solo and Tonya Harding. Talented . . . . but crazy.

  38. I like that she rides so exclusively in the drops, that the rest of the bars isn’t even wrapped. Pretty Raleigh Team Professional.

  39. @John Liu

    I like that she rides so exclusively in the drops, that the rest of the bars isn’t even wrapped. Pretty Raleigh Team Professional.

    I think it was regulated that bars must have plugs and be taped, but not quite clear on just how much tape. As anyone knows, less tape = mo fasta. I just noticed too that she’s removed the rubber hoods from the brake levers. Who needs them when you’re 100% on the drops? She’s getting that bike as light as possible without resorting to some of the gimmicky drilling that some TT riders (Alf Engers, I’m looking at you) did.

  40. Ugh, seeing those bare, awful hoods makes me realize how easy we have it today with ergonomic levers, articulated hoods, and a variety of bars to allow the transition that works best for you and your hands.

    I’m still thinking that one market segmentation coming is the offering of different sizes of shifters for different sizes of hands.

  41. @Ron

    Ugh, seeing those bare, awful hoods makes me realize how easy we have it today with ergonomic levers, articulated hoods, and a variety of bars to allow the transition that works best for you and your hands.

    I’m still thinking that one market segmentation coming is the offering of different sizes of shifters for different sizes of hands.

    Yeah, you’d a thunk that SRAM and Shimano would at least do small, medium and large hoods for their shifters, wouldn’t you? Surely it wouldn’t be too difficult to engineer/fabricate. I mean, that’s pure after-sale-marketing opportunity right there..

  42. @wiscot

    xactly, make them even pink with flowers and up the price with 100%. That’s what Gillette has done..

  43. In late July 1963 I was riding my regular training route around the perimeter road of Richmond Park – west of London, (I was a feisty 15 yr old on my first serious lightweight road bike) when this cyclist just flew past me at astonishing speed. It was Beryl getting some last minute training in before setting off for the UCI world track championship in Belguim – which she won. Quite why she was on the Park road circuit rather than at the track at Herne Hill I never did figure – but it was definitely her. Her pace was blisteringly quick and she was gone in a flash.

  44. @sowtondevil

    In late July 1963 I was riding my regular training route around the perimeter road of Richmond Park – west of London, (I was a feisty 15 yr old on my first serious lightweight road bike) when this cyclist just flew past me at astonishing speed. It was Beryl getting some last minute training in before setting off for the UCI world track championship in Belguim – which she won. Quite why she was on the Park road circuit rather than at the track at Herne Hill I never did figure – but it was definitely her. Her pace was blisteringly quick and she was gone in a flash.

    THAT is seriously cool! Those moments when we are in touch with history, even peripherally, seem to stick wth us, eh? My VMH and I met Sir Edmund Hillary in Nepal in the Spring of 2000 flying into Lukla. We were on the same small little flight and no one else had recognized him. I walked up and introduced myself and he was the most amazingly nice and friendly and humble guy. That moment will stick with me until they pull me off my bike and bury me.

  45. If you liked @RobSandy‘s excellent post about Beryl Burton, you should read the book “Ride the Revolution: The Inside Stories from Women in Cycling” edited by Suze Clemitson. The first chapter is about Beryl Burton. My book review on PEZ:

    http://www.pezcyclingnews.com/features/pez-bookshelf-ride-the-revolution-the-inside-stories-from-women-in-cycling/#.VsCDJDZki_U

  46. Why in the main photo and the black and white one in the comments is she holding the bars assymetrically?

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