The One and Only BB
Updated: Jan 28
“Have you ever heard of Beryl Burton?” interjected my TeamO captain Jonathan Walpole during a chat around the table a few years ago. I consider myself a bit of a cycling history nerd so I was not prepared for what I found. I was embarrassed that I hadn't heard of her for myself but truly gut-punched as the father of two athletic daughters. Beryl was a World Class cyclist from the mid 1960s to mid ’80s. Now that I am finally getting around to doing this illustration I see even more clearly that articles about Beryl have not aged well. Sexism and misogyny read louder than her accomplishments. The title of World Champion is closely followed by "housewife" and "mother" if not intertwined. In even the most innocuous article that pandering sentiment would either jump off the page or bubble just below the surface.
Beryl Burton first threw a leg over a bicycle when her coworker and soon-to-be husband Charlie invited her on a bike ride. She struggled for what was probably a very short amount of time but was soon hanging tough with the guys on team rides. The following year she was crushing fragile male egos**. Beryl also realized that she was exceptionally good at time trialing and national records started to fill her resume. There is this whole side story of why Time Trialing is such a big thing in England but the more I read about it the more convoluted it became. In my understanding, I will boil it down to this. In 1890 all mass start bicycle races were deemed to be a menace on the road to cars and were not allowed. Only time trials threaded through the bureaucracy, class wars, and bullshit. In a very real way, the governing powers did it to make sure riding a bike wasn’t banned outright. This lasted until the 1950s but by then the lore and sportsmanship of beating your rival in the “race of truth” was an honored pursuit.
Here is a compilation of her most impressive results. True to form I couldn’t find a single source that listed her results as follows. This is standard form for all men. If you break up the results it is harder to see the champion that is clearly there. (think about the clarity of a baseball card)
2X World Road Champion
5X World Pursuit Champion
3X World Pursuit Silver Medalist
5X World Pursuit Bronze Medalist
4x National individual time trial champion at 10miles
26x National individual time trial champion at 25miles
24x National individual time trial champion at 50miles
18X National individual time trial champion at 100miles
12X National Road Race champion
12X National Pursuit champion
First woman -1hour in 25mile time trial
First woman -2 hours in 50mile time trial
First woman -4 hours in 100mile time trial.
12-hour distance record of 277.25 miles for both men and women. (23.1mph!)
My biggest takeaway is that for 26 straight years, Beryl went unbeaten in a 25-mile national championship. That alone must be a record for all sports.
Two stories are always mentioned in some form when talking about Beryl.
The first is that when she was on her way to setting the women's record for 12 hours she caught and passed the Men’s leader Mike MacNamara with about 2 hours to go. After already passing all 99 men that started ahead of her I will add. When she was closing in on Mike she didn’t quite know how to handle the situation so she slowed slightly to dig a licorice “allsort” out of her back pocket and handed it to him. I can only imagine being delivered with a very English “ere ya go love!” as she rolled by. She held the Men’s record for 2 years. (Editors note, Sam sees this moment very differently. Not as the humble sweetie handoff but more of a passive-aggressive FU.) Her women’s record was finally broken in 2017 by Alice Lethbridge who rode 290.07 miles with full aero everything.
The second is that in 1976 she was in the National Championship Road race with her 20-year-old daughter Denise. They were part of the winning breakaway and Beryl had done the bulk of the work only to be pipped by Denise at the line. On the podium, Beryl wouldn’t shake her hand. “I thought Denise had not done her whack in the breakaway and once again I had 'made the race',....it was not a sporting thing to do...I can only plead I was not myself at the time” was her response in a later interview. In another article, her husband mentioned that she wouldn’t let Denise in the Car and made her ride home. (Yipes!)
These little insights have led to quite a discussion around the dinner table between Sam and me. I think Beryl was truly the wonderful, friendly, hard-working, talented, humble cyclist portrayed in all the articles I have read. Lurking in the corners of my mind is the idea that she was also a stone-cold, competitive killer that very few were able to challenge. Especially in her forte of competing against the clock on flat open roads. I think the idea of her as a quaint, stay-at-home mom working on a rhubarb farm was the way media “handled” a woman that threatened men. She trained as a professional cyclist doing 600 miles a week and her life was built around that. (35 hours a week averaging 17mph) Her husband supported her completely and her daughter was part of that until she wasn’t. Again, if she were a man there would be statues, medals, races, and more than a handful of mostly shitty videos of her exploits. Ok, there is a garden named after her but that kind of proves my point.
If you look for images of Beryl you are going to find 25 different photos of basically the same thing. A perfect side view of her riding in her classic time trial position and hauling ass down some barren 2 lane road in the English countryside.
Many photos show a slight quirk of her hands in different positions in the drops with one further up. If you look really hard you might find one of her out of the saddle pushing an enormous single chainring. I found one where she has at least a 64-tooth front chainring.
When seen on film she doesn’t look fast that fast. Her cadence is slow but then she comes up on another cyclist she flies by them. It is like a Spitfire passing a Sopwith Camel. (British plane reference I am quite chuffed with) All that to say, and I think that is the rub, and part of the problem with her lack of media coverage. It just isn’t that exciting when combined with the all-too-wholesome backstory. It was done on purpose. I blame this completely on the male media mongers at the time.
The Beryl I wanted to highlight was the unseen moment in the 1967 World Championships when she broke the elastic on Russian Lubov Zadoroznaya* who would finish a minute and a half down. Anna Konkin*, also from the Soviet Union lead the field in 4 minutes later for 3rd place. There is actually video of this race out there on the interwebs. In the first shot, you see the field leave the start. The second flash is of a two-up break with Beryl leading Lubov. The next clip is of Beryl coming into the finish by herself. I found some images from the rolling local countryside in Heerlen, Netherlands looking back toward the city, and made a composite. I imagined Beryl making her move, out of the saddle, going for it with her steely and composed focus. Sadly, this gold medal-winning move was only witnessed by a few officials, one other rider, and couple cows. Once she was on her own she was in very familiar territory and powered her way to victory.
A few other details surrounding this event. I believe it was 2 laps on a 20 km circuit. So the UCI had women go 40 km or 25 miles for a women’s world championship. Beryl would ride that far to a local event, do the race and then ride home. Insert your own thoughts there. I found an article in CyclingNews if you are interested in "How fast Beryl would be" given modern cycling gear. Click the link and read if you really want to geek out a bit. Lastly, you’re probably wondering why Beryl has no Olympic medals. That is because the first women’s Olympic cycling events took place in 1984 when Beryl was 47. Lastly, Beryl passed away from heart failure in 1987 while delivering invitations for her 59th birthday party. As you have already predicted, she was on her bicycle.
*good luck finding info on these two. Both rockstars in their own right.
**While lining up for the 1986 Mass/Rhode island 25mile ITT championships I looked behind me to see my 2 minute "person" was Elizabeth Larsen. The previous year she had won the National TT championships. I did the math and knew I was about to be humbled big time. In the last mile a blur flew past me and I didn't even have to look. 19 year old male ego destroyed. Elizabeth Larsen doesn't have a wiki page.
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