International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. One of the chapters in my soon-to-be published book Pedal Power is entitled ‘Wonder Women’ and features stories of women throughout the ages who have repeatedly shown that cycling is not just a man’s domain.
One of the most inspirational of these was Beryl Burton, a northern powerhouse who dominated road racing and time trialling throughout the second half of the twentieth century. An amateur throughout her career, she juggled cycling with raising her daughter, often struggling for money, always determined and focussed and with a steely ambition to keep on going. Her time trial performances became legendary, earning her the Best British All Rounder title for an incredible 25 years in a row. In the 1967 12-hour time trial she rode a distance that not only broke the existing women’s record but also demolished the men’s. It’s a record Beryl still holds to this day.
Below is an edited version of the profile that appears in the book.
Beryl Burton – Northern Soul
Road time trials had been the staple of British cycling since the late 1800s, when massed sprints had been banned for being too dangerous. Over distances of 25, 50 and 100 miles, individuals would race against the clock and it was in these events that Beryl Burton dominated, obliterating the field. Dedicated, determined and bloody-minded, she never slowed down. The Best All-Rounder award was given to the rider with the best average score from all of their events over the course of a year. Beryl was crowned the winner every single year between 1959 and 1983.
An amateur throughout her career, she stayed at the top through sheer determination. Training runs would take place in the evenings and at weekends, slotted into gaps between working and raising her daughter, Denise. The family was never wealthy; before they could afford a car, Beryl would cycle to her races, arranging a rendezvous part-way back with husband Charlie, who would ride to meet her with Denise in a child seat. There was no money for the luxury of a track bike; Beryl had just one bicycle that she used for her races on both road and track, switching over the wheels and sprockets as necessary.
Even at the height of her career, whenever Beryl told people that she was a cyclist, they would say, ‘Oh, take it very steady. If the hills get too hard you must get off and walk. I’m sure the boys will wait for you.’
But time and again she proved she was stronger than ‘the boys’. In open events she would consistently beat top class male riders. Known for her gently teasing manner she would pass her fellow competitors with, ‘Eh, lad, you’re not trying!’ In the 12-hour time trial of 1967 she cycled 277.25 miles, beating her rival Mike McNamara and giving him a Liquorice Allsort from her jersey pocket as she passed. He took it with a ‘Ta, love!’ and Beryl went on to set the record. It was two years before a man beat her distance; no woman has ever bettered it.
Even as Beryl grew older, she refused to give up, continuing through illness and injury, her blind determination and sheer force of will keeping her winning titles well into her forties. Doctors advised her to take it easy; friends begged her to scale things back, but she would murmur about having ‘just this race and just that race to do’. She died the day before her 59th birthday while out delivering invitations to the party. After a lifetime of pushing herself to the absolute limit, her heart just stopped. It was a sudden and shocking loss, but in the end she had been doing what she loved: riding her bike.
‘Pedal Power’ will be published on 13th April 2017. Pre-order your copy here.