In 1967, time trialist Mike McNamara set a new British Men’s record for the 12-Hour by riding an astonishing 276.52 miles in that time. However, there was one rider who beat him by close to a mile, riding 277.25 miles. That rider couldn’t take the Men’s title because her name was Beryl Burton.
Burton may be the greatest cyclist you’ve never known, a wrong that’s ripe for correction. She was one of the giants of the sport.
Burton was born in the northern city of Leeds, an industrial, working class town. She was introduced to cycling at the age of 15 by her future husband Charlie and was racing competitively by the age of 17. Charlie would remain in the background as her mechanic, helpmate, and companion during the whole of her career.
And what a career it was!
Her domestic victories included 72 British individual time trial titles, 12 National Road Race victories, and 12 national pursuit titles. The women’s title of Best British All-Rounder (a tally of a rider’s best times for 25, 50 and 100 miles distances) belonged to her for twenty five years; she won the first title aged 22 in 1959 and the last at age 47 in 1984.
Burton also bested all the men in the 1967 12-hour, an accomplishment never achieved before nor after. She was truly the best.
In the international arena, Beryl was World Road Race Champion in 1960 and 1967 and World 3,000 Meter Individual Pursuit Champion in 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963, and 1966.
One particular anecdote stands out to display both her strength and humility. In the ’67 12-hour, when she overhauled McNamara, the fasted man, she offered him a piece of candy because he looked to be suffering. He took the candy.
You might assume that a career such as Burton’s would have assured her place in British sporting history, but relatively few people outside of British Cycling understood what a national treasure she was.
However, what a different story it was on the Continent! Beryl was revered in Europe.
She had the rare distinction of being invited to compete in the all-male Grand Prix des Nations in 1967, the equivalent of the world time trial championships at the time.
The esteem in which she was held was such that a French sports writer penned the words “If Beryl Burton had been French, Joan of Arc would have had to take second place.”
In an era where champions live like monks in order to fulfill their cycling ambitions, Burton’s life stood out for its ordinariness. She worked during the week on a rhubarb farm and her role as wife and mother took equal precedence to cycling. Those who knew her said her ability to balance both worlds came down to highly efficient time management.
At the time, cycling’s infrastructure didn’t have much place for her. Had she been born 40 years later, she would have benefited from female cycling participation in the Olympics, not added until 1984. Her legend would have only been bigger.
The British enjoy their history.
Over the last 25 years, the exploits of Boardman, Obree, Wiggins and Froome have rekindled the general public’s passion for cycling, not only reveling in the present but also casting a backwards glance to the infancy of British participation in international cycling.
Burton passed in 1996, never to receive the glory and admiration she deserved. The English have since woken up to the fact that greatness in the form of a modest, hardworking woman moved among them all those years ago. Beryl Burton, the greatest female cyclist of all time, is, finally, getting her place at the table.
Beryl Burton; 12 May 1937 – 5 May 1996