“Amazing’s all you can say.”
“She’s a one-off.”
“Not another lady like her – and there never will be, ever again.”
It’s 1986, in a windswept car park in North Yorkshire. Though the Tour de France is underway, back in England, it’s Beryl Burton these cyclists are talking about, as she warms up for the Scarborough Paragon Cycling Club 10-mile time trial.
For those not in the know – Beryl Burton is the greatest female cyclist of the 20th century, and one of the fiercest athletes cycling has ever seen.
In this article we’ll tell this British biking legend’s story, covering:
- Early Life and Cycling
- Career and Wins
- Beryl Burton and Women’s Cycling
- Personal Life
- Recognition and Legacy
Ready to learn about a true cycling icon?
Early Life and Cycling
Burton was born in Halton, Leeds in 1937.
At the age of 11 she was hospitalized for an extended period with rheumatic fever. This was difficult for the hyper-competitive Burton, who hated being inactive. After recovering, Beryl Burton would spend the rest of her life in constant motion.
Newly married in 1955, Burton’s husband Charlie introduced her to cycling. She took to the bike quickly and in the next two years, she would progress to out-riding him and everyone else at their local Morley Cycling Club.
A doctor once told Burton never to overexert herself, because of her stint in hospital as a child. The doctor added that when out cycling, “the boys will wait for you”.
This became a running joke between Beryl and the men at the cycling club.
Career and Wins
Beryl Burton’s steely determination and commitment to huge amounts of training time allowed her to quickly develop into a fearsome athlete.
After her first foray into time trials in 1956, she took a silver medal in the 1957 women’s national 100-mile race. Between 1958 and 1981 she would win this title 18 times.
By 1959 she was competing internationally. A relative no-name on the international scene, she was asked to be a non-traveling reserve for the 1959 World Championship Women’s Individual Pursuit.
In the end, she not only traveled to the event and competed – she won it.
After her sensational debut at the World Championships, Beryl Burton went on to win 5 World Titles, 3 Silver Medals, and 4 Bronze Medals between 1959 and 1973. She was also the World Champion in the 3000-Meter Pursuit 7 times.
Domestically, Burton was virtually unbeatable. She won the women’s RTTC (Road Time Trial Championships) Best All Rounder 25 years in a row from 1959 until 1983, alongside 12 National Road Race Championship titles and 12 Individual Pursuit national crowns.
Burton also set a monumental slew of records at almost every distance, including 10, 25, 30, 50, and 100-mile time trials – many of which went unbroken for decades.
Perhaps the most iconic moment in Burton’s career was during the RTTC 12-hour time trial in 1967. At the race, Mike McNamara set a new men’s world record (276.52 miles) on his way to victory in the men’s division.
Despite this achievement, McNamara was entirely overshadowed when Beryl Burton overtook him in the final two hours, apparently offering him a Liquorice Allsort as she passed, and set an even better record of 277.25 miles.
The distance wouldn’t be beaten by any man for two more years. Even with all the technical innovations of the past five decades, it took until 2017 for her distance to be bettered by a woman.
Beryl passing over her Liquorice Allsort became an iconic moment in British cycling history. The Rockingham Wheelers Cycling Club even presented Beryl with an enormous novelty Liquorice Allsort to honor the story.
Beryl Burton and Women’s Cycling
At the height of her career, Burton was utterly dominant in women’s cycling.
However, Burton’s record in women’s cycling arguably doesn’t get the recognition it deserves because she never got a shot at the greatest crown in modern cycling: the Olympics.
Women’s road cycling events weren’t added to the Olympics until the 1984 Summer games in Los Angeles. By this time, Burton was 47 – and it had already been 27 since she won her first national medal.
Beryl Burton never got the chance to compete for an Olympic medal during her utter dominance of cycling in the 1960s and 1970s.
Beryl Burton came to the sport as it was still in its infancy. It’s a testament to her sheer talent and athleticism that her records remained competitive for years after road cycling technology and participation sped ahead.
Burton’s phenomenal career attracted numerous sponsorship offers, but Burton remained a committed amateur throughout her life.
When not on her bike, she worked picking rhubarb on a farm in Flaxby. Burton explained that her job in the fields allowed her to maintain an outdoor lifestyle and the constant motion of the work kept her limber between rides.
Charlie Burton provided constant support for his wife’s cycling career. He travelled with her to races, drove her support vehicle, and while training dominated Beryl’s life, Charlie took on much of the parenting of their daughter Denise.
Denise Burton was to become an impressive road cyclist in her own right, winning medals in the Individual Pursuit championships of 1975 and 1976, the 1975 World Championships, and the National Road Race Championships of 1976 and 1978.
Mother and daughter frequently raced against one another. Tensions boiled over at the 1976 National Road Race Championships when Denise took the title in the final sprint and Beryl refused to shake her daughter’s hand.
Beryl wrote about this moment regretfully in her autobiography, conceding that “it was not a sporting thing to do.”
Nonetheless, the two continued cycling together for years afterwards. In 1982, Beryl and Denise set a British women’s 10-mile record on a tandem bike.
Beryl Burton’s determination to be at the top of her game was absolute. She once raced with one hand taped to the handlebars, as it had been numbed from an injection of pain killers. Her daughter wrote that in the later years of her career, Beryl was trying to “thrash herself back into shape.”
During a ride in 1996, aged just 58, Beryl Burton suffered a fatal heart attack.
Burton had experienced atypical heart arrhythmia throughout her life, and Denise suggested that her mother’s forty years of punishing training had finally caught up with her body.
Beryl Burton was a hard-as-nails, ultra-competitive woman. However, watching old interviews of the great competitor, it’s clear she was as humble, personable, and down to earth as she was fierce and driven.
She was an incredibly likable sporting hero.
Recognition and Legacy
Burton’s talent for cycling was first noted in a page in the 1960 Golden Book of Cycling. Over three decades later in 1991, she was awarded a rare second page in recognition of her stellar career.
During her career she was awarded an MBE in 1964 and an OBE in 1968. She also won the illustrious cycling Bidlake Memorial Prize in 1959, 1960, and 1967.
Burton was inducted into the British Cycling Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Rouleur Hall of Fame in 2018.
The Beryl Burton Trophy is awarded at the RTTC’s Champion of Champions competition for women of all ages, and the Beryl Burton Memorial Gardens were built in her home town of Morley.
As well as Beryl Burton’s autobiography Personal Best, she is also the subject of William Fotheringham’s book The Greatest: The Life and Times of Beryl Burton, and Maxine Peak’s Beryl.
London-based cycling media studio and shop Bromley Video also produced Racing is Life: The Beryl Burton Story, a feature-length documentary about the athlete.
Burton’s life was adapted into a Radio 4 radio play called Beryl: A Love Story On Two Wheels. The production was then adapted for stage in Tour de Beryl, which ran in the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014 before going on the road in 2015, and rerunning in Manchester in 2019.
Her story is at once an inspiring testament to human determination, a thrilling dig through the annals of cycling history, and a cautionary tale of overtraining and unchecked personal drive.
A story we can all take something from.