Title: Personal Best – The Autobiography of Beryl Burton, OBEAuthor: Beryl Burton (with Colin Kirby)Publisher: Springfield BooksYear: 1986Pages: 182Order: Mercian ManualsWhat it is: The autobiography of Beryl Burton, seven-time World ChampionStrengths: It’s Burton’s own story and covers the full extent of her careerWeaknesses: There’s an awful lot of British time trials reported and at times it’s easy to lose sight of what wins were actually important, and to lose sight of Burton’s international successes
On a Thursday afternoon in August, 1959, a 22-year-old Beryl Burton won her first rainbow jersey, triumphing in the individual pursuit World Championships in Belgium, riding on the Rocourt track in Liège. Apart from a holiday in Ireland the previous year it was her first time out of the UK, her first taste of international competition.
On another Thursday in another August, eight years later, she won her last rainbow jersey, in the road race World Championships in Heerlen in the Netherlands. At 30, Burton became the oldest winner of the rainbow jersey in the then brief history of the women’s World Championships and, having now won the individual pursuit title five times and the road race twice, she had matched the record of her great rival, Belgium’s Yvonne Reynders, who was just three months Burton’s junior.
Those seven rainbow jerseys, they gave Burton international fame. Off the back of them, she received invitations to race on the continent, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Off the back of them, she was invited to race in South Africa, in America, in Australia. Off the back of them, she was twice part of the undercard for the Ghent Six and raced at the Grand Prix des Nations, the unofficial time trial World Championships.
For many, though, Burton’s international successes, her international fame and glory, they take second place to what she achieved on the British domestic racing scene in a career that saw her win her first national title aged 21 in 1958 and her last aged 49 in 1986. Those World Championship gold medals, they play second fiddle to the national titles and the British records she set, most notably the British 12-hour record set in 1967, 277.25 miles (446.19 kms), which was 0.73 miles (1.17 kms) better than the men’s record. Burton’s record wasn’t broken by a man until 1969 and no woman bettered it until 2017. Those seven rainbow jerseys, they are lost in the shadow of a liquorice allsort passed to a rival during that 12-hour ride, “one of those swiss-roll shaped ones,” Burton recalled in Personal Best, “white with a coating of black liquorice.”
Everybody who has heard of Burton knows the story. And despite her status as an over-looked champion constantly in need of being rescued from obscurity, everybody has surely heard of Beryl Burton at this stage. She was awarded an MBE and an OBE during her career. She published her autobiography in 1986, two biographies have been published since, and her story has been told in countless cycling books and magazine articles at this stage. Some of her TV profiles and interviews can still be watched today online, along with assorted other appearances. There’s been a BBC radio play about her which went on to become a successful stage play. She’s even been the answer to a question on Pointless and today has a race horse named after her. She’s an unsung hero people sing about. A lot.
But while we all may know the story of the liquorice allsort, do we really understand it? As told by most it’s the ultimate story of a guy getting chicked. But as told by Burton herself, there’s a lot more to it than that:
“I was coming up on him! I drew inexorably closer, the wheels humming along the country lane, just two riders bent on great athletic endeavour. No cheering crowds at this point, no excited television reporters, the occupants of the odd car that passed unaware of the drama. I came to within a few yards of him and then I froze, the urge in my legs to go faster and faster banished as though with the click of a switch.
“Goose pimples broke out all over me, and for some seconds I just stared at his heaving shoulders, the sweat-stained jersey. I could hardly accept that after all those hours and miles I had finally caught up with one of the country’s great riders, who himself was pulling out a record ride.”
This wasn’t the first time Burton had had to pass a man in competition, she was well used to doing that, had done it countless times before. Ninety-nine men had started the race that morning and she’d passed all but this last one, Mike Namara. What was different this time was the enormity of what was about to happen. And Burton, she knew all too well about freezing when faced with such a defining task. Throughout her life she thought back to her eleven-plus exam and the events that followed:
“I completely froze. Even papers in the examinations which should not have caused me any great problem might just as well have been printed in Urdu. I was an abject failure! Shattered, my childish ego bruised beyond belief, I developed a high fever and was rushed to St James Hospital in Leeds, where the doctors diagnosed chorea, in plain terms a kind of St Vitus Dance with rheumatic fever thrown in for good measure! Anyway, I believe it stems from the nervous system – and I blame it on that eleven-plus exam.”
At the height of the fever she was paralysed down one side and couldn’t speak properly, for months could use only the one hand. She spent nine months in hospital and a further 15 months convalescing. For some such a childhood set-back – two years away from home and family, two years away from friends and school – would hold them back the rest of their life. Burton, she used it to fire her ambition: “I determined there and then that somehow I would make my mark.”
Ten years after coming down with chorea Burton won her first national title, the Road Time Trials Council’s 25-mile championship in 1958, beating Millie Robinson: “My private vow to succeed after the cruel failure of my eleven-plus had at last come true. But I was determined to achieve even more.”
And more, as we all by now know, did follow. By the end of the 1958 season Burton had added the 50 and 100 mile RTTC championships to become the first woman to hold all three titles in the one season (there was at that stage no 10 title). What did her mind turn to? “I was now at the pinnacle of my sport, and I could not believe that I had arrived there so quickly. I was reminded about the doctor who said I should walk up hills and be careful not to exert myself – and I wondered if he had heard about my success.”
The following year, 1959, Burton took part in her first World Championships. At this stage women had three shots at the rainbow jersey, the UCI the previous year having finally introduced World Championship races for the sprint and the individual pursuit (over 3,000 metres) on the track along with a road race (it was 1989 before additional races were added and 2017 before women were offered the same number of shots at a rainbow jersey as the men).
In Personal Best Burton recalls little of those World Championships, none of the qualifying rounds for the individual pursuit. All she recalls is that she made it to the final, where she faced Elsy Jacobs, who had become the first woman to win a rainbow jersey the previous year, in the road race.
Ahead of the final, Burton’s nerves began to get the better of her. She recalled her hands shaking so much she could barely get pieces of an orange into her mouth. Making a hash of trying to tie the laces of her cycling shoes her husband, Charlie, did it for her, only she decided he hadn’t done it right and got into an argument with him, banishing him to watch the race with the spectators. “It was the first and almost the only time he had not been at the trackside for my world or national pursuit rides,” she recalls in Personal Best.
Burton calmed, a bit, or harnessed her nervous energy: “I settled down and the adrenalin began to flow. My competitive urge came to the top and I sought some sort of retribution against the gods for that damned eleven-plus and the childhood ill-health. I cannot recall the times but I beat Jacobs by something like two-tenths of a second, and I was champion of the world!”
Burton and some of the other British riders were invited to races in Luxembourg and France following that World Championships and she got to see how important cycling was on the continent: “It was a thrill to be part of all this and to realise that I, a girl from Yorkshire with a small club, was a world champion recognised beyond Britain.”
The joy, however, was not unalloyed. While making her mark abroad, Burton was unhappy with the manner in which her success was received at home: she arrived by train to Leeds and then had to walk with her bikes the six miles to her home in Morley.
That disquiet grew as the wins mounted up. A few weeks after her World Championship success Burton took on her first 12-hour time trial, a week after more races in France. She won, setting a new British record, 250.37 miles (402.93 kms) and beating the distances of all but two riders in the men’s race.
“One press report was kind enough to call it ‘incredible … amazing … a record to end all records’, but even so the national press generally and, more importantly to me, the papers in my own region, gave it scant regard, as indeed they had my world title, and – sadly I had to accept that the press ‘play’ the favoured, and cyclists are generally not among them in this country. I did not mind so much for myself, but I felt it keenly for my sport.”
Throughout Personal Best Burton, while detailing wins major and minor, returns to the failure of the British press to notice the mark she was leaving on the world.
In 1960, upon winning both the pursuit and the road titles at the Worlds in Leipzig, East Germany, she recalled feeling “tremendous. I knew I was licking the world’s best out of sight, and I had a fleeting thought of the doctors who had told me to take things easy for the rest of my life.” But there was the bitter taste of not being recognised sufficiently at home: “I was not seeking personal adulation, but a little more recognition would not have gone amiss. I was a double world champion in an international sport and it might as well have been the ladies’ darts down at the local as far as Britain was concerned.”
Even when Burton’s achievements were recognised, there were problems:
“Many journalistic interviews I have given have highlighted the ‘housewife’ angle and, while I welcomed publicity for my sport, it was difficult sometimes talking to people who had no concept of bike racing in the international sporting scene. Occasionally they would turn up at awkward moments, and I could not help feeling just a tiny bit resentful sometimes, when I considered that they were being well paid for asking questions in their working time while I was answering them in my leisure and domestic work time! I felt particularly annoyed when I could not recognise what I was supposed to have said when it appeared in print. It was almost as if they had interviewed someone else altogether.”
Burton’s achievements – foreign and domestic – were being recognised. Within cycling, she was a giant, within Yorkshire she was a hero. Raleigh offered her a professional contract, to follow in the wheeltracks of the likes of Marguerite Wilson, Lillian Dredge and Eileen Sheridan and take on place-to-place and other records. Burton turned them down: “Charlie and I worked out that, at the end of the day, I would be little better off financially than if I stayed an amateur.” She was also put off by the difficulty of going back to being an amateur once the pro contracts ran out, saw being a pro as only a short-term option, a few years at most. “The Raleigh representative made numerous visits trying to persuade me to sign for them, but I consistently declined. It was a decision I have never regretted.” At least one other offer to turn pro is mentioned by Burton, in passing, a French sponsor who wanted her to ride for them. They were turned down too.
Burton was runner up in the Sportswriters Association awards several years and in 1967 topped the poll. That same year she won the Sportswoman of the Year award presented by the Daily Express. And she was runner up in the BBC’s precursor to the Sports Personality of the Year Award, second to Henry Cooper.
But even winning such awards only highlighted the lack of recognition she was receiving. Of the Sportswriters Association award, her ghost writer, Colin Kirby, notes in his introduction to Personal Best that “most of them never wrote a word about her but, to give them credit, they knew her worth, and the esteem in which she was held in other parts of the world.” The ceremony at which the award was presented was criticised by Burton for a speech given by the president of the Football Association which was “peppered with allusions to football in Greek mythology and hardly made any references to me or the other award winners.
As for the BBC award: “A slightly sour note was struck, however, near the end of the year by the BBC Sportsview Review of 1967, a TV programme watched by millions. I had not, as far as I was aware, been seen in any of their sports programmes, as they seemed to have a policy of ignoring cycling, so an award was not something to which I had given much thought. In the viewers’ poll I was placed second to Henry Cooper the boxer, rather to the relief of the BBC, I was to learn later. Henry graced his sport for a number of years, bringing honour to the country by his sporting demeanour, and was a most worthy recipient of the award. I was on screen for about two seconds and then, following due honour to Henry, the programme was filled up with English cricket and football teams, while Graham Webb and I who had won world championships were ignored. You would think that finishing second in the poll would rate a little more of the time available, wouldn’t you?”
The recognition given to Burton by the Sportswriters Association and by the Daily Express was the icing on the cake of a very successful year: Burton’s second win in the World Championshps’ road race, her seventh rainbow jersey, her 12-hour record, and more national titles to her credit. But, aged 30, 1967 was the pinnacle of Burton’s international career and no more rainbow jerseys followed, just the consolation prizes of a few more silver and bronze medals, with her last Worlds appearance coming in 1973.
The domestic titles continued to pile up as the 50s turned into the 60s, the 60s turned into the 70s, and the 70s turned into the 80s. In 1984 women got both a chance to race at the Olympics and their own version of the Tour de France. Personal Best talks of Burton’s attempt to make the selection for the latter. Two years later, aged 49, Burton won her last national titles. A decade later, days shy of her sixtieth birthday, Burton was dead.
There are ways to write about time trialling and not make it be just a litany of times and courses. Personal Best doesn’t go there, serving up instead a book for fans of the domestic time trialling scene in the UK. We do get to see something of the rider behind the results, a woman driven by childhood trauma to make her mark on the world, a woman who resented how that mark was recognised by others. But the world on which she left her mark, it glides by unseen as Burton goes from Lancashire to Essex to Nottinghamshire, back to Southend, back to Nottingham, back to Essex, on to Birmingham and on and on and on, this race following that race up, down and across the country. Wars and famines, prime ministers, currencies, economic good times, economic bad times, they all pass by unwitnessed by Burton or her ghost.
Personal Best may have contributed to the view that Burton is an unsung hero – her take on the British sports press is important but equally it is worth questioning, though you shouldn’t expect such questions to be asked in an autobiography, they are better saved for biographies – but what it doesn’t do is reduce Burton to a story about a sweet passed to a rival. And that is something we should all avoid doing. Burton was a giant on the international stage and a legend in the domestic racing scene. Those are the things that she should be celebrated for, not the story of a liquorice allsort.