Interview: Beryl Burton

Englishwoman Beryl Burton dominated women's cycling for twenty-five years from 1958, and was world champion repeatedly in many disciplines. JIM MCGURN interviewed her in 1984 when she was 47. This is an edited text of the original interview.

There was clearly a remarkable personality behind the dizzy list of achievements which follows Beryl Burton's name in the reference books. So there I stood, knocking at the door of a stone-built terraced house in Harrogate, about to encounter a woman who has inevitably been called a legend in her lifetime. The legend looked nervous and was thinner than expected. Her home is fastidiously tidy, with not a sugar cube out of place. It bears no sign of Beryl's public life: no trophies on the sideboard, no racing photos on the wall. The cellar full of bikes would never be guessed at.

By the time we had sat down Beryl had warmed up. When she talks she is not spa town Harrogate at all; she is straightforward Leeds in every syllable. 'There's no two ways about it', she said, 'I was right off last season. It was like riding with a ton of concrete on your head'. And Beryl continued, in similarly graphic English, to relate the strange events of last season. After twenty-five years of unparalleled success on road and track she went to her family doctor complaining of lack of energy and dwindling enthusiasm for competitive cycling. The woman recently described by my colleague, John Coulson, as 'possibly the world's most outstanding woman athlete ever' seemed finally to have lost her head of steam. Five times world champion in pursuiting, twice world champion in road racing, countless times national champion in a range of events, holder of the British Women's Best All-Rounder title for twenty-five consecutive years, Beryl Burton was faced last year with her doctor's advice that she really ought to take account of her age She was further warned that she had not given herself enough time to recover after an accident earlier in the season which had resulted in broken ribs and a compression of the spine. Tell a salmon not to leap. Beryl continued to compete, clocking up respectable times despite considerable distress.

She sought a second medical opinion. Tests revealed anaemia, coupled with body salt and hormone imbalance. Even this disturbing news failed to keep her from completing her 25th season. The episode is a reminder that the finely tuned body of a top athlete can be easily knocked off balance, especially when the athlete in question has performed for decades at levels way beyond the normal. Significant, however, is Beryl's unwillingness to rest and recuperate. She herself admits it was perhaps foolhardy.

Blessed at Birth

The urge which drives Beryl to compete and achieve was anything but evident in her upbringing. She is amused by the popular belief that she was blessed at birth with unusually powerful heart and lungs, inherited from a family of Aryan cyclists. She was born and raised in Halton, on the outskirts of Leeds by parents who had little interest in cycling. At the age of ten Beryl contracted St. Vitus' dance, a form of rheumatic fever which causes involuntary limb movements and often weakens the heart. After two years of illness, nine months of which were spent in hospital, she emerged as a timid and awkward teenager. At the age of sixteen she met Charlie Burton, who happened to belong to the Morley Road Cycle Club. Beryl was immediately attracted to the social life of the club and she insists that even today it is as important to her as racing. The story of her first attempts at competitive cycling is best described in her own words: 'I'd cycle five miles to Morley and that was me finished for the day, absolutely exhausted. And when I got there I would curl up with embarrassment if anybody talked to me. I started taking part in the odd ten mile event and I felt a bit embarrassed that I wasn't going fast enough, so I rode with my hands on the tops of the bars so people would think I was just riding socially'.

Warmly encouraged by club mates, Beryl began to show real promise in events. When she married Charlie money was short and Charlie gave up his own cycling career so that Beryl could continue. Nevertheless both continued to work full time, even after the arrival of their daughter Denise, to finance the travelling to events, the bed and breakfasts, and the cycling hardware. Beryl worked at a market garden: she has always enjoyed outdoor work and is employed now on a fruit farm.

For the first few years they could afford to keep just the one bike on the go, using it for both time trial and track events. Charlie (for he it is who wields the household spanner) would remove mudguards and change wheels and sprockets as necessary. Beryl gladly tells the story of her first pair of sprints and tubs, (special lightweight track wheels with glued-on tubular tyres) bought second hand for 30 shillings. They were found to have cracks round the spoke holes, when she tried to ride on them in the 1959 World Pursuits Championships the track officials insisted otherwise. She managed to borrow replace­ment wheels from another competitor and went on to take her first gold.

Motherhood

Denise Burton was born in 1956, her childhood coinciding with the most intensive period in her mother's cycling career. Beryl says it was always a strain trying to cope. She managed by simplifying life; cutting out the frills as much as possible: even today she will not have a telephone or television in the house, nor has she any hobbies. In the early days they had no car. On a Saturday Beryl might cycle over to Lancashire, stay bed and breakfast, compete the following morning and then head for home. Charlie would put Denise in the child seat, cycle half-way to meet Beryl and accompany her home. Beryl feels that she struck a reasonable balance between the demands of family and sporting life. Her cycling did not suffer, as the records show, thanks to an ability to tightly organise a diverse life.

What has driven Beryl to achieve so much for so long? She feels that it is her sheer dedication which has marked her out and given her such personal satisfaction. With the nearest competition generally a lap behind her, she had to set herself personal goals: 'If I did a 57 I would not gloat about it but would aim for a 56. People used to think I was being clever but it was the only way. If you tell people then you convince yourself. You brainwash yourself I suppose'.

Somewhat predictably I asked Beryl whether she thought that her cycling career had been influenced by the fact that she was a woman: 'I don't usually think about it. Like when I'm at work I have a lot of heavy lifting to do and I get on with it. They treat me there like a person, not like a woman'. She is sure that when she first took up cycling the female opposition was nowhere near as good as it was when her daughter Denise joined the sport fifteen years later. Beryl was never disturbed by the segregated events in the early part of her career. She was happy to study the men's times on the results board and work out who she would have beaten. She is sure that women's cycling is on the up: that more are taking part, that more are continuing beyond the age of thirty and that performances have improved dramatically. Time trialling in particular has become more popular among women now that segregation has been abolished. Beryl herself consistently beat top class male riders in open events and beat the existing British men's record for a 12 hour time trial. She covered 277 miles, beating the record by 5 miles.

Cycling Season

Many aspects of Beryl's life have changed little over the years. She trains Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and goes for a short fast spin on the Friday if she has an event on the Saturday. Her season is March to September and she does not train over the winter. Instead she and Charlie are feted at club dinner dances and prize-givings up and down the country. The weekend after my visit they were to drive down to London for a Pedal Club luncheon. Beryl regrets that she cannot share the driving with Charlie as she has never learned to drive. She goes to work by bike, pedalling four fearless miles along the A1: 'Those lorry drivers are terrific, they really are. I feel much safer on the A1 than on these narrow winding roads'. She even goes to the corner shop on her racing bike. With the exception of organised hikes at Christmas, Beryl prefers her wheels to her feet. She will not walk during the racing season. I asked Beryl if she had any advice on women's saddles. Top racing cyclists, she said, pull themselves forward onto the nose of the saddle, especially when riding hard. Touring cyclists do not often realise the extent to which they too do this. She feels that it is important therefore that a woman's saddle be level or even nosed down slightly. Men's anatomies, however, can cope with a higher nose. Beryl added that some women cyclists suffer from muscle slackness on the inside of one leg, accompanied by tiny cysts in the flesh. Twelve years ago Beryl had an operation to remove these cysts and tighten the muscle, but the problem has returned.

Beryl's body has been knocked about in the course of her career - a reminder that her sport is one of the most dangerous there is. Five years ago she collided with a car which had turned into her. The results were 56 stitches to her head, a broken shoulder blade and two bad breaks to her leg. Most 41 year olds would have retired at that point. Beryl, however, launched herself into a physiotherapy programme, was walking in three months, and, within six months of the accident, won the National 10 mile Time Trail Championship.

Denise Burton, Beryl's only child, became a top rate cyclist in her turn. She entered the sport when standards were rising, due partly to the prominence of Eastern Block 'amateurs'. Denise won a bronze in pursuiting at the 1975 World Championships and several gold medals for road and track events at national level. She regularly represented her country abroad and looked set for a fine career. Illness dogged her however and she has not competed for many years although she enjoys pleasure cycling. She entered one or two road races following her illness but was disheartened by her slow performances, and felt vulnerable in the middle of the bunch, aware of the younger, less experienced riders chopping this way and that. It is common for women of all abilities to compete against each other in the same event. Men's racing is perhaps safer in that the higher number of competitors allows separation into categories.

Beryl herself will have recovered over the winter and should be back at the starting lines next month. There is no talk of her retiring. "When the time comes I shall get on my bike and I shall be trembling like a leaf, wondering 'can I still go fast?' When I stop being nervous I'll stop racing."

Beryl died in 1996.