5 Reasons Why She Was Beryl Burton And You Couldn’t Have Held Her Wheel


Words || Gary J Boulanger

During a career that spanned five decades, the fiercely competitive British cyclist Beryl Burton won seven world titles (two road race championships and five track pursuit titles) and 96 national titles (12 road race championships, 13 pursuit titles, and 71 time trial titles against the clock). Dutch phenom Marianne Vos may be on her way to laying claim as the most celebrated female cyclist of all time, but Burton’s results were most impressive for several reasons.

She was also a housewife, mother and keen gardener, and remained an amateur bike racer until she breathed her last during a social ride on May 8, 1996, when she was delivering invitations to her 59th birthday, which was May 12.

Although she won her last titles in 1986 and in later years was dogged by ill-health, she was entered to ride the national 10-mile championship the weekend following her death. Time trialling, a solitary discipline, both mentally and physically taxing, was Burton’s speciality.

1. Born Beryl Charnock in Leeds in 1937, she was a sickly child. She suffered from rheumatic fever, which her spend a large amount of time in hospitals and convalescent homes. She had difficulty with her speech and was temporarily paralyzed down one side of her body. All this affected her education and she left school at 15 and went to work. Charnock’s first job as a teenager was in a tailoring firm in Leeds where she noticed a young man make a clicking noise as he walked across the factory floor. It was Charlie Burton and he was wearing cycling shoes with metal cleats on their soles.

She married Charlie when she was 17 and he remained in the background throughout her career as helpmate, mechanic and companion. His family provided Burton with the support that allowed her to continue her racing career after daughter Denise was born in 1955.

2. Starting in 1959, Burton won 25 consecutive Best British All-Rounder titles, awarded to the fastest woman against the clock over 25-, 50- and 100-mile distances. Along the way she set speed records, some in 1976 at the age of 39, at all three distances, which still stand.

3. When she was at the peak of her powers, Burton regularly beat the men. In 1967, she overtook Mike McNamara in an Otley CC 12-hour time trial on her way to setting a women’s record of 277.25 miles. McNamara’s distance of 276.52 miles in the same event was itself a new men’s record. Cycling folklore has it that as she passed McNamara she offered him a stick of liquorice as “the poor dear seemed to be struggling a bit”.

4. Denise herself grew into a powerful cyclist, representing her country at the international level. Relations between mother and daughter became difficult as they emerged as racing rivals in the 1970s. After Denise out-sprinted Burton in the 1975 national road race championship to take the title, her mother refused to shake hands with her on the podium. As Burton explained in her 1986 autobiography, Personal Best, the race was the culmination of a series of acrimonious rows: “this is not a story for some romantic magazine, it is a real life narrative about basically ordinary people with jangled nerves and emotions, our bitter conflict played out in an almost gladiatorial fashion.” In 1982, with Denise, Burton set a British 10-mile record for women riding a tandem: 21 minutes, 25 seconds.

5. Burton won the British Women’s Best All Rounder competition 25 consecutive years from 1959 to 1984. That impressive tally is dwarfed though, by the 122 National Championships won by Burton.

Later in her career Burton rode for Knaresborough CC, and would head up to the North Yorkshire town for celebratory dinners (usually to pick up a trophy or two) and at the end would change from her evening wear into her cycling gear to cycle back to her home in Morley.

Here are the times for the records she set:

10 miles: 21:25 (1973) stood for 20 years;
25 miles: 53:21 (1976) stood for 20 years;
30 miles: 1:08:36 (1981) stood for 10 years;
50 miles: 1:51:30 (1976) stood for 20 years;
100 miles: 3:55:05 (1968) stood for 18 years;
12-hour: 277.25m (1967) still stands.

Racing Is Life

The ABCs of Cycling
By Beryl Burton
Adapted from Ron Kitching’s Everything Cycling Handbook, 1970 edition

A is for ACTIVITIES, of which cycling is the best; what other recreation has such a diversity of interests? Be it touring, club runs, camping, hostelling, time trialing, road or track racing, the bicycle caters for all.
B is for BEARINGS which must be kept adjusted, clean, and lubricated to keep your cycling enjoyable.
C is for CYCLIST – be one and not just an “athlete on wheels”; it’s more fun.
D is for DOPE – the biggest one is the rider who uses it.
E is for EQUIPMENT – choose the type most suited to your needs and pocket; look after it, check it weekly.
F is for FITNESS for which you must train; each one according to his or her own need.
G is for GEARS – clean and lubricate weekly. Be sure to check the cables; it’s too late in the middle of an event.
H is for HYGIENE – both dental and personal are important to a healthy body.
I is for IMMERSION in water, a thing I never do during the racing season; try a shower or rub-down instead.
J is for JOY – the feeling one gets when fit and riding the bicycle.
K is for KEEN and efficient brakes – check the cables and brake pads; your life could depend of them.
L is for LIGHTS – see and be seen; don’t get caught out in the evening without good lights and reflectors.
M is for MUDGUARDS – except for racing, I can see no excuse for subjecting your body and bicycle to wheel spray on wet roads.
N is for NUTRITION – intelligent eating rather than ‘dieting’ is my approach. Eating healthy foods, in the proper amounts relative to your activity level, forms a good nucleus of fitness.
O is for OIL – a must for every free-running machine; don’t forget to lubricate the chain.
P is for POSITION on the bicycle – comfort is my first essential consideration. Handlebars are only one inch lower than the saddle height.
Q is for QUERIES – ask the experienced riders’ views, then adapt to your own requirements.
R is for ROLLERS, which help you beat the fog, smog, and ice of winter evenings.
S is for SHOES, SOCKS & SHORTS, which should be close-fitting, clean, comfortable, and good quality.
T is for TIRES – choose the type and size most suited to your needs and look after them. Check weekly for cuts and ride them at the proper inflation.
U is for the UNSUNG praises of cycling – let everyone know that you are a Cyclist and proud of it!
V is for VICTORY – which should be the aim of every sporting cyclist—work for it—it doesn’t come easy.
W is for WILLPOWER – it keeps you going when you’re hurting—cultivate it.
X is for the eXtra care you must take in your appearance and behavior when on the bicycle. Remember, you are an ambassador for our sport.
Y is for YOUNGSTERS – encourage them to take up cycling.
ZZZ is for the extra sleep you will require if this isn’t going to be wasted effort.

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