It is the sheer length of her roll of honour that first attracts the curious, the nearly 100 national titles, the world titles, the records which stand nearly half a century down the road. Meet Beryl Burton, the best sportsman or woman you should have heard of but probably haven’t.
In cycling, especially around the Yorkshire roads where the Tour de France starts this weekend, Burton’s deeds remain legend. Like the time she overtook Mike McNamara, himself en route to setting a men’s record, and took pity on him for being passed by a woman. She reached into her back pocket and offered him a consolatory liquorice. “Ta, love,” said McNamara and started chewing as Burton disappeared into the distance. Yet outside her sport she has remained in the shadows.
It is a status restricted by the attitudes of her day; women’s cycling was only introduced in the Olympics when she was 47 (and still riding). Burton died 18 years ago, collapsing while out riding at the age of 58. Now, posthumously, she is receiving the attention merited in her lifetime.
Beryl, a play written by Maxine Peake, opened last night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds as part of a series of events connected to the Tour de France’s visit. Peake stumbled across Burton’s story when her boyfriend, knowing her interest in strong female characters, gave her a copy of Burton’s autobiography. That led to Peake writing a play for Radio Four and then, given its success, deciding to re-write it and take it to the stage.
“There are scenes where I got a lump in my throat,” says Denise Burton-Cole, Beryl’s daughter. “My mum deserved to have something written about her because of what she achieved. Nobody had really brought Beryl Burton up as a person since she died, so to suddenly get this out of the blue it was ‘wow, that’s great’.”
Burton’s story was a script waiting to be written; a childhood illness that kept her off school for two years and helped plant a desire that she would become the best at what she wanted to be, meeting her husband Charlie, a keen cyclist, while working at a clothing factory in Leeds and being persuaded to get on her bike – and then leaving everyone trailing in her wake for a quarter of a century.
“She wanted to be the best – if she wasn’t the best one time she had to be the best next time,” says Burton-Cole. “But she did love cycling. It wasn’t just the glory of it. She liked everything to be the best, the cleanest, the smartest, have the best garden. She was quite ill as a child and was told she wouldn’t be able to do all sorts and I just think she wanted to prove them wrong.”
Her longevity is astonishing – she was the best all-rounder in women’s cycling in this country for 25 successive years – as is the longevity of the records she set. Burton still holds the 12-hour mark of 277.25 miles, set in 1967 and at the time better than the men’s.
“As I got older I realised our household was very different to everybody else’s,” admits Burton-Cole. “We didn’t have a television, we didn’t have a telephone. Our whole life was geared around cycling.”
It was inevitable her daughter would follow her into the sport and they rode together for Great Britain , as well as against each other. In the 1973 national road championships Beryl beat Denise. Three years later the result was reversed and Beryl declined to shake her daughter’s hand on the podium.
“I was just another person to her, another name on the start sheet. I wouldn’t say we had a very close relationship, not like I have with my daughter or son. There wasn’t a lot of things spoken at home unless you had to.”
Burton won her last national title in 1986 but went on cycling, still supported by Charlie, who had faithfully guided her through her career. She was advised to ease up but Burton, ever the individualist and ever the proud Yorkshire woman, was not for advising.
“You could try telling my mum stuff,” says Denise. “Occasionally she would take notice, but if she didn’t think it was a good idea she would do her own thing. My mother was her own boss.”
‘Beryl’ is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 19 July, www.wyp.org.uk