Tour de France 2014: Yorkshire arrival puts ‘unknown’ cycling legend Beryl Burton up in lights at last

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

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’.”

British cyclist Beryl Burton with her daughter Denise in 1963

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

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn