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

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
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

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £145 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing...

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?