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,

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Fans take a selfie with Ed Miliband in Kempston, near Bedford, on Tuesday
election 2015
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power