Beryl Burton: Obituary

Tim Clifford
Tuesday 07 May 1996 00:02 BST

No other British sportswoman has dominated their field in the way that Beryl Burton dominated the world of cycling. As Velo Gotha, the Belgian-published bible of cycling facts and figures succinctly puts it: "She was the best known and most successful woman cyclist."

In the course of a career that spanned five decades, the fiercely competitive Yorkshirewoman 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.

Although she won her last titles in 1986 and in recent years was dogged by ill-health, she was entered to ride the national "10" mile championship next weekend. Some habits are hard to break. Time trialling, racing against the clock over a set distance, was Burton's speciality. It is a solitary discipline, both mentally and physically taxing. Starting in 1959, Burton won 25 consecutive Best British All-Rounder titles, awarded to the fastest woman against the watch 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.

Cycling, at least in Britain, is not a rich sport, and Burton worked throughout her life in order to support her ambitions. Asked in the 1980s why she continued to ride prodigious distances every week and race against women half her age, Burton bluntly replied "because I like cycling". She was a true amateur in that respect, loyally riding throughout her career for Morley CC.

Burton supervised her own training, rode the races she wanted and had little to do with the sport's governing bodies. But her achievements were impossible to ignore and she was awarded an MBE in 1964 and an OBE in 1968. Despite such recognition Burton never felt that either the local or national press properly appreciated her efforts.

She may have had a point since, when she was at the peak of her powers, she 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 in the set time. McNamara's distance of 276.52 miles in the same event was itself a new men's record.

When Burton overtook men during a race, they could always expect a quickfire witticism or word of encouragment. When she overtook McNamara she nonchalantly offered him a liquorice allsort.

The next year, in 1968, she set a women's 100-mile record in a time of three hours and 55 minutes. It was the fourth fastest ride over that distance in Britain by any rider of the time. Such feats in another, more popular sport would have earned Burton world-wide recognition.

Burton's involvement with the sport that dominated her life came about by chance. Her 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. This 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 backgrond 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.

Denise herself grew into a powerful cyclist, representing her country at international level. Relations between mother and daughter became difficult as they emerged as racing rivals in the 1970s. After Denise ousprinted 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 autobiograhy, 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.

An emotional reconciliation followed, though the two women were never bound together by their love of the sport in the way that Burton had wanted.

Beryl Charnock, cyclist: born Leeds 12 May 1937; MBE 1964; OBE 1968; married 1954 Charlie Burton (one daughter); died Harrogate 5 May 1996.

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