Personal Best, Beryl Burton (1986)
The matter-of-fact autobiography of arguably Britain’s greatest ever sportswoman
Springfield Books 0 947655 12 3 Octo 182pp
Such was Beryl Burton’s cycling prowess that for many years her records gave a rather unusual impression of cycling. It appeared that this was a sport in which women could not only compete against men, but beat them. She won the Best British All Rounder title 25 years in succession and took seven world titles. And for two years her 12 hour record stood at a greater distance than the mens’ record.
Although in her early career she excelled at all disciplines – she took world titles in the road race and individual pursuit – it was time trialling to which she really devoted herself. Her immersion into this peculiarly British culture, with its early morning starts and secretive sounding numbered courses, is a thing of a bygone age.
Indeed, the most remarkable elements of her story are the weird juxtapositions of her competitive career, and her home life as a working class Leeds lass. In 1962, for example, she reveals that she was living in a council flat in Morley and working for the GPO, which made her take unpaid leave from work to travel the world to defend her titles.
At times the book does become a bit of a list of results, but when she devotes more time to actually writing about cycling, he account becomes electrifying. Nowhere is this more so than the chapter she devotes to the 1967 Otley ’12 hour’. In this Mike McNamara set a new world record distance, but was famously overtaken by Burton, who set off behind him. Here she is, recounting possibly the most famous moment in British time trialling.
“Mac raised his head slightly and looked at me. Goodness knows what was going on in his mind, but I thought some gesture was required on my part. I was carrying a bad of liquorice allsorts in the pocket of my jersey and on impulse I groped into the bag and pulled on out. I can still remember that it was one of those Swiss-roll shaped ones with a white coating of black liquorice. “liquorice allsort Mac? I shouted and held it toward him. He gave a wan smile. Ta love. .. I put my head down and drove away”.
Burton ended the event having ridden 272.25 miles – 0.73 miles ahead of McNamara.
No less remarkable, Burton continued to race until she died of a heart attack, while riding her bike at the age of 59. She even competed against her daughter Denise for many years, and both of them represented Britain in the 1972 world championships.
The book is rather drier than the subject deserves. Perhaps a biography, if written today would not be a sales sensation. It would be worthwhile, nonetheless, for someone to do her justice while most of the characters in this tale – if not its star – are still with us.
PS July 09
A recent republication means that this hard-to-find title is significantly more accessible that was the case.