beryl. in search of britain's greatest athlete. jeremy wilson. pursuit books hardback. 338pp illus. £20

beryl - jeremy wilson

britain has lauded its upper echelon of cyclists in many different ways, through magazine articles, documentaries and a number of published biographies. though cycling often seems to include the more erudite of sportsmen and women, capable of speaking many different languages, not all are able, or willing to complete an autobiography unassisted, often engaging the services of a more accomplished author to undertake what can be a lengthy task, depending on the breadth of their palmares. however, one facet appears common across all modern threads of publishing; the subject of the majority tends to be male.

mark cavendish, bradley wiggins, charlie wegelius, steve cummings, brian robinson; all have been immortalised in print, yet britain's top female protagonists are often conspicuous by their absence. it would be easy to point the finger and bemoan this glaring lack in what is supposed to be a country of equality, but modern economics dictate a degree of perspicacity when it comes to the world of publishing. it's a brave publisher who will commission an author to write on a subject that promises few sales. this is not to disparage britain's professional female cyclists, simply the realisation that we have few riding at international level, and even fewer who would be recognisable to a reading public. lizzie deignan may well have won last year's women's paris-roubaix, but there's little doubt that it's still the male side of the sport that holds even the cycling public's imagination. that, however, is a situation in the process of changing for the better.

and it's a situation that can be viewed as somewhat ironic, when probably the best of all britain's sporting cyclists still remains a secret hidden in plain sight: beryl burton.

beryl remained an amateur throughout her long career, though it has to be admitted that turning professional in those days, for a woman at least, was certainly not what it means today. (however, remaining amateur was beryl's specific choice). it does, however, seem unusual that this nonetheless excellent book by jeremy wilson, is published a mere three years after the greatest- the times and life of beryl burton by will fotheringham. perhaps beryl burton's place in the sun has indeed truly arrived.

burton was, as are many ultra-competitive sportspeople, an enigma, driven beyond personal limits that the majority of us live comfortably within. she was born as beryl charnock in 1937 in a working-class district to the east of leeds, circumstances that the author later considers to be responsible for her stubbornness and work ethic, (captioning a photograph of a young beryl as "Fierce determination and a head of curls were lifelong charateristics."

"Times were tough and so was Beryl-she had to be..." growing up, she and her siblings would play in streets often disfigured by luftwaffe bombing raids. when at school, privations meant that school dinners were not available to every child; beryl and her sister maureen would thus run the mile distance home every lunchtime. her affection for swimming also entailed a three mile walk to the nearest swimming pool. in these early years, it's possible to see the development of the determined character she would eventually become. childhood friends said that she would often "...spend hours in front of a wall with an old tennis ball. She would set herself targets. Ten catches off the the wall. Then twenty. Next, twenty-five..."

she did, however experience subsequent serious illness following the sitting of the eleven-plus exam that all pupils were required to sit at age ten, when she collapsed, having developed a high fever, diagnosed as sydenham's chorea and rheumatic fever. as a result, she missed two full years of schooling, recommencing her education at stainbeck high school, and apparently prone to reporting noisy classmates to the teacher. "She was a loner".

the author expands on these circumstances citing a growing body of academic research that "...draws a correlation between childhood trauma and exceptional achievement." this is achievement to which we have already been introduced in the opening chapter, where jeremy wilson begins his biography of beryl burton with one of her many notable exploits, one which took place on sunday 17 september 1967. the event was an attempt to cycle as far as possible within a twelve-hour period, only one item in a year that had seen her regain the women's world road race championship, and "...swept the board domestically in the various British national championships."

events such as this twelve-hour challenge took place against the background of official distaste for massed start racing on british roads, thus time-trials such as this one, took place on coded courses to maintain some level of secrecy (the course under question was denoted as v181'). in an event featuring both male and female riders on the same course, the top seeded rider and last man to start, was mike mcnamara. beryl started two minutes after mcnamara. now married to charlie burton and with an eleven year-old daughter, (denise), after riding for over ten hours, burton caught and passed mcnamara, famously offering him a liquorice allsort in the process.

she completed her twelve hour stint on the bicycle having covered 277.25 miles, not only setting a new women's record, but beating the men's record by almost threequarters of a mile. it's a women's record that stood for fifty years.

as mentioned above, burton remained an amateur throughout her career, combining her life as a dedicated housewife, with daily work at nim carline's rhubarb plantation, work that she often attributed to providing strong core muscles. carline was also a top cycle racer, who was happy to allow burton all the time off she needed to train or race.

the author has conducted hours of research into his subject, interviewing burton's husband, charlie, who selflessly subsumed his own cycling career in favour of supporting his wife at every opportunity, along with daughter denise, with whom it seems burton had a love/hate relationship when her teenage daughter began competing alongside her mother. "Beryl's bluntness was also apparent when she was asked how she felt if Denise won a race. 'I don't get all excited if she's done something and I've already done it,' she said."

in the 1976 women's road race, denise burton outsprinted her mother to win.

beryl burton died on sunday 5 may 1996, while delivering invitations to her fifty-ninth birthday. the post mortem revealed evidence of heart-disease and chronic anaemia. it is indicative of her standing in the world of international cycling when eddy merckx said that the "amazing, totally incredible Beryl was the boss of all of us." yet it's worth pointing out that the author expresses a sentiment in his 'prologue', that could have come from any one of us;"Why didn't I know her?"

unlike beryl's 1986 autobiography, 'personal best', this book by jeremy wilson, chief sports reporter for the daily telegraph, is an enervating read from start to finish and one that can but bring the exploits of britains finest ever cyclist to a wider cycling public. you simply cannot describe yourself as a roadie if you are ignorant of the women's substantial palmares. and in relation to that palmares, the author has devoted a chapter to contemporary wind-tunnel research hoping to determine how successful burton may have been had she been riding in the modern era. conducted by renowned aerodynamic expert, xavier disley in a wind-tunnel at silverstone, it's intriguing to read how her records might compare if she'd had access to the state-of-the-art technology that prevails today.

the book also highlights what might be regarded as her failings as a person, wife and mother, undoubtedly the result of her lifelong obsession with pushing herself just those few miles further, again and again. there are comparisons to be made, i believe, with graeme obree, who exhibited similar obsessions during his career, unable to enjoy what he'd achieved because he was already looking ahead to whatever came next. beryl also appears to have judged her self-worth not on past victories, but on whatever the next race might bring.

the author has produced a well reasoned, well written and addictive read, while revealing many of the contradictory facets that made beryl burton the incredible athlete she surely was.


wednesday 6 july 2022

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