LONDON (Reuters) – One September day in the Yorkshire Dales back in 1967, a handful of women riders set out behind 99 men to compete in a 12-hour time trial organised by Otley Cycling Club.
One of them happened to be Beryl Burton, who many still regard as Britain’s greatest female cyclist, and what transpired throughout that long day helped explode the myth that women lacked the aerobic endurance to challenge men.
Picking off male riders as if she was shelling peas, the relentless 30-year-old clocked up 277.25 miles — not just setting a British women’s record that lasted 50 years, but a men’s one too.
With two hours remaining Burton, whose husband Charlie spent the day delivering snacks including a nip of brandy from his support car, caught and passed leading male rider Mike McNamara (who had started two minutes ahead of her).
In one of British sport’s best-loved anecdotes, Burton is reputed to have glanced across at the struggling McNamara, who incidentally broke the men’s record by completing 276.52 miles, and offered a consolatory Liquorice Allsort.
It was not the first time Burton, born near Leeds, in 1937, humbled the men.
A year earlier she won the British 100-mile championships in a time that was 38 seconds quicker than the men’s champion from a week earlier on exactly the same course.
In a TV documentary in 1986, one young male rider remarked: “You only ever see one view of her and that’s a rear view. She goes by.”
Burton was introduced to cycling by Charlie, who she married in 1955. “She was handy but not that competent, slowly she got better,” he said of her early days on two wheels.
In 1957 she was second in the national 100-mile time trial championships — the first medal in a collection that eventually could have filled a small house.
From the age of 19 to 39 she won 96 national titles, the women’s road world title in 1960 and 1967 and the world individual pursuit track title in 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1966. In 1963 she became the first woman to break the hour barrier for the 25-mile time trial.
Burton won Britain’s best all-rounder time trial competition (25, 50 and 100 miles) 25 years in succession.
Never one to court publicity, the lack of attention paid to women’s cycling at the time still grated.
“It might as well have been the ladies’ darts final down at the local as far as Britain was concerned,” she said after her world title ride in Leipzig in 1960.
Sadly for Burton, women’s cycling did not enter the Olympics until 1984 and it was another decade before a women’s TT was included in the world championships. Who knows how much else the humble housewife from Yorkshire, who never received a penny in sponsorship, would have achieved?
British Cycling president Bob Howden says Burton’s record of beating men could qualify her as the world’s greatest athlete.
Growing up nearby in Wakefield, he competed against her and says she is the reason he entered the sport.
“I was a spotty 13-year-old and was riding home from football one day and got caught by Beryl coming home, complete with saddlebag and everything,” he told Reuters.
“I instantly recognised her as she was world champion. I couldn’t resist jumping past her but she just clawed me back and left me. We carried on like that for a few miles and eventually she said ‘if you think you’re that bloody good join a cycling club’. And I did. That’s why I am where I am now I guess.”
Burton’s childhood was beset by ill health and she spent nine months in hospital after a bout of rheumatic fever when aged 11. Years spent picking rhubarb in Britain’s so called ‘rhubarb triangle’ helped built her legendary endurance.
Burton passed on her love of cycling to her daughter Denise and they even raced against each other.
Nothing perhaps illustrates her fierce competitiveness than the 1976 nation road championships when Denise, then 20, beat her mum, who could not bring herself to congratulate her.
She rode a bike to the end, literally.
In 1996, while out on her bike delivering invites for her 59th birthday, she suffered a heart attack and died.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)