Women's Sport Pioneers: Cyclist Beryl Burton

By Anna ThompsonBBC Sport
Beryl Burton: Britain's greatest female cyclist?

BBC Sport is paying tribute to pioneering women in sport in the run up to International Women's Day on 8 March. In the first of the series we look at Beryl Burton, arguably Britain's greatest female cyclist.

The hour record is considered one of cycling's greatest challenges as riders push themselves physically and mentally to the limit.

On Saturday, Dame Sarah Storey's lung-busting efforts at the Lee Valley Velodrome were not enough to better Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel's women's mark of 46.065km set in 2003.

And there is another record, set almost 50 years ago which is still standing today - the women's 12-hour record - and it was made by Yorkshire housewife Beryl Burton.

On 17 September 1967, at the UK National Time Trial, the 30-year-old rode 277.25 miles in 12 hours along roads and country lanes of Yorkshire. That's a staggering 23 miles an hour, or 37.18 kph if you prefer the continental measurement.

What is even more remarkable is that she beat the men's world record that day, overtaking all 99 men and offering men's champion Mike McNamara a Liquorice Allsort as an energy booster as she did so.

It took a man another two years to better her mark.

Beryl Burton's records
10 miles: 21 mins, 25 seconds - set in 1973 - broken in 1993
25 miles: 53:21 - set in 1976 - broken in 1996
30 miles: 1:08:36 - set in 1981 - broken in 1991
50 miles: 1:51:30 - set in 1976 - broken in 1996
100 miles: 3:55:05 - set in 1968 - broken in 1986
12 hour: 277.25 miles - set in 1967 - still stands

Her daughter Denise Burton-Cole takes up the story: "The women had set off two minutes behind the men but my mum eventually caught up the men's champion, Mike McNamara.

"She was a little bit embarrassed she caught him because it was unheard of really.

"So, as she was going by, she had some sweeties in her pocket and offered Mike a Liquorice Allsort and he said: 'Yeah, ta love' and off she went.

"To think she went on and held the men's record, it still gives me goosebumps."

Her training regime was simple: build up core strength from the hard manual labour of working on a rhubarb farm and spend hours in the saddle, cycling up and down the Yorkshire Dales, clocking up to 600 miles a week.

And Burton-Cole questions whether a woman will ever improve on her mum's record.

"It is an outstanding record that is still there today. It took a lot of training so I wonder if it will ever get beaten."

Burton turned down numerous offers to turn professional and remained an amateur throughout her career, equally at home on the road or on the track, although time trials were her speciality.

Her cycling achievements were phenomenal - seven world titles, 96 national titles and the best British all-rounder for 25 consecutive years to stake her claim as the greatest British female cyclist of all time.

Beryl and Denise Burton
Beryl Burton and her daughter Denise in March 1963. They would later compete against each other

Sadly she was denied the opportunity to crown her career with an Olympic medal as women's cycling was only admitted into the Games in 1984, by which time Burton was 47.

In 1967 she was having what legendary cycling commentator Phil Liggett called "a stellar year". "It was probably the fittest and best year of her life," he tells BBC World Service's Sporting Witness.

Her 12-hour record had come off the back of winning her final world title - the road race a few weeks before. That year, she finished second in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year to boxer Henry Cooper, and in 1968 was awarded on OBE.

"It was a coveted record," Liggett adds, "had it been any other sport other than cycling, say it being a football icon scoring three goals against Brazil, it would have been front-page news.

"It almost slipped under the doormat, apart from the cycling magazines who knew the enormity of what she'd done.

"And as far as I know, it has never been done anywhere in the world either, where a woman has got up and beaten a man's record in the sport."

Burton could not have done it without the support of her husband Charlie - he had introduced her to the sport at Morley Cycling Club and became her race mechanic, chauffeur and childminder to their daughter.

And it was inevitable Burton-Cole would forge a career in cycling too. "I was born into cycling, literally," she says. "If I didn't go on my bike, I didn't go anywhere because they didn't take me in the car."

Mum and daughter raced against each other on a number of occasions and at the 1975 National Championships, Denise outsprinted Beryl to claim her first national road title. On the podium her mum broke cycling etiquette by refusing to shake her hand.

"I don't think she knew why she did it," said Burton-Cole. "If she was alive today, I don't think she'd know. She desperately wanted to win and I beat her and she took it very hard."

Beryl Burton's achievements
UCI Road World Championships
Gold: 1960, 1967
Silver: 1961
UCI Track Cycling World Championships - individual pursuit
Gold: 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1966
Silver: 1961, 1964, 1968
Bronze: 1967, 1971
96 National titles and best British all-rounder for 25 consecutive years

Although fiercely competitive, there was no doubt Beryl was proud of her only child's achievements. Burton-Cole won a bronze medal in the individual pursuit at the 1975 World Championships and when she returned home "mum had bought me some bronze presents, which was a nice touch", she remembers.

Burton's achievements were all the more astonishing after she suffered rheumatic fever as a child and was told not to exert herself physically.

She lived life in the saddle and sadly died on her bike in 1996, while out delivering party invites for what would have been her 59th birthday. Her heart gave way.

"She had an illness as a child which affected her (she had a very slow resting heartbeat) and it left a scar on her heart. At that point it must have decided that it had enough, I'm afraid. She never stopped pushing herself. It was very sad," says Burton-Cole.

There are many who believe Beryl was never given the national recognition she fully deserved but there has been a recent resurgence of interest - thanks in no small part to actor Maxine Peake.

Beryl Burton taking the bronze medal in the 3,000 metres pursuit during the World Cycling Championships in Leicester, 1970
Beryl Burton finished second to Sir Henry Cooper in the 1967 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award

The star of The Village and Silk was given Beryl's autobiography Personal Best by her boyfriend, art director Pawlo Wintoniuk, and was amazed at the story.

"Why didn't I know about her? If she was a man, everybody would know about her," Peake says.

Peake wrote a Radio 4 play, which was transferred to the stage and shown during the Tour de France Grand Depart celebrations in Leeds last summer.

And it was so well received, 'Beryl' will have another run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this summer - as well as going out on the road.

"We are thrilled as it's an outstanding play and it's great that more people will see it," says Burton-Cole.

During her lifetime, Burton never displayed her extensive trophy collection and kept her bikes in the basement of her house in Harrogate.

So with the play and also being posthumously awarded the Freedom of the City of Leeds in 2014, what does her daughter think Burton would have made of it all?

"She was very humble and didn't boast or brag. But she would be pleased, honoured and proud - and she well deserves it."