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Beryl Burton:
The Coelacanth of Cycling

By Owen Mulholland

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James Witherell's book Bicycle History: A Chronological Cycling History of People, Races and Technology is available in both print and Kindle eBook versions. Just click on the Amazon link on the right.

Owen Mulholland writes:

Remember the Coelacanth, the lobe-finned fish caught in 1938 after 90 million years of supposed extinction? I felt something of the same surprise when I spoke to a colleague who had reported on the Spenco 500-mile race in Waco, Texas last October [1985]. It was amazing enough to hear the list of European pros who had been enticed by the dollar-heavy prize list, but I was blown away when the name of Beryl Burton was mentioned.

"Beryl Burton?" I exclaimed. "I thought she'd given up international competition in 1974?" Joop Zoetemelk, whose recent victory in the world professional road championship at age 38 forced a redefinition of the tern, "living fossil", could almost be Beryl Burton's child. "How old is Beryl?" I asked, fearful to hear the answer.

"48," my friend sighed.

"48, " I repeated, drifting off in shock and memories. "Let's see, that makes 31 years of active competition, and here she is, still searching for new fields of conquest."

She comes from Yorkshire in the north of England where a disproportionate number of that country's most famous cyclists have come from. Beryl still works for her friend, Nim Carline, tossing bushel boxes of beets on his farm in the off-season. Nim specializes in 24-hour events. So perhaps her longevity is surprising only to us wimps who somehow see age 48 as on the downside of one's physical development.

Beryl Burton setting out on a time trial in Wetherby, West Yorkshire. Brian Townsley photo

Beryl is to the women's world of cycling as Eddy Merckx is to the men's. She continues to set standards that are difficult to imagine ever being surpassed. The bedrock of her fame resides in the British world of time trialing. Until the fifties this was the only kind of racing permitted there, and not unnaturally it became highly developed. The supreme accolade is to win the BBAR (British Best All-Rounder), which for women is the rider with the highest average speed of distances of 25, 50 and 100 miles.

She has won this title every year since 1958! Along the way she has established records at each distance. She was, for example, the first woman to ride 25 miles in less than one hour. But to Ms. Burton 25 miles is the low end of things. Her best 100-mile time, set on a day when she beat all the men, is 3hr 55min 5sec. She did that ride in 1968. Incidentally, the second woman finished 23 minutes behind.

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But my favorite Beryl Burton epic came the year before, in 1967. Although not counted in the women's BBAR, the men have to ride a 12-hour time trial for their BBAR. In 1967 another tough Yorkshire rider of the same vintage as Beryl, Mike McNamara, was on the verge of taking the men's BBAR. "All" he had to do was a 12-hour ride over 270 miles.

As the BBAR leader he started last, a position considered to be advantageous since helpers can keep him informed abut the progress of the competition. Being a sort of special guest, Beryl started a minute after Mike. Mike feared being caught so he set off at a record pace. His fears were justified. For hour after hour Beryl dangled 30 to 50 seconds behind. In the tenth hour, still comfortably turning her 62 x 13, she cruised up to "Mac", and greeted him with an offer of some licorice.

Mike set a new men's record of 276.8 miles, and got his BBAR, but there was a little cloud over his accomplishment. Beryl did 277.2 miles, establishing the absolute record.

The same high torque style took Beryl to seven world championship victories, five in the track pursuit event and two on the road. That she could adapt to the track so readily after a season of time trialing on windmill chainrings shows her remarkable versatility.

But she was the first to admit her lack of an explosive jump handicapped her in massed start events. Her numerous wins have all come the same way: a hill to break the legs of the wheelsuckers and an extra effort to get clear. Once on her own no field could chase her down.

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Two defeats stand out in Beryl's career. Having established the 12-hour record in 1967, and women's 100-mile in 1968, Beryl took aim at the 24-hour record late in the latter season. At the time no one had broken 500 miles, so naturally she set that as her goal.

She started like the proverbial rocket, gaining mile after mile on former champions, Nim Carline and Eric Matthews, and another hot favorite, Roy Cromack. They all agreed that if Beryl could keep up her pace her victory was assured. Such a tempo was beyond their capabilities.

The magnificent recital lasted for 345 miles, at which point she was 23 minutes up on second place Cromack. Roy, in turn, was on a record pace destined to take him across the magic 500-mile barrier. At this point Beryl's private fears began to be realized and the knee which had troubled her during training gave way.

Beryl's second defeat was entirely different. By 1972 her daughter, Denise, was 16 and good enough to be on the British team for the world championships alongside "mum". Have there ever been a mother and daughter simultaneously competitive at top  levels in any sport?

The "honeymoon" lasted a couple of years until the British Women's Road Championship. As usual, Beryl went to the front and fried the hopes of the opposition. All except one. Every time she looked back after a 30 mph burst there was Denise. Came the finish line and Burton jr. had the temerity to sprint by Burton sr. for the victory.

The difficulty reconciling family ties with personal ambition strained the Burton household for some time. A few years later Denise married and retired from the sport.

Even now there is no end in sight for Beryl. Her forays in massed and track events are relatively few, but every Sunday morning she can be found answering the call to the line, and at the finish the Burton margin is still there.

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This story about the great Beryl Burton was written in 1985. Sadly, Ms Burton died in shortly before her 59th birthday in 1996. By the time she passed away Burton had been the women’s world road race champion in 1960 and 1967, she was second in 1961. On the track she was world champion five times, in 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1966. Additionally, she earned silver-medals three times, in 1961, 1964 and 1968 and bronze medals three times as well: 1967, 1970 and 1973. Her British cycling titles are too numerous to list. She was Women's BBAR for 25 consecutive years, winning 72 British national individual time trial titles. Among her many honors, she was made a Officer of the British Empire in 1968 and is in the British Cycling Hall of Fame.