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The Greatest, by William Fotheringham

Beryl Burton, champion of the world
Beryl Burton, champion of the world
Don Morley / PA Images / Getty

Title: The Greatest – The Times and Life of Beryl Burton
Author: William Fotheringham
Publisher: YouCaxton
Year: 2019
Pages: 286
Order: YouCaxton
What it is: William Fotheringham’s self-published biography of Beryl Burton, seven-time World Champion
Strengths: It’s a biography of Beryl Burton
Weaknesses: Fotheringham doesn’t half like speaking for people, doesn’t like to give them much opportunity to speak for themselves

The greatest?
The greatest?

“[Burton] did receive recognition for her achievements – she was made an OBE and an MBE, she was honoured by the British sportswriters in 1960 and 1967, and she was given civic receptions in Morley – so it would be inaccurate to say she remained in complete obscurity.”
~ William Fotheringham, The Greatest

Behind every great woman is a man, desperate to be seen to be saving her reputation.

That William Fotheringham should be the man seeking to save Beryl Burton’s reputation is not without irony. But he it is who has assumed the role of the gallant, galumphing in to rescue the damsel in distress from the dungeon of obscurity to which she has been consigned.

Obscurity? Yes, obscurity. This is from the inside front cover of The Greatest, Fotheringham’s self-published biography of Burton:

“Burton was a seven-times world champion and multiple national champion and [her 1967 British 12-hour record] was the greatest feat in her 30-year career. The Otley ‘12’ should have been a groundbreaking moment in women’s sport, but along with the rest of Burton’s achievements, it has slipped into relative obscurity.

“This new biography from best-selling writer William Fotheringham tells Burton’s story in full for the first time, from the brutal illness that left her bedridden as a teenager to her quarter century at the top of women’s cycling in the UK, and her premature death in 1996. It is a unique portrait of a champion who has been cruelly ignored for many years.”

Cruelly ignored. Do I again have to list all the ways in which that is wrong? The OBE and the MBE. The sportswoman of the year awards. The TV appearances, the radio interviews, the newspaper articles, the magazine articles. The autobiography, this biography, the other biography. The radio play, the stage play. The question on Pointless. The race horse. The song. Apparently I do.

As early as 1958, when Burton won all three RTTC national championships in the one year, she was being profiled in Jock Wadley’s Coureur magazine.
As early as 1958, when Burton won all three RTTC national championships in the one year, she was being profiled in Jock Wadley’s Coureur magazine.

How about I also list just some of the books in which Burton has featured over the last decade or so. Cycling Heroes (1994 and 2011). One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers (2011). A Historical Dictionary of British Women (2013). The Long Race to Glory (2013). Racing Hard (2013). Great British Cycling (2014). A Year in the Saddle (2015). Kings of the Road (2015). Ride the Revolution (2015). Break Away (2016). A Ride Through the Greatest Cycling Stories (2017). Chasing the Rainbow (2017). Cycling’s Strangest Tales (2017). The Hardmen (2017). Pedal Power (2017). Queens of Pain (2018).

It’s not just recent books Fotheringham is unaware of. In his 2013 collection of newspaper columns, Racing Hard, he introduced his 1996 Guardian obituary of Burton by claiming that “Beryl Burton was a classic example of a sports star of immense talent who never received the national acclaim she deserved. This [obituary] at least was a step towards redressing the balance.”

Fotheringham at that stage had been the Guardian’s cycling correspondent for several years but had never written about this overlooked champion. You could ask who exactly it was who was overlooking Burton. You’d get quite an ironic answer.

Burton is not the only woman Fotheringham has ridden to the rescue of aboard his white Team Sky issued Pinarello. Early in 2019 he Tweeted that he was off to Belgium to interview Yvonne Reynders, one of Burton’s World Championship rivals, and that his would be the first proper English interview with the Belgian champion.

This was just months after Isabel Best’s Queens of Pain had appeared, not just with Reynders as one of Best’s interviewees, but also as one of the book’s cover stars. Best’s book, in fact, featured several of Burton’s other contemporaries, including Millie Robinson, Lubow Kotchetova, Elsy Jacobs, Keetie Hage, and Audrey McElmury. Rivals Fotheringham doesn’t find the time, space, or interest to say much about about in The Greatest.

Fotheringham’s ‘proper’ interview with Reynders? Here’s the full extent of what he quotes her saying:

Of her rivalry with Burton: “She was the strongest I faced. It was either me or her. One then the other. But I never really got to know her well.”

Of the 1961 pursuit final: “Afterwards, our manager Oscar Daemers told me it was the only time he had seen a pursuit won by a rider ‘throwing’ their bike across the line, like a sprinter.”

Of beating Burton in road races: “Races are won with the head as well as the legs”.

Of her return from retirement for the 1976 World Championships where Burton’s daughter Denise was riding: “I couldn’t believe it. There was another Burton there!”

Not even a hundred words. That’s a ‘proper’ interview.

Isle of Man, 1961: Yvonne Reynders celebrates winning the individual pursuit rainbow jersey, with Burton second and Marie-Thérèse Naessens third.
Isle of Man, 1961: Yvonne Reynders celebrates winning the individual pursuit rainbow jersey, with Burton second and Marie-Thérèse Naessens third. For the five of the six years between 1961 and 1966 Burton and Reynders traded places on the top two steps of the podium.

Fotheringham, he does like to speak for people, summarise what they said rather than repeat what they said. That his summaries are often little different from what the person said is neither her nor there. Fotheringham’s voice is what matters. And his summaries are often stunningly similar to what others have said. A large chunk of The Greatest simply sees Fotheringham unimaginatively hepeating large chunks of Personal Best, with padding added.

That padding, sometimes he really shouldn’t have bothered. Here he is mansplaining the roots of women’s racing: “women had begun to race bikes back in the 19th century. In those pioneering years there were women’s races, but it is hard to tell whether they were bona fide competitions, or – more likely – attempts by promoters to draw crowds to novelty events in which male spectators might feast on a glimpse or two of female leg.”

Take that Tillie Anderson, Lizzie Glaw, Helen Baldwin, Dottie Farnsworth, and May Allen. Take that Mlle de Saint-Sauveur, René Debatz, Hélène Dutrieu. Take that Amélie le Gall and Louise Roger. Take that Louise Armaindo. None of your achievements matter a damn, you were just eye candy for creepy men to perv over. The velodromes you raced in were simply the OnlyFans of their day.

Fotheringham’s failure to write much about Burton’s rivals matters. He tells us that Burton’s international career – which he lists as running from 1959 to 1976 when it actually ended in 1974 – remains one of the longest in cycling history. Reynders, she won her first World Championship medal in 1959 and her last in 1976 – an international career longer than Burton’s albeit with a time out of several years.

Burton, Fotheringham goes on to tell us, is among the most prolific women’s medal winners at World Championships, and this is true. But who the other prolific winners are is worth considering, given Burton and Reynders each won seven rainbow jerseys. The Briton edges her Belgian rival with eight silver or bronze medals, compared to Reynders’ tally of six. But Keetie Hage, while she only won six rainbow jerseys, she brought home a dozen other World Championship medals between 1966 and 1979.

When you’re claiming that the subject of your book hasn’t received due attention, it’s not a good look to disregard the achievements of her peers. Without that knowledge, the reader might get the wrong impression of just how far ahead of her international rivals Burton really was. But maybe that’s the intention.

Liège, 1963: Burton on the way to retaining her IP rainbow jersey.
Liège, 1963: Burton on the way to retaining her IP rainbow jersey.
S&G / PA Images / Getty

The whole point of biography is that it can go further than autobiography, it can open up the picture. You have the opportunity to show the subject from a distance, you have the opportunity to add insight. What insight does Fotheringham have to offer? Well, he’s of the opinion that Burton’s childhood illness is important: “it is highly likely that there were lasting consequences from this lengthy separation from her family at such a difficult time”.

Highly likely? What do you think clued him in to that, could it have been Burton’s many references to the psychological scar of her illness throughout Personal Best, recalling it even as late as 1983 when she picked up her 25th RTTC Best All Rounder title?

Fotheringham also reads meaning into Burton’s tendency to tell male rivals to try harder as she passed them in time trials: “a counsellor or psychologist might have asked her, ‘Which man in your past told you that you were not trying hard enough?’ Someone is bound to have said this, most likely a teacher or a male relative, quite possibly around the time she took her 11-plus. She probably felt driven to keep exorcising those words until the end of her days.”

Fotheringham’s most important psychoanalytic diagnosis, however, is that Burton was a control freak: “[Time trialling] must have been addictive for a control freak such as Burton”, he tells us in one of several passages in which he deploys that phrase. It’s not a phrase I have seen used to describe male cyclists who have similar attributes to Burton. They’ve usually got laser-sharp focus. They’re usually committed, or driven, or single minded.

When the monkey spanker Steve Peters provided British Cycling one of its better remembered mantras, control the controllables, I don’t recall he or any of the BC cyclists being described as control freaks. But Burton, controlling the controllables a good half century before Dave Brailsford and co invented the concept, she does. Why, you might well ask.

Savoy Hotel, London, 1967: Burton with Henry Cooper
Savoy Hotel, London, 1967: Burton with Henry Cooper and the trophy she won for being the Daily Express Sportswoman of the Year.
Ron Case / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty

You might also ask why Fotheringham decided to write Burton’s biography in the first place, so much of it feels like he’s just going through the motions, doing the least expected of such a book. If Yorkshire hadn’t hosted the World Championships in 2019 perhaps he wouldn’t have bothered.

The sub-title – The Times and Life of Beryl Burton – suggests the reader will get to see Burton’s achievements in context. But Fotheringham doesn’t talk much about Burton’s rivals on the bike, at home or abroad (seriously, go read Queens of Pain for more on her international rivals). Off the bike, all you learn of Burton’s world is a single paragraph telling you her era ran the gamut from the Mini to Blackadder; covered the careers of Tom Simpson, Brian Robinson, and Barry Hoban as well as Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Sid Vicious; and encompassed six British prime ministers. Eddy Merckx came, Eddy Merckx went, and Burton pedalled on. And on and on and on.

Rather than the broad portrait, The Times and Life of Beryl Burton actually means the narrowest possible portrait, with each chapter introduced by a time in some race somewhere, from the 33 minutes (approximately) taken to complete her first 10 in 1954 to the 11 hours 59 minutes 15 seconds it took her to complete the legendary Otley 12-hour.

That Otley 12-hour, it couldn’t have been all about that could it, all about a liquorice allsort? Fotheringham gets Burton’s seven rainbow jerseys out of the way promptly but he gives the sweet a whole chapter. “The liquorice allsort represents the high point of Burton’s career”, he tells us, comparing it to the bottle passed between Coppi and Bartali during the 1949 Tour and Tom Simpson’s final words on Mont Ventoux in 1967. (Fotheringham has written biographies of Coppi and Simpson.)

Like each of those stories – there are multiple pictures of Coppi and Bartali passing a bottle from one to the other and Simpson’s final words are a tabloid invention – according to Fotheringham the sweet story isn’t all it seems. Burton’s autobiography recalls it being one of those swiss-roll shaped ones, white with a coating of black liquorice, plucked from the pocket of her jersey. But, based on the hours Fotheringham spent in the British Library flicking through back issues of the Comic, we get to learn in The Greatest that it was actually the sort with the coconut around the liquorice, taken from a bag on her handlebars.

I don’t know about you, but I doubt I will ever think of Beryl Burton the same after reading that.

The Greatest – The Times and Life of Beryl Burton, by William Fotheringham
The Greatest – The Times and Life of Beryl Burton, by William Fotheringham