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Beryl, by Jeremy Wilson

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

Title: Beryl – In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete
Author: Jeremy Wilson
Publisher: Pursuit
Year: 2022
Pages: 338
Order: Profile
What it is: Another biography of Beryl Burton, seven-time World Champion
Strengths: Wilson seeks to find what drove Burton, to understand the woman behind the records
Weaknesses: Wilson frees Burton from the imagined dungeon of obscurity to which we are all supposed to believe she was consigned only to imprison her on the pedestal of Britain’s greatest athlete

Britain’s greatest athlete?
Britain’s greatest athlete?

“Tactically I’m helpless. I can’t say I like road racing.”
~ Beryl Burton, two-time road race World Champion, 12-time road race National Champion.

On the penultimate Sunday of September, 1968, Beryl Burton sat on her gleaming Jacques Anquetil bicycle and listened as the starter counted her down from five to one before she set off on one of the most memorable time trials of her life.

Burton had ridden her first time trial 15 years before, covering a 10-mile course in a time of about 33 minutes. In the intervening years she’d hacked chunks off that time and by this early Autumn Sunday afternoon her British record for the distance stood at 22’45”. In those 15 years, Burton had listened to the starter counting her down from five to one scores of times a year as she travelled the length and breadth of England in search of fast courses and ever faster times.

What was different this time was that the starter counted her down in French, cinq à un. And instead of some code-named drag-strip somewhere in the middle of nowhere, she was in the Vallée de Chevreuse, on the south-western edge of Paris, about to ride to one of the most storied velodromes in cycling history, the Vélodrome Municipal de Vincennes, since the 1980s renamed the Vélodrome Jacques Anquetil, but best known then and now simply as La Cipale. The time trial Burton was about to start wasn’t organised by some local club, she was about to start the unofficial time trial World Championships, the Grand Prix des Nations.

First organised by Paris Soir’s Gaston Bénac and Albert Baker d’Isy in 1932, the GP des Nations had become a part of the burgeoning Amaury empire after the forced closure of Paris Soir following the end of the Second World War. The race’s palmarès included some of the best time trialists of their day: Maurice Archambaud, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Ercole Baldini, and Ferdinand Bracke – each of whom had set an Hour record – as well as Louison Bobet and Hugo Koblet. Its prestige was such that just a dozen men were invited to take the start in 1968. And, preceding them, for the first time in the race’s history, one woman.

While the French had profited little since the creation of the women’s World Championships in 1958 – they had won just one medal, a bronze in the sprint in 1964 – the country had a strong tradition of women’s racing, especially against the clock, with a brief flowering in the 1890s with the likes of René Debatz, Hélène Dutrieu, Louise Roger, and Amélie Le Gall and blooming again in the 1940s and 1950s as Élyane Bonneau and Jeannine Lemaire pushed the unofficial women’s Hour record to new heights (39.735 kms). Even so, it took the efforts of Jock Wadley and René de Latour to convince Félix Lévitan – Émilien Amaury’s man inside the Tour de France and the other bike races he now owned – to issue an invite to Burton.

At 1:36 on that Sunday afternoon, Burton rose out of the saddle and lunged away from the small crowd that had gathered to watch her start. Twelve minutes later – enough time, it was hoped, to ensure Burton would not be caught – the first of the male professionals was sent on his way.

Beryl Burton at the start of the 1968 GP des Nations, watched on by Félix Lévitan (middle left, with his arms folded)
Beryl Burton at the start of the 1968 GP des Nations, watched on by Félix Lévitan (middle left, with his arms folded)

The GP des Nations differed from British time trials in several ways, most notably being place-to-place whereas time trials in the UK were typically organised on out-and-back courses. It also afforded Burton a cavalcade like nothing she had experienced before.

“On the road somewhere in front was a gendarme on a motor-bike,” Burton wrote in her autobiography, Personal Best, “his siren screeching and giving warning of my approach; fifty metres behind him was a police car, lights flashing; another fifty metres behind that there was another police motor-bike and then, at a suitable distance behind, came me. Following there was a car with my name on a big board across the front carrying the spares and, further behind that, a press car and Jock Wadley anxiously checking his watch (so he told me afterwards). Never had the Morley colours been carried with such an escort – a real ‘son et lumière’.”

All along the route, crowds gathered and cheered Burton as she passed, all along the route police whistles and sirens blared as Burton sped through intersections closed to other traffic. Over cobbles, along streets broad and narrow, up and down little hills, Burton powered on.

“I swung the bike about, picking my line at each corner, using as much road as I needed – what luxury, no cares about traffic or hazards. The streets were packed on both sides, mile after mile of cheering crowds who lifted me along, a surge of sound in front and behind – ‘Allez, la Britannique!’ What a complete contrast to the reaction to our almost surreptitious events early on Sunday mornings in Britain.”

Organised over a distance of 73.5 kms, the 1968 GP des Nations was close in length to a British 50-mile time trial (80.5 kms), a distance Burton had set a new record of 1hr 56’00” for the previous year (41.6 kph). Lévitan and co had budgeted for a time slightly slower than that, estimated Burton would cover the course at about 40 kph. As she neared the Cipale, Wadley sped ahead to warn of her approach. The time-keepers scoffed at the news of her imminent arrival, insisted it was too soon. Wadley tried to convince them that she was well ahead of schedule.

So it was that Burton swung onto the track of the Cipale with one of the support races still in progress, a devil-take-the-hindmost with still two riders yet to be eliminated. They swung up the banking to let her pass. Two laps of the velodrome were to be completed but, as she approached the finish line, Burton was waved on for a third lap as the time-keepers raced to get themselves organised. At 3:21, an hour and three quarters after she’d set off, Burton completed her GP des Nations, at a speed of 41.8 kph.

Lapping the Cipale’s track at the end of the GP des Nations, 1968
Lapping the Cipale’s track at the end of the GP des Nations, 1968

Of the dozen men that followed her minutes later, Burton’s compatriot Graham Webb was the slowest, coming home in a time of 1-42-39 (42.9 kph). Luis Ocaña clocked 1-36-51 (45.5 kph) for third. Felice Gimondi was the winner, 12 minutes and 40 seconds faster than Burton (47.5 kph).

For Burton, that ride remained a cherished memory. People would ask her what her best ride had been and she’d struggle to pick a record-breaking or World Championship winning performance, always seemed more interested in what she could do next than what she’d already done. But the GP des Nations was different, as she noted in her autobiography:

“Whenever the going in life seems a little hard I close my eyes and savour again the thousands of bike-mad French fans shouting ‘Allez, la Britannique!’.”

BerylIn Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete, the latest biography of Beryl Burton, seven-time World Champion, sees the Daily Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson taking some of the best bits from Burton’s own autobiography and mixing that with the approach Maxine Peake took in her play, also called Beryl, and drawing an engaging portrait of Burton on and off the bike.

Wilson also expands the story of the Yorkshire time trial sensation in a number of key areas. Drawing on research linking sustained sporting success with childhood trauma, Wilson argues that the two years Burton spent away from her family in her pre-teen years may have helped develop her resilience, her mental toughness.

Following the lead of Isabel Best in Queens of Pain, Wilson interviews Yvonne Reynders, another seven-time World Champion. He also follows Best’s lead in interviewing Marina Kotchetova, the daughter of Lubow Kotchetova, one of Burton’s early rivals in the individual pursuit. Expanding the story, he also talks a little about Tamara Garkushina, who won six IP rainbow jerseys between 1967 and 1974.

However, whereas Wilson seeks to credit Burton’s success to the trauma of her childhood, for these Russian women – whose childhoods were equally traumatic – success is presumed to have come through the barrel of a syringe. While Wilson is pretty clear in his insistence that Burton rode always and only on bread and water he manages to cloud the successes of all her Russian rivals in allegations of doping.

Wetherby, West Yorkshire: the reality of being a domestic time trialling goddess was far from glamourous
Wetherby, West Yorkshire: the reality of being a domestic time trialling goddess was far from glamourous
Brian Townsley

Wilson dwells on the key beats of Burton’s career, starting and finishing with the legendary Otley 12-hour that gave Burton a British record that bettered the equivalent men’s record, and then jumping backwards to cover Burton’s World Championship successes. After that it’s a domestic story, both in terms of a couple or three of Burton’s domestic racing successes (and one notable failure) and in terms of Wilson’s attempts to paint a portrait of the woman behind all of those wins.

The one notable failure Wilson looks at is Burton’s only attempt on the 24-hour record, in the Mersey 24 in 1969. She went into the race carrying a knee injury that ultimately took her out of it. Wilson renders this as Burton’s Dunkirk, turning failure into success by guesstimating an eventual distance “that would have lasted as the men’s or women’s record until 2011 and, as of 2022, would still have been around 40 miles further than any other woman.” As a way of shortening these super-long time trials this approach of guesstimating the result based on early speed has a lot going for it. In all other regards I’m not sure what value it offers anyone.

For Wilson, this failure was the biggest regret of Burton’s life. Oddly, however, in Personal Best she listed it as one of two regrets, the other being her failure to better Elsy Jacobs’ Hour record (41.347 kms). Wilson dismisses Burton’s attempts on the Hour in a single sentence late in the book.

In places Wilson is able to expand the story beyond the version offered by Burton in Personal Best, in places he takes a much narrower focus. Where Personal Best bogged itself down in the routine grind of the domestic time trialling scene, Wilson largely ignores this save for a couple of major races. On the up side, this means that Beryl isn’t as laborious a read as Personal Best but on the down it fails to capture the reality of Burton darting up, down and across the country week in and week out across more than three decades.

Beryl Burton’s Major Titles
UCI World Championships
Road Race (2 times: 1960; 1967)
Individual Pursuit (5 times: 1959; 1960; 1962; 1963; 1965)

BCF National Championships
Road Race (12 times: 1959; 1960; 1963; 1965; 1966; 1967; 1968; 1970; 1971; 1972; 1973; 1974)
Individual Pursuit (13 times: 1960; 1961; 1963; 1964; 1965; 1966; 1967; 1968; 1970. 1971; 1972; 1973; 1974)

RTTC National Championships
10 miles (4 times: 1978; 1979; 1980; 1981)
25 miles (26 times: 1958; 1959; 1960; 1961; 1962; 1963; 1964; 1966; 1967; 1968; 1969; 1970; 1971; 1972; 1973; 1974; 1975; 1976; 1977; 1978; 1979; 1980; 1981; 1982; 1984; 1986)
50 miles (24 times: 1958; 1959; 1960; 1961; 1963; 1964; 1965; 1966; 1967; 1968; 1969; 1970; 1971; 1972; 1973; 1974; 1975; 1976; 1977; 1978; 1979; 1980; 1983; 1986)
100 miles (18 times: 1958; 1959; 1960; 1961; 1962; 1964; 1965; 1966; 1967; 1968; 1970; 1971; 1973; 1974; 1975; 1978; 1980; 1983)

Best All Rounder (25 times: 1959; 1960; 1961; 1962; 1963; 1964; 1965; 1966; 1967; 1968; 1969; 1970; 1971; 1972; 1973; 1974; 1975; 1976; 1977; 1978; 1979; 1980; 1981; 1982; 1983)

Wilson is clearly not satisfied with Burton’s bulging palmarès and seeks to add to her actual successes additional hypothetical ones. As well as the hypothetical record in the Mersey 24 he uses wind tunnel testing to establish further new records for Burton, if she were riding with today’s kit. There are all sorts of problems with this: in modelling performance over 25 miles to 12 hours in real world conditions you must heap guesstimated assumption upon guesstimated assumption to the point where your margin of error becomes bullshit-squared. Or, more simply: garbage in, garbage out. Come the day when the UCI say wind tunnel data can be used to tell us who would have won races curtailed by extreme weather conditions, perhaps then we can look again at Burton’s hypothetical records.

Betsy King (left) and Beryl Burton, at the start of the 1985 Spenco 500
October 1985: The GP des Nations is pretty much the only major international professional race Burton participated in discussed in detail in Beryl, others are overlooked. She was twice part of the Ghent Six’s undercard. In 1980 she rode the Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic, Australia’s oldest one-day race. And in 1985 she took on the Spenco 500 in Texas. Pictured here at the start of that race with Betsy King who, the previous year, had ridden Bordeaux-Paris.

Burton’s greatness cannot and should not be denied. Winning seven rainbow jerseys is no mean feat. The domestic titles matter. The records – not least the one set in the Otley 12-hour – matter, as does the length of her reign as a domestic time trialling goddess. At the same time, that does not excuse some of the hyperbole people bring to her story.

Wilson quotes the brother of Mike McNamara – the man who for just under two minutes held the British 12-hour record that day in the Otley 12 – bigging up not just Burton but also his own brother: “Just imagine that Serena Williams played Roger Federer at Wimbledon. And then imagine that she beat him. That’s how good she was.”

Are we really going to compare the empty roads of West Yorkshire with a thronged Centre Court? Are we really going to compare Mike McNamara to Roger Federer? Is that really what we need to do in order to show people just how great Beryl Burton really was?

Beryl - In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete, by Jeremy Wilson, is published in the UK by Pursuit
Beryl - In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete, by Jeremy Wilson, is published in the UK by Pursuit