Beryl Burton Story

Beryl Burton

Photo: ddsiple on Flickr

Martin Gisborne wrote this for us while we’re at the Climate Ride

On May 12, 1937, Beryl Charnock was born in Halton in what is now the eastern suburbs of Leeds, England. By the time she died, just before her 59th birthday, Beryl Burton – as she was then known – was, arguably, the greatest athlete that Britain had ever seen. And possibly the most dominant competitive cyclist of all time.

Charnock met a local man, called Charlie Burton, working in a tailoring firm in Leeds, while she was in her teens. She noticed him because as he walked across the factory floor he clicked and clacked like a tap dancer. It was Charlie’s cycling cleats that made the distinctive noise and so it was Charlie who introduced Beryl to cycling. They married when she was just 18 years old in 1955. Her meteoric rise in the cycling world started almost immediately with Beryl winning her first national championship medal in the 100-mile individual time trial just two years later. 

In 1959, at the World Track Cycling Championships at Rocourt in the legendary cycling city of Liège, Belgium, Burton took part in the 3km Pursuit. She rose through the heats all the way to the final to face Elsy Jacobs of Luxembourg. Jacobs was the first winner of the World Road Championships the previous year in Reims, France. Burton won. 

In the 15 years between 1959 and 1973 Burton was on the World Championship podium, for the individual track pursuit 11 times — winning gold five times and silver and bronze three times each. In 1960 she added to her gold in the pursuit with a gold in the women’s road race too. She also won gold in the road race in 1967 and placed second in the 1961 edition. 

As astounding as her international cycling record seems it pales in comparison to her domestic career. For those not familiar with the sport of time trialling in the UK, a little backgrounder. The biggest competition in the UK is known as the Best All Rounder. It’s a season-long competition with qualifying race times being ridden at any time between April and September. Each rider’s trial times – over three distances – are averaged over the course of the season. For men the distances are 50 miles, 100 miles and 12 hours; for women the distances are 25, 50 and 100 miles. Certificates are awarded to any riders who average 22 mph (men) or 20 mph (women) over the course of the season for the three distances. The competition is legendary in Britain because it takes a great deal of training, effort and consistency to finally prevail at the end of the competition. Beryl Burton won her first British BAR in 1959. She won her second in 1960 and her third in 1961. In fact, Burton won the BAR for an incredible 25 consecutive years. Her average speed in 1959, at the age of 22 was 23.724 mph. Her winning time in 1983 at the age of 46 was 25.118 mph. Her fastest times came in 1976 – one of the hottest and driest summers in English history – when she averaged an astonishing 26.665 mph over her three distances.

In total, Burton won 72 national individual time trial titles; 4 at 10 miles, 26 at 25 miles, 24 at 50 miles and 18 at 100 miles. She won her last solo national time trial titles in 1986 at the age of 49. 

But if you are thinking that she was just a time trial machine, pounding out the miles like a muscular metronome, you’d be wrong. She also won 12 road race championships and 12 national pursuit titles. In total, Burton won more than 120 domestic championships over her staggering career.

Even though the 12-hour time trial discipline wasn’t a part of the Best All-Rounder competition, for women, it didn’t stop Burton from attacking that distance. In 1967 she set a new 12-hour time record of 277.25 miles — almost 27 miles more than her own previous mark set eight years earlier. On her way to the record she passed one of the men’s competitors, Mike McNamara. Legend says that she asked him if he wanted some licorice because he ‘wasn’t looking so good.’ McNamara said, ‘ta, love’ and took the sweet. McNamara was on his way to setting a new record for the mens 12-hour trial. His distance? 276.52 miles – 0.73 miles SHORTER than Beryl’s record. It wasn’t until 1969 that a man rode further than Beryl over 12 hours of riding. Burton’s womens 12-hr record still stands today, 43 years later.

Burton broke the 100 mile time trial record a staggering ten times between 1958 and 1968. Her first record time was 4hrs 33 mins and 26 secs. By the time she broke the record for the tenth time she had brought that time down to 3hrs 55 mins and 5 secs — a reduction of an incredible 38 mins and 21 secs. That final record lasted for 28 years. The current record, set in 1996 by Jenny Derham, is only 2mins and 1 sec faster.

In total, Beryl Burton set over 50 national records over 10-, 15-, 25-, 30-, 50- and 100-mile distances.

She even decided to ride in the inaugural Women’s Tour de France in 1984 at the age of 47. But the British authorities decided that she didn’t have the right qualifications that year as she’d only ridden time trials. They blocked her entry. A short while later another rider dropped out and the same authorities asked her if she would step in. She replied in the negative, in a way that only a Yorkshire woman could.

Shortly before her 59th birthday, in 1996, she suffered heart failure while out on a training ride; she was entered in the National 10 Mile Time Trial Championships the following weekend. It is thought that her heart failure was a result of weaknesses from her sickly childhood. That’s right, this astounding athlete with national and international titles and records across four decades had suffered terrible health in her childhood. Among other things she suffered from rheumatoid fever, difficulty with speech and was even temporarily paralyzed down one side of her body. She spent a considerable amount of time in hospitals and convalescent homes. Burton overcame this difficult start and left school at 15 to start work. In fact she worked for most of her adult life — she was a rhubarb picker at one point — and raised her daughter Denise all the while she was competing because she was an amateur rider for her entire career. 

Happy birthday, Beryl, your story continues to astound and inspire.