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The way into Beryl Burton Gardens is down a wide passageway off Morley’s main street, past a yellow wheelie bin lying on its side, then right and left up the back of the buildings next door to the vast Morrison’s supermarket. Castiron letters form an archway across the gap in the south side of the shops, next door to the Yorkshire Bank and a few yards up from the town hall with its Grade I listed Italianate bell tower.
As a memorial to Morley’s most famous daughter, arguably the greatest cycling champion Britain has ever produced, the gardens themselves are something of an anticlimax: three neatly kept brick-built raised flower beds in a space that has to be less than a hundredth of that allocated to the supermarket car park. If you want to ponder the priorities of 20th and 21st century Britain there is a moral here: car parks given priority over gardens, the humdrum over epic and romantic achievement.
The size of the gardens does not reflect the vastness of Burton’s achievements, the many years she competed at the top, the wealth of titles she won, the quantity of other cyclists she inspired and the number of people whose lives she touched. It is not that extraordinary for cycling memorials to be anticlimactic, whether it is the Eddy Merckx metro station in Brussels or the minuscule Tom Simpson “museum” in the Nottinghamshire town of Harworth. Nonetheless, there is surprise and delight to be found in this relatively confined space. Turning your back on the supermarket car park—which you do with absolutely no regret—you can contemplate a vast mural of vibrant vision, epic scale and great beauty, spanning the entire 60 feet along the back of the bank building.
There, right at the centre, is Burton in her blue-and-white Morley Cycling Club jersey, framed by tall trees (one of the trunks is painted over the drainpipe coming down off the bank’s roof) and the profile of the bell tower, which stands only a few hundred meters away. She is racing through the dappled reflection of the leaves on the road, the towering, puffy clouds of an English summer’s day piled up behind her. The silhouettes of two onlooking cyclists, bikes leaned up against a tree to her left, are a nod to the style of Frank Patterson, the illustrative artist whose pen-and-ink drawings in the first half of the 20th century captured the essence of pastoral cycling among the delights of rural England.
It is a timeless image that presses every button of the English cycling psyche: a solo cyclist in pastoral bliss, no sponsor logos to soil the jersey. It tweaks the emotions in the same way that a black-and-white print of Fausto Coppi in his Bianchi jersey racing solo up a mountain would tug the heartstrings of an Italian, or a photo of Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor elbow-to-elbow on the Puy-de-Dôme in the 1964 Tour de France would send shivers down the spine of any French cycling fan of a certain age.
Burton’s stature has always been obvious to the English cycling community: She was its champion of longest standing, its most prolific record holder and its most enduring and successful medal winner, nationally and internationally at least until the advent of British Cycling’s lottery-funded track “medal factory.” Burton began winning medals at a national level in 1957 and took her last in 1986, by which time she had won 96 British titles. At world championship level, she managed 15 medals in as many years between 1959 and 1973, including seven world titles.
As time-trialing historian Peter Whitfield put it: “One name stands out above all others, Beryl Burton, for the way she totally dominated the women’s sport over a period of 25 years and the way she achieved parity with the men… Seventy national championships and 25 successive women’s BAR [Best All-Rounder] titles make up a lifetime’s achievement that will surely never be equaled… After just five years in the sport she had already won everything there was to win five times over, world championships as well as every timetrialing honor, yet she persisted, constantly pushing back the boundaries of the possible.” He added: “Her achievement was a triumph of pure amateurism, pure self-discipline. She had no coaching, no science and only the most basic equipment and machine. Everything she knew and everything she achieved she did by herself.”
When the sport’s unofficial British house journal, Cycling Weekly, was relaunched in 1992, the editor at the time, Andrew Sutcliffe, wanted a series of interviews with the most legendary and significant cycling personalities. The list included past and current stars of the Tour de France in Robert Millar, Barry Hoban, Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon, Miguel Induráin, Sean Kelly and Brian Robinson. There was Reg Harris—the one British cyclist to have approached the status of national treasure (“Reg rides a Raleigh”)—and there was Burton. There had to be Burton.
By then, she had long been a fixture in British cycling. She was past her best, but she had been so ubiquitously dominant in women’s racing for so many years that it was almost taken for granted. Everyone assumed that she would be there forever; everyone expected her to remain the first choice as guest of honor for every cycling club dinner for a good 20 years more. No one quite understood why she was still racing in her mid-50s, given that she was nowhere near the standard she had set for herself, but then no one truly knew what drove Burton. She had spent her life in a constant search for recognition but was now content to compete for the sake of it.
Like everyone else, I just assumed that Beryl Burton would be there for a lot longer than it sadly turned out. She was a fixture in the British cycling world, one of those unique figures who was simultaneously a god-like person who was way above the average in what she had achieved, yet who was accessible because she did the same races that so many did. All British cyclists of a certain age have either been caught by Beryl in a time trial or have a friend who has.
She was well known, but no one truly knew her. Part of the paradox lay in the discipline in which she had specialized for much of her career. Burton had always based her racing on time trialing and was too easily dismissed as a pure timetrialing champion. Her specialty was still the most accessible form of cycle racing in the U.K. but it was something of a backwater, a self-contained and self-absorbed milieu. In the early 1990s racing against the watch did not lead anywhere internationally. Burton was on the less glamourous side of the fence.
British time trialing has never quite bridged that great divide, although the inception of a world title in the discipline in 1994 has changed the equation internationally. However, Burton’s profile has risen. The gender politics of her sport, along with those of sport in general, have slowly evolved and are beginning to catch up with the wider world. As opportunities for women in cycling have expanded, and their voices are being increasingly heard within the cycling world, minds have been cast back to one of the greatest female exponents the sport has ever seen, and her stature as an outstanding champion has been resurrected.
William Fotheringham’s biography “The Greatest: The Life and Times of Beryl Burton” is self-published via the YouCaxton imprint. It is available as an e-book or via the website at williamfotheringham.com