Tuesdays with Wilcockson: The Merckx of women’s cycling

By chance, I heard last week’s edition of the BBC radio program, “Afternoon Theatre.” It was a drama based on the life of Beryl Burton, who, when she died of a heart attack while riding her bike in 1996 at age 58, was regarded as the world’s greatest ever woman cyclist. Two other female champions have since laid claim to Burton’s throne: Jeannie Longo of France and Marianne Vos of the Netherlands.

These extraordinary athletes have variously been called the Eddy Merckx of women’s racing, but it’s hard to compare riders from very different eras: Burton had her heyday in the 1960s, Longo in the ’80s and ’90s, and Vos in this current century. The Dutch wunderkind has deserved her cyclist-of-the-year accolades this season thanks to her world and Olympic road titles, and her repeat victories in the UCI World Cup, women’s Giro, and cyclocross worlds. Before Vos’s recent emergence, Longo dominated women’s racing on road and track for the best part of 15 years—and that was well before her latter career was stained by doping allegations and her husband and coach Patrice Ciprelli being sanctioned for importing doping products.

No such shadows linger over Burton, whose mantra was hard work, dedication and having fun with cycling. Even though she was told as a child fighting rheumatic fever that she would never be an athlete, she went on to become a legend in British cycling. That status was earned over several decades of dominance, but it was one event that put Burton on a pedestal as a one-of-a-kind champion. That race was featured in the radio play that also included interviews with Burton’s widower Charlie and daughter Denise. The event was the 1967 Otley Cycling Club’s 12-hour time trial.

By that point in her career, when “our Beryl” was age 30, Burton was Britain’s undisputed queen of time trialing. She had already won the first eight of an eventual 25 consecutive British Best All-Rounder titles, based on average speeds in 25-, 50- and 100-mile TTs, and that day in 1967 she was determined to improve on her own national 12-hour TT record of 250.37 miles that she had set eight years earlier. The course for that time trial in her native Yorkshire followed an out-and-back route on the so-called Great North Road, finishing on a circuit that the riders reached after about 200 miles.

The women’s field started after the men, with the men’s favorite and final starter, Mike McNamara, setting out two minutes before Burton. Her way of relaxing before a big race like this was to sit down and do some knitting, rather than anxiously circling on her bike. No one seriously thought that she could challenge McNamara, a tough competitor from South Yorkshire who was the reigning national champion at 12 hours; but for hour after hour that day she matched his pace. Amazingly, the gap between them was still two minutes at the 156-mile marker. That was astonishing enough, but what happened next was unprecedented: Burton started to close on McNamara!

After another three hours of effort, she eventually had her male rival in her sights on the finishing circuit. And the unthinkable took place at mile 236 when Burton finally rolled up to McNamara’s back wheel. What happened next is the stuff of legends. Putting a hand in her jersey pocket, she pulled out some candy and as she drew level she matter-of-factly asked him, “Would you like a liquorice allsort?” McNamara rose honorably to the moment, taking the licorice from Burton and thanking her with a “Ta, love.”

By the end of that time trial, almost two hours later, Burton completed her 12-hour ride with a distance of 277.25 miles—it not only topped McNamara by almost a mile but also broke the men’s nine-year-old men’s national record, and, 45 years later, still remains the longest distance any woman has ridden in an authentic 12-hour time trial.

Besides her sheer longevity and competitiveness from distances as short as the 3000-meter track pursuit or as long as the 24-hour time trial, Burton was a pure amateur athlete. She fitted in training between time spent as a mother and housewife and working at a smallholding farm, planting and harvesting beets and rhubarb, often in harsh winter weather. And she had virtually no financial support for overseas trips.

When Burton and husband Charlie traveled to the 1960 world championships in East Germany, they missed their train connection in Berlin and walked the streets for hours seeking affordable accommodations. Weary and hungry, they eventually went to a police station at two in the morning—where the officer on duty recognized the name on her passport, called a friend at the sports ministry and got them a hotel room, courtesy of the state. The next day, after catching the train to Leipzig, Burton raced the qualifying rounds of the individual pursuit. She went on to take the gold medal in that event, and capped her worlds’ appearance by winning the women’s road race. A double world champion at 23!

In a down-home speech to her colleagues gathered at her Morley Cycling Club’s annual dinner the following winter, Burton said this about her worlds experience and competing against state-subsidized athletes: “I was envious at first of the Germans and the Russians, and the support they received from their government, while we had to dig deep into our own pockets to compete. But then Charlie reminded me of you lot, my cycling friends and family, and the support, inspiration and encouragement I get from you, the laughs and the commiseration. So from now on, if I start to feel a little hard done to, I shall think of you rabble … and I will say to myself, ‘Smile when you lose, and laugh like hell when you win!’”

A phenomenal champion, Beryl Burton never forgot her homespun roots and she remained a fierce competitor all her life—even against her own daughter, who also became a fine cyclist. Mother, 41, and daughter, 21, both took part in the 1976 British national road race championship. Beryl did most of the work in establishing a four-woman breakaway, with Denise sitting in her wake. But when the daughter came through at the finish two win the sprint ahead of her mother, Beryl was furious. In fact, Denise Burton said on the radio program, “She wouldn’t let me in the car,” and told her to ride her bike home.

Sounds just like Merckx, the Cannibal, who also was convinced that he would win every race he started.

COMPARING THE TITLES EARNED BY BURTON, LONGO AND VOS

This summary does not include Olympic medals because women cyclists were not awarded any events until 1984, so Burton never had chance to ride at the Olympic Games. It should also be noted that a women’s time trial was not included at the worlds until 1994; otherwise Burton would likely have won many more rainbow jerseys. The “other” events listed here include track races and cyclo-cross.

Rider            Years            World Championships         National Championships

RR       Other                                    RR       TT       Other

Burton (GB)    30                   2          5                                            12        72        12

Longo (F)        33                   5          8                                            15        10        34

Vos (Nl)            7                    2          7                                              5          2          4

 

 

Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

 

, ,

20 comments

  1. Rich Wilson

    Back in the early 90s I read a comment on USENET from someone who claimed to be a friend of the family. He said Beryl gave him a rainbow jersey, with the admonishment “Mind ye never WEAR it!” “Why?” “Because ye didn’ EARN it!”

  2. Clem

    Would it be possible to reformat the chart at the bottom? The headings are off, and it’s pretty tough to make out what were looking at.

    As for Ms. Burton et al, I was actually talking about the “Eddie Merckx of women’s cycling” with my fiance last night. Thanks for another great article.

    1. Padraig

      Rich Wilson: That’s terrific!

      Clem: Yeah, sorry about that; I’ve had some trouble with the formatting. It should look more readable now.

  3. tinytim

    Damn, what an amazing woman. That big ring looks likes its atleast 56 and those legs officially qualify as ‘tree trunk’. Seems to me, riders from back in the day rode a ton while still being able to go extra hard in the shorter events like the pursuit!!? How is that? All the riders these days are all worried about ‘over doing it’ and not ‘wanted to be peeked all out’. Cycling would could be so much cooler if riders didn’t specialize to the point where they actually focus on like five races a year. Except for the cobbles, riders are allowed to specialize for that.

  4. Jesus from Cancun

    Thank you for a great story. I had heard Beryl’s name before, but I had no idea how impressive she was.
    Great off season article!

  5. A Schwinn

    Though I have to say, upon thinking about it, that I’m bummed by the idea of any woman of accomplishment being labelled the male equivalent of anyone, no matter what that guy has accomplished. It disregards the individual accomplishments and swagger of the lady in question.

    And this lady has swagger.

    1. Padraig

      A Schwinn: You raise a really valid point. Even though all our current contributors here are of the male variety, I’d like to think we’re evolved enough to be sensitive to feminist issues. However, comparing Burton to Merckx is going to strike some as denigrating her accomplishments, which was anything other than our intent.

  6. The_D

    “McNamara rose honorably to the moment taking the licorice from Burton and thanking her”

    Wow, when’s the last time in any sport someone wrote anything like that about a favored, vanquished opponent and really meant it?

    Awesome article; reminds us of not just a singular athlete, but also of a time when top cyclists seemed a lot cooler.

  7. Pat O'Brien

    Padraig, thanks for this well written and inspiring story. Reading it made my morning coffee much better! I think I will savor it again while drinking this afternoon’s Fat Tire.

  8. Ron Goguen

    Thanks for a terrific read. I read it to seven young male racers from10-26years old. They were impressed and two of my sons are leaving to do a World Cup in Belgium this month and the story reminded me of us doing fundraiser to make this trip possible. Also I tell my boys at the start line of every race to have fun. So this incredible lady was a good inspiration foru boys since she didn’t have much money but had a lot of fun and ended up being the best. She is the sports example we all need. Thanks again for writin such a wonderful story about a real role model.

  9. Nick

    Burton was great, but Merckx wishes he had results like Vos ;)

    Yes, she “only” has 2 road race world championships.

    BUT she has also finished second *5* times, as well as a 1st and 2nd in the junior WC (ie, she has never finished worse than second in *any* world championship road race).

  10. Richmond

    That top picture isn’t Beryl Burton! It’s Margaret Allen of Barnsley RC – a dominant force in UK TTing in the 80s & early 90s.

  11. roe

    YES …Leontien van Moorsel….
    4 olympic gold
    9 World championships
    21 national championships
    2 tour feminin.
    + world record 46.349 km in 1 hour

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>