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
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