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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Long considered the orphan child of European cycling, Great Britain has finally established itself as a leading international force thanks to the brilliant 1-2 by Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome at this year’s Tour de France, the stunning string of gold and silver medals won by the country’s track and road teams at the London Olympics, and the burgeoning status of the sport within the British media and general public.
Newcomers to cycling tend to think that the recent successes by British cyclists represents a sudden breakthrough, but it’s more as if the sport has come full circle. Britons developed the first modern bicycles (along with chain drive and pneumatic tires), won the world’s first organized bike races in the 19th century, and staged the first six-day track races and road time trials. There was a bleak period for British cycling in the first half of the 20th century, mainly due to a ban on road racing and professional cycling, but the country has since gradually shed its orphan status to re-emerge stronger than ever in this 21st century.
Countless individuals have contributed to Britain’s cycling revival over the past several decades, including all those who won world championships in the second half of the last century: Beryl Burton, Tom Simpson and Graham Webb on the road, and Reg Harris, Cyril Peacock, Hugh Porter and Tony Doyle on the track. And even before this year’s explosion of British victories, the upward path was accelerated in the past 10 years by a slew of British world champions headed by Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Wiggins on the velodrome, and Nicole Cooke and Mark Cavendish on the road.
While massive publicity was being given this year to Tour winner Wiggins and the home country’s Olympic medalists, three of the men who paved the way for them quietly passed away. Track racer Tommy Godwin died earlier this month two days short of his 92nd birthday; time trialist Ray Booty died from cancer three months ago at age 79; and road racer Brian Haskell died in March at 83.
Godwin, who won bronze medals in the kilometer time trial and 4000-meter team pursuit at the London Olympics of 1948, was honored as an ambassador and torchbearer at the 2012 London Games three months ago. He was working as an electrician when he won his two bronze medals, and he went on to own and run a bike shop for 36 years in Birmingham, England’s second largest city. During that time Godwin became his country’s first paid national coach (he was in charge when Burton and Webb won the women’s and amateur men world road titles in 1967), and he later served as president of the British Cycling Federation.
Last year, in a televised Olympic preview, the nonagenarian rode his 1948 Olympic track bike around the Herne Hill track and showed off the knitted-wool Great Britain team jersey he raced in 64 years ago. Godwin clearly remembered the enthusiasm generated by his bronze-medal rides, telling the BBC: “It was unbelievable. The crowd was fantastic. After we won the race for the bronze medal in the team pursuit, a cycling magazine reported, ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
The team pursuit was the one track event that remained from that previous London Olympics, and Godwin was on hand this past August to see the British quartet annihilate the world record with their winning time of 3:51.659—which was just about a minute faster than the time set by Godwin and his British teammates when they took bronze at the 1948 Olympics!
While Godwin’s various positions made him one of the most influential people in the development of British cycling, Booty was a pure amateur cyclist who could have made as big an impact on the world scene as Wiggins had times been different. Instead, Booty did his national service in the army before becoming a chartered electrical engineer, first with Ericsson, then Westinghouse and Rolls Royce—and always riding his old race bike to work until retiring at 60.
Booty came to national prominence in August 1956 when, two years after Roger Bannister became the first athlete to run a four-minute mile, he became the first cyclist to race 100 miles in less than four hours in an out-and-back time trial. The day before his record performance in the classic Bath Road 100, to the west of London, Booty rode his bike the 100 miles from his Nottingham home. He raced the time trial on the same bike, using a fixed gear of 84 inches (50×16), to record a time of 3:58:28 and beat runner-up Stan Brittain, a British international, by almost 12 minutes.
A month later, right after his 24th birthday, Booty used a hub gear to break the point-to-point 100-mile record, taking advantage of favorable winds to set a time of 3:28:40, a record that stood for 34 years.
Booty was also an adept road racer. In 1954, he won the top British one-day event, the hilly Manx International; in 1955, he raced for the GB team at the prestigious, two-week Peace Race in eastern Europe, helping teammate Brittain finish third overall; and in 1958, on wet day in Cardiff, Wales, he rode away from a strong field at the Commonwealth Games road race to take the gold medal by some three minutes.
Brian Haskell was a contemporary of Booty and Brittain, and raced for the same cycling club in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, as Brian Robinson—who went on to become the first Brit to win a stage of the Tour de France. Haskell had similar ability, being a strong climber and stage race specialist. He twice won the Tour of Ireland, he was national hill climb champion multiple times, and he won the King of the Mountains titles at both the Peace Race and Tour of Britain.
Haskell competed as a semi-professional for the Viking Cycles team that dominated domestic racing from 1957 through 1961, and he raced another 30 years as an a amateur, winning national veterans titles in both road racing and time trialing. In 1973, he founded a precision sheet metal contracting firm that grew to employ 35 workers, and he was still working as company chairman until his death eight months ago.
Godwin, Booty and Haskell are not be names as well known as those of Hoy, Wiggins and Froome, but without their lifelong love of cycling, memorable performances and continued inspiration, Britain’s modern heroes may not have even emerged.
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Perhaps the most amazing fact to emerge from the first week of the London Olympics was the size of the crowds watching the cycling road races. Last Saturday, the men’s event drew upwards of a million people. That’s said to be the largest number of spectators for any Olympic event ever—which may not be so surprising for an event starring Britain’s top two sports personalities, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, a matter of days after their crowning achievements on the Champs-Élysées. But what about the women’s race on Sunday? If you were cognizant of cycling’s history, you wouldn’t expect too many fans to show up for a stand-alone women’s race. But what happened? Despite no Tour de France stars being on the start line, and despite the race being held in mostly pouring rain, another million people showed up. Incredible!
From the British perspective, the men’s race was a disaster. Cavendish was widely heralded as a shoo-in to win gold after five-star assistance from Wiggins and their three powerful teammates, Tour runner-up Chris Froome, Tour stage winner David Millar and national champ Ian Stannard. But trying to control a race that was as long as Paris-Roubaix with just four riders, however strong they were, was always going to be a near-impossible task. And so it proved.
The GB boys boxed themselves into a corner with their all-for-Cav strategy. An early, powerful breakaway forced them to ride too high of a tempo for hour after hour to keep the break’s lead to bridgeable proportions, and they didn’t have enough gas left to stop three waves of riders making that bridge to the front over the final two laps of the demanding Box Hill circuit. Perhaps it would have been smart to let Cavendish surf one of those waves; he said he had the legs to do it.
In the end, it was extraordinary to see the 2012 Tour de France’s top two finishers, first Froome then Wiggins, ride themselves into total exhaustion trying to bring back the 26-strong breakaway group. That they didn’t succeed was disappointing for Cavendish and his supporters, but the Brits were heroic in defeat. The ultimate victory of anti-hero Alexander Vinokourov bemused the British public (and their media!), but the men’s race did make it to the front page of at least one major newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, which ran a huge photo of a solo, head-down Wiggins trailing in to the finish 1:17 behind the winner, with the headline: “Never mind, Bradley! There’s another gold medal chance on Wednesday.”
Perhaps the Tour champ would recover in time for Wednesday’s Olympic time trial, but a gold medal then would not change the public’s disappointment in the result of the road race. An inkling into just how the British media would have reacted had the gold gone to Cavendish came the next day when the women’s silver medal was claimed by Lizzie Armistead, an iron-strong Yorkshire lady from the same cycling club as the late Beryl Burton, who was probably England’s greatest-ever cycling champion. As the home country’s first medalist of these Games, Armistead’s photo graced page one of every national newspaper in Britain, with the most spectacular one being a double-page shot of the finish appearing in The Times—the iconic 227-year-old newspaper affectionately known as The Thunderer.
The Times headline read “Elizabeth the Second”—an allusion to Queen Elizabeth II, whose palace was the backdrop to the road-race finish, and to the fact that Armistead placed second. Not much play was given to winner Marianne Vos, the Eddy Merckx of women’s cycling. The Dutch woman’s victory salute was cleverly hidden on the back of the wraparound cover, with Armistead on the front page, smiling through the rain as she crossed the line. On this occasion, the British media and public came through for women cyclists; but the racers’ oft-heard cries of being treated like second-class citizens were borne out by the coverage in mainstream Europe. The Continent’s leading sports daily, L’Équipe of Paris, didn’t even report the women’s Olympic road race. It just printed the result in small type, deep inside the broadsheet’s cavernous pages.
But the women did get an unprecedented chance to show the quality and excitement of their racing in hours of live television around the world. And, after a slow start, they put on a great show of aggressive racing, particularly Vos, Armistead and sprinter Shelley Olds—whose ill-timed puncture when in the winning break robbed her of the chance to become the first American woman to medal in an Olympic road race since Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg placed 1-2 in the 1984 inaugural women’s event. Perhaps, almost three decades later, the excellence of the women’s racing at the 2012 Olympics will help them take a major step in their quest for equality.
We’ve heard a lot in the past year about the lack of parity between the men’s and women’s branches of professional cycling. Female racers have expressed their frustration that while, relatively speaking, money pours into the men’s side through multi-million-dollar sponsorships of teams and events (albeit with exceptions in austerity-ravaged economies such as Spain’s), women’s racing has stagnated, with even the top teams existing on shoestring budgets.
At the center of the parity storm is the world’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, even though the UCI willingly acceded to IOC demands that there be the same number of events for men and women cyclists at the London Olympics.
When UCI president Pat McQuaid was asked at last October’s road worlds whether there were plans to legislate a minimum wage for women racers, he said, “We have an agreement in men’s sport, but women’s cycling has not developed enough that we are at that level yet.” When his words were shared with the top three finishers in the women’s road race in Copenhagen, world champ Georgia Bronzini politely disagreed. Runner-up Vos said, “Of course, it’s a younger sport than the men’s sport but…with a minimum salary it can only be more professional.” And bronze medalist Ina Teutenberg added, “I don’t know why guys would deserve a minimum salary and women don’t.”
The debate heated up this past weekend, when Armistead, Britain’s brand-new Olympic silver medalist, said the things that bugged her about the inequality of the sexes were salary and media coverage, “but certainly I think we could get more help from the top—which is the UCI.” For now, let’s just hope that the dignified and delightful performances by Armistead, Vos and company in London makes the world of cycling, especially the media and the UCI, pay far more attention to women’s racing. At least, for the million or so Brits who stood in the rain last Sunday, the women’s race was just as much a spectacle as the men’s. And that can only turn up the volume in the women pro cyclists’ call for a minimum salary.
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I’d say he’s a few pounds heavier than when he stopped racing. The seventies were always an odd era, with flares and tank tops and silly sunglasses and long hair and Janssen is no less embarrassed about it than anyone else. He smiles wryly at a picture of himself looking like George Best. He ticks off riders like Robert Millar and Phil Anderson with their long hair now.
I forgot for a moment that he’d ever been world champion. He never mentioned it except in passing. I think it’s the Tour rather than the championship which holds the sweetest memories. Not surprising, really.
“The Tour is the biggest race, the most beautiful race you can win,” he said. But he won it at the last moment, as an afterthought. Surely, I asked, he’d rather have won with strength instead, instead of taking it on the final day without having once led the journey?
“But it was much more exciting that way, wasn’t it? We saw it when LeMond and Fignon decided it on the last day as well, with people crowding round the television or the radio, and the last day’s a sort of climax. And it was like that for me as well.
“And I don’t think I would have wanted to hold the yellow jersey longer. Right on the last day, nobody knew who would win the Tour, and that was my tactic. We had a team with three riders—Dolman, Beugels and Arie Den Hertog—and that was my team. And I was the fourth. I couldn’t do anything with a team that small, could I? The other riders had packed and gone home.
“So what could I do? I had to be very smart to win the Tour and the only chance was to do it in the time-trial.”
Two decades have passed, but those sensations that LeMond and Fignon must have known are still fresh to him. It took Janssen only a second to remember the gap between Bracke, van Springel and himself, and none at all to recall the number of seconds that put him in yellow.
It’s a back-to-front margin, to win the world’s biggest race with the smallest ever margin. And now he can’t even boast that.
“Records are made to be broken,” he said. “Ja.” He puffed again and stubbed out the remains.
“I was in Paris for LeMond and Fignon. I stood along the Champs Elysées. That’s not where we finished, of course, but it brought back the wonderful memories for me, that Tour de France. It has changed technically over the years, but the Tour is still the greatest sporting event in the world, and if you manage to win it, then you’ve achieved the most beautiful thing that the sport has to offer.”
It was the last year the Tour was public property. For the next four years it went to Eddy Merckx and the sport moved from a number of big-hitters to just one. I suggested that the game in Janssen’s era was more exciting. Not to my surprise, he agreed.
“I’ll go along with that. In my time, a lot of riders could have won. In the time of Merckx, Hinault, Coppi, it was a lot more predictable. You knew in advance who was going to win. Merckx was in the yellow jersey from the second day and the others couldn’t touch him. And for the public, the people who follow the sport on television and radio, that was less spectacular.
“When I rode the Tour, there were 10, 15 good riders. First one would win and then the next and then the next. But in the Merckx era, the Hinault era, the races were the same. So the public got fed up. Now, of course, there aren’t any big names such as Merckx. You’ve got very good riders, but…”
“Nobody as good as Jan Janssen?” I prompted.
“Who am I to say that?”
And then, as his son left to busy himself around the warehouse, I asked Janssen whether he had been born too soon, whether he would rather be his son’s age.
“It’s certainly changed now, that’s for sure. It’s more commercial, and the generation before me, van Est’s generation, they say it as well—we were born too early. There’s much more money to be earned.”
And that made it easier for him?
“Not easier. We had to be good all the time, from the first of February until the end of October. Because it was my duty to make the most of my sponsor’s name, to get publicity. I mean, there were other good riders in the team, but it was 80 per cent on my shoulders to get that publicity. And if you had an off-day, well, you were letting your sponsors down.”
So why, I wanted to know, is there more money now if in his own estimation the races aren’t so exciting?
“Because the whole sponsorship of the sport has taken off. It’s become so interesting to a company because a company that wants to get its name known, you can buy a good team, with good management, good public relations, and you can get all the big names.
“But it didn’t use to be like that, because the television in our time… Well; it was covered but not like now. Direct coverage for an hour and a half they have. Naturally, that is very interesting for the public.
“We got very good money, of course. And to be truthful, the French franc was worth a lot more than now. But I think the motivation has changed with the professionals as well. You get riders like Rooks and Theunisse saying after the Tour they’re stopping at home because they can’t be bothered with criteriums, and that’s not so attractive to the public. I don’t think you’re serving the sport doing that, because the more popular cycling is, the better it is for every one of the riders.
“It’s good that they’re well paid now, of course, but they have to give everything they’ve got. And now there are a load of riders who say ‘I only want to ride the classics in the spring and no Tour de France, no Giro d’Italia and no Tour of Spain, because it’s too hot there and there are too many mountains, and there’s this and there’s that.’
“And there are riders who say they’re not going to ride Paris–Roubaix over the bad roads, and no Tour of Flanders in the snow and rain. They pick and choose their races. Well, it didn’t use to be that way. You got a list of races from your team manager and you had to ride them.
“You can’t have a new Merckx or Hinault every couple of years, because people like that are rare, but what I would say is that the general level of top riders has gone down a bit. There are a number of good riders but no big-hitters any more. The whole sport has changed. They aren’t hungry any more. There’s so much money to earn now, even for a third-rate rider. Twenty-five years ago, a third-class rider didn’t get jam on his bread. So if they got 50 guilders for a criterium, they rode. But now every rider is well paid, so they don’t do so much for it. They say ‘Oh, I’ve got a good contract from the firm, I’m okay.’
“The hunger to ride well, to succeed and only then to earn money is over.”
He’s not bitter, I sense. Despairing perhaps, but realistic would be a better word. In 1967, by the way, Janssen nearly won the world championship for a second time. But he was, in two ways, just that little too late. To start with, he was half a wheel too late. But mainly, he had left it too late because he was now a mature man and with him was a youthful Eddy Merckx—just three years after the Belgian had won the world amateur race.
On the second lap at Heerlen, where Graham Webb and Beryl Burton had already won, there was an attack by Gianni Motta. So Merckx, the Spaniard Saez, and Holland’s van der Vleuten went with him. Merckx wrote later: “There was also an unknown Briton called Addy, who never took his turn and disappeared quickly.”
Bob Addy was a tall, home-based professional in the Holdsworth domestic team. How easily are one man’s dream moments dispelled!
Motta had been given excruciating distances to ride in training by a guru, half-doctor, half-svengali, and he was at that stage where fitness risked topping into exhaustion. Eventually guru De Donato would attract the attentions of the police, but for the moment he had Motta in peak condition.
You can judge how confident he felt by the fact that there were still 250 kilometers to go. The bunch wondered at his foolhardiness for a while; then, after the break had gained three minutes in 60 kilometers, began wondering again. There was a flurry of concern and the motorcycle blackboard man brought the news that Janssen had decided to chase.
That was bad news. Janssen was a brilliant sprinter—he beat Merckx on the line in Ghent–Wevelgem—and, what’s more, he’d proved in the Tour de France that he had the time-trialling ability to close a gap.
Motta turned to the blackboard man again and saw the numbers of the break, then a horizontal line with Janssen’s number below it. And, below Janssen, a large oval to indicate the bunch.
“Who’s with him?” Motta shouted. There were numbers missing, surely?
“Nobody,” the motorcyclist yelled back. “He’s by himself.”
The Italian turned to Merckx and called on him to work with him to stay away. Merckx wrote later in Eddy Merckx, Coureur Cycliste that Janssen was one of the few he considered “a true athlete.” But he wasn’t going to work to stop him.
Instead, he calculated that Janssen would be weakened by the chase but still strong enough to work to keep the group clear. More than that, the Dutch team—usually better organized than the Belgians, whom nobody could guarantee wouldn’t chase Merckx for their own purposes—would ease off if Janssen stood a chance. So too might anyone in Janssen’s circle interested in a contract for the following year. What’s more, van der Vleuten was already in the break.
In fact Peter Post did chase, but then equally Janssen did work with van der Vleuten. The Dutch figured that they alone had two in the break.
Before winning the amateur championship, according to a Dutch author, Merckx told his mother in Brussels that he would shake his legs on a downhill stretch to indicate that he felt fresh in the closing miles. He shook his legs and Mrs. Merckx was delighted. Young Eddy said later that he had done it because they were tired.
This time he remembered the wigging he got. As the bell rang for the last 13 kilometer lap, he winked at the television camera. It was the message to the folk back home.
But afterwards he admitted: “It looked confident but, frankly, I wasn’t that certain.”
Motta jumped on the last descent but failed. Janssen waited for the last 100 meters to sprint and Merckx leaped first. Through his arms, Merckx could see the Dutchman coming up on him inch by inch. Five meters before the line, he was alongside. Desperately, Merckx flung his bike forward beneath him and won by half a wheel.
Jan Janssen had to face his home crowd disappointed.