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The Greatest: The Times and Life of Beryl Burton book review

9 Oct 2020

In-depth reconstruction of Beryl Burton, working-class superstar and world-beating bike racer

Cyclist Rating: 
An engrossing story well told and researched
Perhaps more authoritative than zippy

In 1967 Beryl Burton set a 12 hour time-trial record of 277.25 miles, outperforming the efforts of her male competitors. In the process, she overtook Mike McNamara who was on his way to setting the somewhat shorter men's record of 276.52 miles.

As she passed him, she reportedly gave him a liquorice allsort by way of encouragement. It’s a great story, and the one thing most people know about Burton – however, the esoteric nature of the 12 hour record makes it difficult to grasp the depth of her talent.

Certainly, it's overshadowed her seven world titles held in more conventional events such as the track pursuit and road race. Yet by the end of Guardian and Cyclist writer William Fotheringham’s exhaustive new biography, you’re left with the suspicion this is how Burton would have wanted it.

A woman determined to prove her worth against all comers, time on the bike was time away from the expectations of cycling’s various governing bodies, life at home and society at large – and in the end, it was the time that mattered.

Fotheringham’s latest book does a stellar job of both laying out Burton’s achievements while also excavating her often conflicted personality. Despite being beloved of the British cycling public, and having published an autobiography, Burton has always remained somewhat unknowable.

Whether through reticence or the belief that there’d be little interest in the personal life of a working-class Yorkshirewoman, Burton’s autobiography Personal Best went sparingly on the first part of its title.

By comparison, Fotheringham redresses this to present the life of someone often at odds with the expectations placed upon her – but possessing a huge talent and an unshakable drive.

Beating the lads

Uncomfortable among her peers, as a child Burton was so shattered by failing her 11-plus and missing the opportunity for social advancement it presented, she suffered a mental breakdown.

Soon followed by rheumatic fever, the result was nine months in hospital away from her family, fifteen more in convalescence, and the advice from her doctors that she should avoid strenuous exercise for the rest of her life.

It was a first instance of the various illnesses that would come to haunt much of Burton’s life.

Yet, as a precocious youngster, she wasn’t inclined to take any doctor’s advice. Married before her 18th birthday, this wasn’t much approved of either.

Still, her match proved a good one, and along with her new union came a new sport. Initially tagging along-on supposedly sociable club runs with her husband, Burton decided she’d never let on if she was suffering. Always in the saddle, always rock-solid, she’d hide any tiredness from the men she rode with.

Racing against time

With limited opportunities in mass-start racing in Britain, time-trialling became the forum for Burton’s talents. Previously the mainstay of the country’s club scene, you put your name on the sheet, pay a couple of quid and pedal off. Free from dependency on other riders, its purity instantly appealed to Burton’s ascetic personality.

Covering set distances against the clock, Burton would make the discipline her own – regularly beating fields packed with the country’s fastest male riders.

Fotheringham does a great job of evoking an era before sportives, mass-sponsorship and cheap overseas travel. With much of the action taking place during early mornings spent barreling down anonymous A-roads, it’s a culture that still ticks steadily beneath the surface of British cycling.

Riding as an amateur and with little cash, Burton hammered home her superiority over three decades during which she won the Road Time Trials Council’s British Best All-Rounder Competition for 25 consecutive years from 1959 to 1983.

But it wasn’t just on home roads that Burton found success. So grounded in the British cycling culture of the time, the book makes Burton’s trips abroad seem like an interruption. A fact not helped by a bureaucracy uninterested in promoting women's racing.

Yet despite little outside assistance, Burton won the World Championships Road Race in 1960 and 1967, while on the track she won a huge haul including five gold, three silver and four bronze medals.

However, with women at that time excluded from Olympic cycling, the possibility of even greater celebrity was denied to her – while performances on the world stage brought her more attention abroad than they did at home.


Racing against herself

Starting each chapter with a result measured in minutes and seconds, Fotheringham suggests Burton was more interested in times than trinkets and titles anyway.

Not that the lack of recognition didn’t rankle. Yet having won every race going, it eventually came to seem as if Burton was competing largely against herself.

This inner conflict plays out in other areas of Burton’s life. Despite her obvious intellect, Burton preferred manual work and often spent time between races labouring on farms.

A stalwart of the club scene who encouraged a generation of female cyclists, when eventually deposed by her daughter, the older Burton refused to embrace her and sunk into a depression over the loss of her previous identity.

The later chapters of the book covering the period of Burton’s decline describe a person so consumed by cycling as to neglect every other element of her emotional life.

The most engaging of the book, Fotheringham does a superb job of reconstructing the events behind the numbers. Such as when he tracks down the racer who saw Burton after losing to her daughter Denise ‘sitting on the floor of the changing room, hitting their surface with her fists – in the same state of frustration as when she dropped her ball as a child.’

Pushing against illness right until the end, when Burton's death comes it’s hard not to see it as her will having finally worn out her body – just as it had so many of her competitors.

Becoming the greatest

Driven by something almost beyond rational comprehension, what emerges from Fotheringham’s biography is an occasionally uncomfortable but always engaging portrait of one of Britain’s greatest ever athletes.

Written with the depth the subject deserves, Fotheringham’s book should be just-about accessible enough for the disinterested reader – and will be hoovered-up by fans.

Like its subject, it’s an inspiration. Yet at the same time, its 272 pages lay bare the cost Burton paid to become ‘the greatest’.

Driven by a desire for recognition, it goes some way to addressing that shortfall. However, the feeling you’re left with is that for whatever reason, it would never have been quite enough. Engaging stuff.

You can buy the book here:

All reviews are fully independent and no payments have been made by companies featured in reviews


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