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Cyclist’s 31 Inspirational Women No24: Beryl Burton

The greatest female cyclist of her generation, and arguably of all time

Sponsored Maria David
24 Mar 2021

Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women

To celebrate International Women's Month, we have partnered with Zwift to tell the stories of 31 inspirational women across 31 days

Words: Maria David Photo: Offside

For many people, Beryl Burton is the greatest female cyclist of all time. Over her 30-year career she won more than 90 British titles across time-trialling, road racing and track pursuit.

In addition, she was a two-time World Road Race champion, and a five-time World Individual Pursuit champion on the track.

Throughout her long career, the gritty rider from Morley, south of Leeds, was always on the hunt for more in her quest to race harder and faster – from her first win in 1956, through her record-breaking 12-hour ride in 1967, and right up to her final victory at the National Time Trial Championships in 1986.

Yet even with all her victories, Beryl maintained a no-frills, down-to-earth attitude, shunning fame and glory. Beryl’s life was a case of train, race, win, repeat – and that in between bringing up daughter, Denise, and working at a local rhubarb farm.

One of Beryl’s teammates was Sheila Waddington. Now aged 86, she recalls those days:

‘When I first met Beryl it was on one of the local regular rides called “Top 10s”, in an area called Bruntcliffe. Beryl rode her sister’s bike when she started cycling, and then Charlie [Beryl’s husband], who was also a cyclist, got her a bike.

Beryl was just good at everything. Some of the girls thought there was no point in going to the races when she was there!

‘And that’s how she got into racing. She was really competitive – not just in cycling, but in everything she did.

‘She did many activities and had to do all of them to the best of her ability – even housework! When we went out riding she used to carry her knitting with her in her saddlebag. And when we stopped for a break she would be there knitting away!’

Sheila recalls evening training rides that they would do after spending the day planting, watering, pulling, and packing rhubarb.

‘One of the routes we did was to go to Otley via the old road and then come back over Harewood Bank and through Leeds to get home. Sometimes we’d go out towards Tadcaster, which was a bit flatter.

‘But whatever, with Beryl the rides were always fast. It was no good just soft-pedalling – we had to go hard. I enjoyed it, and I know Beryl did too.’

Sheila recalls Beryl being more motivated than anyone else she knew.

‘Beryl was just good at everything. Some of the girls thought there was no point in going to the races when she was there!’

More than that, Beryl managed to combine training and competing with motherhood – something that was almost unheard of in those days.

Daughter Denise doesn’t recall much about the golden year of 1967 in which her mum broke the 12-hour Record and won the World Championships. The most significant thing for her that year was moving up to senior school.

At home, Beryl never celebrated her victories. Straight away she would be looking to her next race and the training.

Travelling to races was not something that Denise enjoyed: ‘I can remember what seemed like long car journeys to and from races, being bored – reading in the car made me instantly sick – and either looking out of the window or falling asleep, as we would have been up very early.

‘I enjoyed being at the races though, as I saw many familiar friendly faces.’

Denise herself got into racing when she joined the youth section of Morley Road Club and did time-trials and criterium races.

However, despite being the daughter of such a successful rider, Denise didn’t train with her mum or receive any coaching from her.

‘I got my tips by reading cycling magazines and manuals. I talked and listened to other cyclists, and rode with other keen riders. As they were mainly male it was good training for me.

‘My parents did provide me with all my bikes and cycling gear though, and my dad was an ace mechanic.’

Find the rest of Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women here

When Denise started winning road races and pursuits, Beryl started to view her daughter as a challenger and a rivalry developed.

One of Denise’s fondest memories was when she won the National Road Race Championships in 1976 in Harrogate, 20 miles from home.

‘There was a tangle between two girls, who ended up on the deck. That left me, my mum and Carol Barton in a breakaway for the last two laps, and I won the sprint for the line.

‘None of us were good at sprinting but I was the fastest of the three non-sprinters! My mum wasn’t pleased at all and took it to heart.’

In fact, Beryl was so displeased with the result that she refused to shake hands with her daughter on the podium. In those days, Beryl was so driven in her racing that she raced very much for herself, without sharing anything with her daughter.

Looking back now, though, Denise has more positive memories of her mum.

‘I think she inspired me more than I realised, way back then. Perhaps it was because she was always on a bike, it made me want to do that. After all, she was my mum.

‘In later years when I looked at her achievements, I just thought, “Wow!”’

For more from Zwift this International Women's Month, visit here.