Back to the blogs now that the autumn evenings are drawing in, the Tour of Lombardy is safely behind us and Putte Kapellen has closed the Belgian racing season… The first of the winter is about my next book: a biography of Beryl Burton to be published in September 2019, entitled The Greatest: the Times and Life of Beryl Burton (I’m sure you can see what I’m doing there). Work is well under way, and it’s nice to have the bit firmly between the teeth.
There are so many good reasons to write a Beryl Burton book, and so many good reasons to write it now. It’s a source of massive frustration to me that I never got to interview her when I was working at Cycling Weekly, not because I didn’t want to meet her, but simply because I was directed towards the European professional racing scene due to my talking French and Italian, while senior writers such as the late Dennis Donovan gravitated towards Beryl.
And like everyone else, I just assumed that Beryl Burton would be there for a lot longer than it sadly turned out. She was a fixture in the British cycling world, one of those unique figures who was simultaneously a god like person who was way above the average in what she had achieved, yet who was accessible because she did the same races that so many did. All British cyclists of a certain age have either been caught by Beryl in a time trial, or have a friend who has.
So I only ever got to write her obituary for the Guardian, and hopefully I did a reasonable job of that. (The obit doesn’t appear to be on line now like many stories from pre-2000, but it was printed in the anthology of my writing for the paper, Racing Hard. And yes, that’s a gratuitous plug).
Having written about Eddy Merckx, Tom Simpson, and Fausto Coppi, as I moved on to Bernard Hinault, it became clear that I would end up writing a series of biographies of the greatest cyclists the sport has known: Beryl Burton was obviously going to be on the short list of potential candidates, given her longevity and her prolific medal winning record.
I knew I was interested in Beryl Burton’s story but it was hard to figure out how many other people might be, until I went to see Maxine Peake’s play about her, when it came on tour to a small town in the Welsh borders. The place was packed; clearly her story still resonated, in much the same way that I became aware of the enduring interest in the Simpson legend when I went to watch Ray Pascoe’s film about him.
The Beryl Burton story taps into so many things: the theme of greatness and its complexities that I’ve explored in most of my books one way or another. Cycling in Britain which is something that I love in all its various meanderings and in the way it melds into the social history of our country. I’ve always been aware of the barriers women have faced in this sport, which was what drew me to help Lizzie Armitstead (now Deignan) when she wanted a ghost writer for her autobiography. There’s Yorkshire, where I learned to ride a bike, and where I picked up an East Riding accent which was knocked out of me at primary school. And then there’s time trialling, something I have done a lot of, like so many cyclists, but have always been completely rubbish at.
It’s taken a while and a few circumlocutions, but here I am, doing what I love best: getting to know a character from cycling history to, I hope, the nth degree. One big difference with this book is that it’s my first self-publishing project, albeit with some support in logistical terms which will make things a lot simpler once the writing is done, plus a link to the Dave Rayner fund which fits so well with the Yorkshire theme. The “Rayner” will receive a pound per copy sold.
My last book, Sunday in Hell, made me realise that there is not just one template for writing, publishing and marketing a book. You don’t have to stick with the conventional model. Sunday was a radically different but hugely rewarding thing to do and given the demand for screenings of the film, it seems to have struck a chord with fans who have seen the film and/or love the race; Beryl Burton, the Times and Life, is an intriguing and slightly daunting experiment for me but it should be a lot of fun seeing what comes out at the end.
I will be posting updates on a Facebook page – The Greatest: the Times and Life of Beryl Burton – where you can register an interest for a reminder when we begin taking advance orders some time next spring. To do so, visit the Facebook page, find the “event” tag for publication, and register as “going”.