Award-winning sports journalist and author
Award-winning sports journalist and author

Interview with Owen Rogers

Lockdown is a good time to catch up on your reading, and here writer Owen Rogers interviews William Fotheringham about William’s latest book, The Greatest: The Times and Life of Beryl Burton.

1. Why write about Beryl Burton?

Like with my other biographies – Tom Simpson, Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault – I felt there was a gap to be filled, a story that had not been told in the depth a full-length biography can offer. Burton’s story has a greater significance than the other ones, however, in that the great women in cycling have been given less coverage – I raise my hand as one of the guilty parties in that omission – and there’s an obvious need to redress that. Having said that, when I wrote Put Me Back on My Bike, there were very few books around even about men in cycling. Now there are loads of books about blokes in our sport, but relatively few about women. Burton’s achievements as an athlete are amazing and we need to bring those stories of great women who can inspire to the widest possible audience. I felt a similar sense of mission when I was helping Lizzie Deignan with her book Steadfast, and The Greatest follows on from that. 

2. How did you go about your research and how long did it take? 

I had to write this book relatively quickly as the World’s in Yorkshire was an obvious target date to publish it. But the research was helped by the fact that, as with Simpson, everyone has a story about Burton, and most haven’t told their stories. So there were the obvious people to interview and as always, that was a lot of fun, because you find out new things all the time. Finding secondary source material was relatively simple as there was only Cycling magazine. So I went through the Comic pretty exhaustively, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In terms of actual writing it was quick: nine months start to finish, but working solidly, and working hard.

3. What effect do you think her dominance had on the sport?

Burton’s dominance of the UK racing scene for a quarter of a century was something that’s almost unparalleled for any athlete in any sport. She was a world championship medallist 15 times – over a long period when it was rare for GB men and women to come back from any cycling Worlds with more than a couple of medals – and won seven world titles in eight years. Within the UK, she won 96 national titles in 30 years, and she took the BBAR for 25 years in a row. As to the effect that had, at times she was simply so good that her rivals went and looked for other more rewarding things to do, but equally there was a whole generation of women racers who came along from the early 1970s through to the 1990s for whom she was an inspiration. Women like the Swinnerton sisters, Yvonne McGregor and Lizzie Deignan have all said her feats inspired them.

4. If the BCF wasn’t intentionally sexist it was certainly ignorant, do you think Beryl would have achieved even more had the governing body been more open to women’s sport?

In terms of national team support, there wasn’t a lot going around in Britain until 1998, but far more of what little there was went to the men than it should have done. It took until nearly the 1980s for a women’s national coach and national squad to happen. I think Burton would have benefitted from more support, but the big issue that dogged her and all the other great women racers of that era was a lack of racing opportunities due to the fact that the UCI didn’t take women seriously. If there had been more international racing she would have won even more, and the great chasm in her career remains the Olympics. It was a scandal that women didn’t race bikes at the Games until 1984.

5. Beryl chose not head permanently to Europe for the life of a pro, how do you think such a move might have affected her legacy?

The opportunity wasn’t really there for her unfortunately – not many women did make a living at it abroad, and there was no real template for her to follow. I think the main difference would have been that she would have remained better at road racing and pursuit for longer, and would have developed better tactical skills, if she had raced more in Europe. Arguably she might have taken more world titles off the back of that, but it’s very hard to say. You could equally argue that the British scene was what she liked and she kept going for longer because she was the best there for so long.

6. What do you think her refusal to shake her daughter Denise’s hand [after Denise  beat her in the 1976 national RR championship] showed about Beryl?

There are moments in every great athlete’s life when the carapace cracks and they show the vulnerable, pained individual inside. This was the moment when that happened for Beryl Burton. For a parent to react that way when their child confirms their physical superiority is an awful thing, and that moment left scars on Denise as you would expect. What it showed about her mother was her ultra-competitive nature, her refusal to accept defeat – even when the person who beat her was her own daughter – and her unwillingness to accept the natural process of aging. It was not a moment she was proud of in hindsight, but no champion is a straightforward human being.

7. What do you think was Beryl’s greatest achievement, and what do you think her response to that question would be?  

I’d be divided between her double of world’s gold medals in 1960, her 12-hour record for both sexes in 1967 and the 25 straight wins in the BAR. The first showed that she was head and shoulders the strongest women in the world. The BAR was just madness – it was a huge physical and mental effort, I can’t see anyone doing anything like that again. The 12 was the most dramatic – it’s still almost unheard of for a woman to beat a male endurance record under the same conditions, beating the best male competitor at that event along the way, so I’d plump for that one. I suspect she would say the 12 as well. 

8. You finish Chapter 13 with the line, “For Beryl Burton any level of achievement could never be enough.” Was she ever satisfied? How do you think she viewed her successes?  

I don’t think Burton was ever satisfied, which is why into her 40s she wanted to race in the Olympic Games and the women’s Tour de France – getting rejected from the GB team for that was an immense disappointment to her. She was not an athlete who wins one title then moves on to the next. Like Jeannie Longo or Marianne Vos or Eddy Merckx she wanted to restate her dominance again and again. Those athletes are the ones who find it hardest to stop. I think she was proud of what she achieved, but she liked to play it down in a Yorkshire kind of way. There’s a story about her keeping her medals in a button box. She also clearly felt that she was never remunerated or rewarded properly for the effort she put in and the immense success she had, and it’s hard to disagree with that. 

9. It’s so hard to compare eras, but where do you think Beryl would sit in today’s peloton?

It’s easy to dismiss her as a one-paced time trialist because she won those 25 BAR titles, but in her prime she was an allrounder – she won grass track, indoor track, outdoor track, road races in sprints and solo, and even a cyclo-cross. Her talents as a prolific time trial and pursuit winner would translate obviously to those disciplines today but she would also be winning stage races, hilly one day races, pretty much everything due to her sheer strength. So she’d be an all-rounder like Vos, but with a time trial tilt like Longo.

10. If Beryl was obsessive, was her obsession cycling or with success?

Burton was clearly obsessed with cycling, and it was a more complex fixation than merely winning. She wanted to be the best at everything she did, and my sense is that if cycling hadn’t come along at the right time she’d have found some other area in which she could succeed. But she clearly loved other things about cycling as well – if she kept racing when far past her best, I think that was because she just loved it as a milieu and couldn’t keep away.

11. How well do you think Beryl dealt with the inevitable decline that came with age?

I don’t think you can boil it down to “well” or “poorly” – she had a complex relationship with the bike. She was clearly frustrated when her body wouldn’t do what she wanted it to and she hated to be beaten. There were those around her who felt that continuing to race with little success, effectively against doctors’ orders was tragic, as if she couldn’t find anything else to do. But she loved it, and that was her world, so I can see why she kept going.

12. What is your favourite Beryl story? 

There are loads of them. And loads I didn’t get hold of because she was such a ubiquitous figure over so many years and I couldn’t talk to everyone. I like the story my late colleague Dennis Donovan told of how she came to his retirement do in the early 90s, and gave him a right telling off because having been a seriously fit racing cyclist, he’d let himself go physically. And the stories they tell about her heaving boxes of rhubarb at Nim Carline’s market garden are just brilliant. She was just an extraordinary character.