Frontier Womans
CYCLING WEEKLY|September 12, 2019
Author of a new biography of Beryl Burton, William Fotheringham ref lects on the importance of the British racing legend

History matters in sport as in all other walks of life, because there are figures and events that simply should not be forgotten, and which should be recorded for posterity. Each one of my books looks back to cycling’s past, and while writing each one of them, I’ve learned something else: history matters because it gives us a context in which to view today’s world.

Tom Simpson’s story mattered in the 21st century because of the contortions the sport had gone through over doping when I wrote Put Me Back On My Bike in 2002. Fausto Coppi’s life offered a way of explaining the traditions of Italian cycling; Eddy Merckx’s the nature of precisely what defines greatness in our sport, and Bernard Hinault’s career gave perspective to the struggles of French cyclists in the “two-speed cycling era”.

Delving deeper

Like pretty much everyone with a knowledge of British cycling history I thought I ‘knew’ Beryl Burton: time trialling great, multiple record holder, seven times world champion. I knew, of course, of the stories that have become part of the Burton legend: the long hours of toil in her clubmate Nim Carline’s market garden, and her greatest achievement, taking the men’s 12-hour record in 1967, and doing so by beating the then men’s Best All-Rounder Mike McNamara. I’d read her book, Personal Best, and seen Maxine Peake’s fantastic play, Beryl.

Like all champions, and like all those I have written about before, there was Burton was equally adept at road and track racing more to Burton than met the eye. Every biography is a process of discovery. So in writing this one I learned about the 11-plus exam, which she failed, to dire effect; rheumatic fever, which could have appalling consequences; and delved deeper into what was clearly a troubled childhood.

I also got to find out more about forcing rhubarb — which was what was going on at that market garden — perhaps more than I actually needed to know. And as regards the 12-hour triumph — when she passed McNamara and offered him a Liquorice Allsort, which has turned into the most

“I was shocked by the sexism that Burton and her contemporaries had to overcome”famous sweet in British cycling — I managed to get ‘Mac’’s side of the story, the first time it has been told. To find out why it was a relief to him when Burton caught him for two minutes, you will have to read the book.

That 12-hour record was astonishing, and it was eye-opening to see just how much of an impression it made at the time. It was, as far as I know, the only time a woman had broken a men’s record in cycling, and it seems to be unprecedented — again, at the time — in endurance sport. Put that with the seven rainbow jerseys and the 15 World Championship medals in 15 years and you begin to understand why I chose the title: The Greatest.

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