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« The Weight Weenie | Main | Is it time to opt out of the culture of speed? »


Tropical Storm Beryl which formed last week off the coast of South Carolina then took a trip south to come ashore in north Florida. Beryl then did a “U” turn to travel over Georgia and coastal South Carolina last evening.

It did little damage; just dumped a whole lot of rain on the area.  I was relieved by the storm’s passing because now I no longer have to listen to a local TV Weather-man, Rob Fowler, butcher the pronunciation of the name Beryl.  

It is a two syllable name (Bear-ill) our local weather expert made it a one syllable name (Birl) like Girl. I think one of the reasons it drove me crazy was that the name reminded me of probably the greatest female cyclist ever; British rider Beryl Burton. This TV weatherman, for me anyway, was insulting her memory.

Beryl Burton (Above.) a year younger than me, dominated women’s cycling for over 20 years from the late 1950s until the early 1980s. British Time-Trialing was really the only sport open to a female cyclist in the UK during that period; and she was much faster than many men of that era, including me.

She held British National Women’s Records for all time-trial distances, and although these records have since fallen, one has to remember the times were set before aero-bars and disc wheels became standard TT equipment.

To give an idea of just how great a cyclist Beryl Burton was, here are the times for the records she set.

10 miles: 21:25 (1973) stood for 20 years
25 miles: 53:21 (1976) stood for 20 years
30 miles: 1:08:36 (1981) stood for 10 years
50 miles: 1:51:30 (1976) stood for 20 years
100 miles: 3:55:05 (1968) stood for 18 years
12-hour: 277.25m (1967) still stands

One record for the 12 hour event, Beryl set in 1967, at 277.25 miles, still stands. As a women’s record it will probably stand for many more years and possibly indefinitely.  277 miles is a distance many men would still be happy to achieve today, and with road racing now an available sport for top female cyclists, few women will even attempt the 12 hour time-trial event anymore.

Amazingly, this 12 hour record was greater than the men’s record at that time. There is a famous true story of when she caught Mike McNamara, who himself was on the way to recording a new men's national 12 hour record - 0.73 miles shorter than the figure Beryl Burton set.

In her biography Beryl recalled how she felt sorry for McNamarra, his moment of glory overshadowed by a woman. As she passed him she offered him a Liquorice Allsort (A famous British candy.) Mike took it, thanked her and ate it.

In spite of the fact that British Time-Trials on flat courses were the only competition open to her, Beryl Burton still managed to dominate World Championships.

With little or no road racing experience, she won the women’s world road race championship in 1960 and 1967 (Picture left.) and was runner-up in 1961.

On the track, she specialized in the Individual Pursuit event, winning World Championship medals almost every year across three decades. She was world champion five times (1959, 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1966), silver-medalist three times (1961, 1964 and 1968), and won bronze in 1967, 1970 and 1973.

When one considers that Women’s World Championship Road Races in Beryl’s day were only 40km. (25miles.) in length; had they been the 130km. of today’s women’s events (80 miles plus.) she would have decimated her rivals and won far more often.

Also there is the consideration that there was no women’s time-trial event for the World Championships back then, and women’s cycling was not included in the Olympic Games until 1984 at the end of Beryl’s career. How many more World medals could Beryl Burton have won?

Sadly it was Beryl Burton’s grit and determination that may have lead to her early death. As Beryl aged and her health deteriorated, she slowed, she trained even harder. Inevitably, this all proved too much.

One week short of turning 59, in May 1996, Beryl Burton - in whom doctors had always observed a curious heart rhythm - headed out for the last bike ride she'd ever make. On her bike, on roads close to her Yorkshire home, Britain's most prolific female racing cyclist collapsed and died.

The death of Beryl Burton taught me an important lesson. When you age there is no shame in slowing down; you have nothing more to prove. Know your physical limitations.



Reader Comments (19)

They all do it. Even here in Maine a nice lady from Coventry is called Burl.Makes us both mad.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterr francis

Though my "awful Southern English" theory is shot down, absolutely nothing sounds right about "burl" to the ears of this native Yank.

How is it even possible to say it that way after reading the name? Not once have I heard about Oscar-winning actress "Mrrl" Streep.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChamps

Yes Meryl Streep, an excelent example. In the English language the "y" in the middle of a word is almost always sounded as an "i." It must be a rare instance where the "y" is silent.

May 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

She was an amazing woman.
In her book the chapter where she was hit by a car and broke her leg in two places, bust some ribs, had her ear sewn up and just a matter of 56 stitches in her head has always inspired me. She went on to re train and carry on even after that.
Many of her medals and trophies are on display at the velodrome in Manchester.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDarren h

Great post Dave. I love liquorice allsorts but I'll stick to jelly beans for long rides ;-)

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlemmiwinks

Very interesting post. I knew nothing about her, which seems so sad to me. Amazing what she accomplished. I hope her 12 hour record stands forever as a monument to her life.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Thanks for sharing this information about Beryl. What an incredible and inspiring rider.

BTW, I love your essays, Dave. I don't always agree with you, but they always make me think and consider some new perspective.

May 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom

these historical articles are always informative, this one equally so, additonally in this case because I search ebay on 531 an awful lot and her autobiography is always one of the hits (531 753 in the title, looking in their records the seller sold a copy in March this year) I recognized the name but had never looked further. Thanks

May 31, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpeter

Dave, I remember that Cycling Weekly did an article on the magnitude of Beryl's sub 4 hour 100 mile record back in 1968 by comparing it to the mile running record for women. It went like this. At the time the men's 100 mile record in hours and minutes closely correlated with the men's mile running record in minutes and seconds. When Ray Booty broke 4 hours for 100 miles in 1956 with 3 hours 58 minutes, the mile record was held by John Landy in 3 minutes 58 seconds. When Beryl broke 4 hours for 100 miles in 1968 with 3 hours 55 minutes, the women's mile record was held by Anne Rosemay Smith with 4 minutes 37 seconds. At this time the correlation still held for men, the 100 miles at 3 hours 51 minutes to Martin Roach and the mile to Jim Ryun with 3 minutes 51 seconds. This statistic was used to show just how good Beryl was, probably the best female athlete of all time. And by the way, no woman has ever beaten 4 minutes for the mile, the current record being "only" 4 minutes 12 seconds to Svetlana Masterkova.

May 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDoubleB

Dave. I am friends with another OldBrit bike builder, Colin (COOLIN)Laing. he is now living near Phoenix AZ, His wife of many years Margaret is in Hospice very sad. BUT he sent me a book The Condor years. page 122 has also a photo of Beryl Buton and an article on her and Alf Engers etal. BUT in the book Colin enclosed a photo of Him and Beryl taken Feb 1978 they where both age 40 riding in the Grand Canyon, I am sure Colin is riding one of his bikes not sure about the bike Berly is on, The photo is signed BY Beryl says in her writing 'Best wishes to Colin and thanks once again for a lovely time. Love Beryl B xxx' I will scan this for you is you wish, give me an Email to send to. By the way another lovey lady from OUR days Eileen Sheridan is still alive in her 80s and was at my club Midland C&AC Dinner in Brum UK last year. Think Colin may enjoy a note from you to cheer him up abit with his wife in the condition she is in.

May 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGRUMPY Crump

Isn't slowing down being mediocre?


May 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I fail to see where a person like Beryl Burton, having acheived greatness in her lifetime could become "mediocre" simply because she became older.
Is Eddie Merckx considered "mediocre" now? I don't see the correlation betwen slowing down and mediocraty. Am I missing something here?

May 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton


Eddy Merckx is the Babe Ruth of cycling. You're blog inspires me to ride my bike, or fix on my bikes or read about bikes. I hope to see you Sat.

"Speed the modern diease"

June 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Bernique

Ah, who said Beryl slowed down? Like Greg LeMond said, being a pro cyclist isn’t any easier, you just go faster. She never slowed down, always pushing herself even if she wasn’t as fast as her youthful self. Her speed had nothing to do with slowing down. That was her approach to life.
I do know plenty of athletes that have slowed down either after amateur or pro careers. They got fat and out of shape. Beryl kept riding and did not slow down.
Do any of us really know our limitations? And if we so, what would we do with that information? Would it hinder or help us? I think it would prevent you from trying harder. (I also would like to know how one finds their limitations.)
So maybe, and no one on earth can know for sure, if Beryl had taken it easy and led a life of leisure she may have lived a few more days, or even years. Ex: If she had changed her life she would have lived longer. Maybe.
But who would that life be for? There are obese chain-smokers that live longer than she did. So what. Does that mean she should have been like them just for the chance to live longer? Absurd. Same with any advocate that claims you’ll live longer following their advice. It’s called BullShit.
We will all go when it is our time to go.
Embrace death as a natural part of life and you may be able to live your own life your own way.
Again, does showing down beget mediocrity? Be careful how you answer…

June 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

One other note is that as a child Beryl suffered rheumatic fever, which is a known factor in heart arrhythmia. Could her cycling have strengthened her and added years to her life? Yes. But, as Dave says, could her continued flat-out effort also been a factor in her early death? Equally possible.
There's a piece in The New York Times Tuesday about how "For Some, Exercise May Increase Heart Risk." So the question continues to be explored.
Nonetheless, Burton was an amazing cyclist.

June 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTed

Is Quality of life more important than LENGTH of life? This is a question that I have been asking myself a lot of late. My wife is always saying when I leave to go on a ride "Be carefull now! I DONT want to get a phone call!" I have to admit with my 79th B/D next Thurs, I do wonder IF the 35-40 miles a day that I ride is extending my life OR shortening it? I have been checked by my Dr and she says in her words "Mr Crump you are healthy as a horse?" So do I feel justified in saying to myself, SELF if you die on your bloody bike at least you died doing something you enjoyed. BUT I do have family to think about. Do I want them to say "WELL IF he had stayed home and NOT out riding his dam bike all the time he would still be with us" Maybe Beryl felt the same? surley she knew about her health, But felt the way I DO?

June 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGRUMPY Crump

Another note, Eddy Merkcx, I did read in a cyling mag that his doctor had told him to limit his heart rate and to not push it to much. BUT also reading the article it said that he went out on ride with a group and more than held his own with much younger and stronger riders. SO Did Eddy while riding with this group say to himeself "Hey Im EDDY MERKCX dam I am going to show you young studs that I am THE GREAT EDDY!" This IS the problem that I have and I am sure you Dave also has, WE competed for such a long time with no holds barred this IS the only way we can ride. A young stud OR as happens more STUDESS passes me, BOY Off I go,after em. OF course 9 out of 10 times they become a speck in the distance and I close it down,muttering to myself "Well they are MUCH younger than me and I am riding a much more heavy vintage bike (EVEN IF I AM ON MY 15lb carbon multigeared thingemabob)" But at least I do still give it a go. SO. Do you do as the Dr says. OR play your cards the way you want and to hell with the consequence, Maybe Beryl did the same.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGRUMPY Crump

@ Grumpy Crump:

I have been restoring a very old Colin Laing racing bike passed down to me which the previous owners claim Beryl Burton once rode. I am very very curious to learn more about the origins of my bike and wanted to know if you could e-mail me the scan of Colin and Beryl from your book. Maybe I will be able to identify if she is on my bike!

Thank you!

June 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRcs390

This came to my attention. A new play about Beryl, form a wonderful English actress/playwright.

February 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul
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