Beryl Burton’s autobiography Personal Best tells the story of one of the UK’s greatest female athletes in her own words. It was first published in 1986 and has been re-released amid a surge in popularity of UK cycling following the 2008 Olympics.
Burton is no longer alive – she died in 1996, a few days shy of her 59th birthday – but her exploits continue to inspire and are well detailed in this book.
Burton dominated women’s cycling from the late ’50s until the early ’80s, when she retired. The hard-as-nails Yorkshirewoman won her first UK time trial championship in 1958 at 21 and went onto win two world road race championships and five world individual pursuit championships.
She won the British best all-rounder (time trial) championship for an amazing 25 years in a row, nearly 100 national time trial, road race and track titles, and she set competition records that stood until major advances in aerodynamic equipment allowed them to be broken.
In fact, she still holds the UK women’s 12-hour record at 277.25 miles, set in 1967, which at the time was further than the men’s 12-hour record. She famously passed the record-setting man towards the end of that race, offering him a liquorice allsort as she went by.
Burton was very much an amateur, fitting in cycling around her day job and family. She did it despite suffering serious health problems as a child: at 11 years, she spent nine months in hospital with chorea (St Vitus’ dance) and rheumatic fever. Her cycling career was plagued by crashes and injuries that might have curtailed an athlete with less drive and determination than Burton.
In her own words
Personal Best is a straightforward chronological account of Burton’s career and life. Her matter-of-fact tone means it’s a little dry at times: lots of races, times and victories with not much colour. That’s not necessarily bad, because the reader has the liberty to interpret her story and take inspiration from it in their own way. Beryl Burton doesn’t need to big herself up: the plain facts do that just fine.
But wedged in between the race results are some beautiful stories and anecdotes as well as an interesting historical account of the sport as it was back then. Beryl tells of her falling out and reconciliation with her daughter Denise. Denise was a top cyclist in her own right, and she and Beryl even raced together for Great Britain in the 1972 world road championships in France. But over the next few years their relationship became strained. According to Beryl it was because she thought Denise should be pulling her weight at home. That meant they raced as real rivals in the 1976 national road race championships, which Denise won by a hair from her mother.
“It would be nice to record that I felt pleased for her as I heard the judges’ decision announced,” wrote Beryl. “But this is not a story for some romantic magazine, it is a real life narrative about basically ordinary people with jangled nerves and emotions, our bitter conflict played out in almost gladiatorial fashion.”
Just like in their domestic squabbles, Beryl thought Denise should have pulled her weight in the breakaway and didn’t really deserve the win. The two didn’t even shake hands on the podium. The pair rode for different clubs in 1977 and the feud continued until the national pursuit championships. There, Beryl and Denise met in the semi-final, which was won convincingly by Denise.
Beryl wrote: “Under other circumstances the race could have been a happy sporting occasion with a ‘what-the-hell-who-wins’ attitude but, as it was, it was four minutes and some seconds of purgatory. Trembling I returned to the riders’ enclosure and began to pull on my tracksuit. Then somebody was standing in front of me, and I looked up. Denise came into my arms and we hugged and wept, oblivious of the ‘bikies’ around us and the crowd in the stand.”
It’s a touching, true life story and gives us more of an insight into this great female rider than just her results and records. Definitely worth a read.
RRP £19.95, Mercian Manuals (mercianmanuals.co.uk), ISBN 978-1-903088-47-0, 182 pages.