Beryl Burton – The Greatest Sportsperson ?

Just down the road from where I live and that I cycle past on a regular basis is the Beryl Burton gardens which commemorate the late great Morley rider.  The ‘garden’ as you can see from the photo below that I took is not really a garden it is simply a wall painted with her cycling out of the town in front of which are a few raised flower beds and a couple of seats which are situated behind a row of shops.  It’s so incongruous that I doubt that many people even know it’s there let alone who she was.  In fact if you stopped most of the people in Morley or Leeds at random and asked who Beryl Burton was then I doubt that many would have a clue.  It’s a shame really that there is not a more prominent memorial in either Morley or Leeds City Centre because her achievements were simply phenomenal.

Today is International Women’s Day and who could be a more fitting figure to celebrate and bring her achievements to the fore.  Consider this and then try to think of any sportsperson of either gender in Leeds, Yorkshire or the Country who can match it.

  • Women’s world road race champion in 1960 and 1967 and was runner up in 1961
  • Individual pursuit world champion 5 times, silver 3 times and bronze 3 times all won across 3 decades between 1959-1973
  • 72 national individual time trial titles
  • 12 national road race titles
  • 12 national pursuit titles
  • In 1967 she set she set a new 12-hour time trial record of 277.25 miles which surpassed the men’s  record of the time by 0.73 miles and was not superseded by a man until 1969.
  • She also set around 50 national records at 10, 15, 25, 30, 50 and 100-mile distances; her final 10, 25 and 50-mile records each lasted 20 years before being broken, her 100-mile record lasted 28 years, and her 12-hour record still stands today.
  • In 1982, with her daughter Denise (seen above in the baby seat on the back of Beryl’s bike), Burton set a British 10-mile record for women riding a tandem.  Denise herself was also a top female cyclist (winning a bronze in the 1975 world individual pursuit championship) and Mother and daughter were both selected to represent Great Britain in the 1972 world championship.
Incredibly despite a serious accident in 1978 Beryl was still going strong in 1984 aged 47 when she set out to compete in the inaugural Women’s Tour de France introduced that year. Unfortunately for her, cycling’s ruling body in the UK decided she didn’t have any road racing qualifications for that year (she’d limited herself to time trials) they blocked her entry. Later a selected rider dropped out and Beryl was asked, at the last minute, to step in but she told the authorities just what they could do with the belated offer!

Beryl was awarded an MBE and OBE and died of a heart failure while out on a social ride apparently delivering birthday invitations for her 59th birthday.  I cannot think of a greater sportswoman and cyclist to celebrate International Women’s Day and despite the difficulty in comparing sports and sportspeople across different eras is there anyone better ?

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