Forty-nine years ago, in 1967, Beryl Burton set the 12-hour time trial world record by covering 277.25 miles. That’s more than 23 miles per hour, sustained for 12 hours. You can stop scrolling through your Strava feed for comparison. Virtually none of us go that fast for that long.
It’s fair to say with some certainty that few cyclists have ever gone as fast for as long as Burton. Her 12-hour time trial (TT) record still stands for women, a half century after she set it. The men couldn’t top her distance for a full two years. When she caught and passed Mike McNamara mid-ride in the 1967 event, while they were both en route to winning their respective fields, she famously tossed him a candy. According to Burton, McNamara looked to be suffering a bit as she flew by him. He ended up setting the men’s 12-hour TT record that day, 0.73 miles behind Burton.
One record, as impressive as it may be, hardly earns the distinction of “dominant” in the world of cycling. For Burton, that long-standing record is just one among more than a hundred.
Beryl Charnock Burton (1937-1996) was born in Leeds, England. Her childhood was marked by illness and hospital stays, which led doctors to tell her to refrain from exercise. This medical mandate didn’t have much of an impact on Burton’s life until she turned 18 and learned how to ride a bike. After those first pedal turns of freedom, all bets were off and she would never listen to the word “no” again. Within two years, she earned a silver medal in her first national competition: a 100-mile individual time trial.
A natural talent with an unrelenting work ethic, Burton went on to earn results that didn’t slow with age. She won:
- 71 national, individual TT titles. The distances included a mix of 25-, 30-, 50-, and 100-mile events. When a 10-mile TT was added to the roster, Burton was in her 40s. She won four of those, too, for good measure. The records she set in these events stood from 10 to 20 years, depending on the distance.
- 12 national road race titles
- 13 national pursuit titles (track)
- Seven world champion titles, including two road race honors (1960, 1967) and five individual pursuit (track) championships (1959, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1966). The gold medals were complemented by a three silvers and three bronze medals.
Those staggering numbers pale in the context of one of Burton’s most jaw-dropping accomplishments. For 25 straight years, from 1959 to 1983, Burton earned the title of British Best All-Rounder. In a sport where most elite athletes compete at the highest levels for an average of 5.8 years (according to The Economics of Professional Road Cycling, by Daam Van Reeth), 25 years is more than four career lifetimes. Burton was the best women rider in Britain from age 22 to 46.
What makes her achievements all the more intriguing is that while she identified as a cyclist first and foremost, cycling wasn’t her job. Despite offers to turn pro, Burton remained a resolute amateur with neither sponsors nor a coach. She spent her days as a secretary, then later a farmworker. Training and races had to fit within her other obligations.
The gendered assumption would be that Burton remained an amateur in order to be closer to her husband and daughter. There’s no indication that this wasn’t the case, though one story suggests that not even family could quell Burton’s competitive zeal.
Burton’s daughter, Denise Burton (later Cole), turned out to be a talented bike racer herself. The mother-daughter duo shared a few years on the British national team in the 1970s. So long as the elder Burton was winning, all was well. But in 1976, Burton-Cole took the top spot at the British Women’s Road Championships, over her mother’s second place finish. The elder Burton refused to even shake her daughter’s hand, claiming Burton-Cole hadn’t pulled her weight in the breakaway.
Burton-Cole claims to have been nonplussed by the exchange. She understood that these things weren’t personal. Not even the success of her daughter could dampen her mom’s competitive drive. The mother-daughter duo went on to set the tandem bike 10-mile time trial record together in 1982. Cole-Burton retired before her mom.
Burton’s results are proof that she could have had a legendary international racing career had she turned pro. Instead she stayed focused mostly on events in and around in Britain, presumably to manage costs. Another possible reason for her domestic focus is that her primary specialty, the women’s individual time trial, was not on the international docket for most of the time Burton raced.
Though never reaching the international fame that her results warrant, Burton was widely celebrated in Britain. She was added posthumously to the British Cycling Hall of Fame in 2009, and has two pages (1960 and 1961) in the Golden Book of Cycling. In 1959, 1960, and 1967, she earned the illustrious Bidlake Memorial Prize, which honors outstanding achievement in British cycling. Burton was even named an officer of the Order of the British Empire. Though a few steps below a proper “Dame” title, it’s not a shabby recognition.
Burton was on a casual bike cruise around town when she died of heart failure. She was a few days shy of her 59th birthday.
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