“I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”
– Susan B Anthony, United States suffragist, in 1896
As the Tour de France begins, you may notice something about the riders: they are all men.
On of the few alternative “women’s” races, the Route de France Féminine, has also been cancelled for the second year in a row and the two-day La Course by Le Tour de France hardly compares with the men’s three week, 3,351 kilometre course.
But forget Chris Froome, my thoughts are turned to the less well known Beryl Burton; a record breaking English racing cyclist who dominated women’s cycle racing from the 1950’s to the 1970’s.
Born Beryl Charnock in 1937 near Leeds, Burton’s cycling story begins twenty years later. She was introduced to cycling by her husband, Charlie Burton, who she met when she was just 17, while she was working in a clothing factory, and married a year later in 1955. She borrowed a bike from him, joined the cycling club and in 1957 took home a silver medal in the national 100-mile individual time trial championship.
What followed was an astounding career; she took 120 National Titles, five World pursuit titles and two World road titles, as well as six bronze and silver international medals. At the age of 30, she set the 12-hour time trial record, which remained unbeaten by any rider, male or female, for two whole years. During this particular race she is reported to have handed fellow cyclist Mike McNamara a liquorice allsort as she passed him, a gesture for destroying his chances of a record time. For 25 years straight (between 1959 and 1983), Burton won every single British Best All-Rounder time trial.
Burton was one of the first cyclists inducted into the British Cycling Hall of Fame when it was formed in 2010 and a 2.8 km cycle and walking route between Harrogate and Knaresborough was named The Beryl Burton Cycle Way. Sadly she wouldn’t live to see these honours: Burton died of heart failure in 1996 while she was out on her bike delivering birthday invitations for her 59th birthday party.
Burton’s daughter Denise, also a successful cyclist, attributes her mother’s success to her determination before her physical prowess: “She just had her own ideas of what she was going to do and she did it,” Denise recalls. “Nothing stood in her way.”
A lot of us could take a leaf out of Burton’s book. Perhaps not pushing ourselves to the point of heart failure, but to let nothing stand in the way of what we want to achieve. We should all “be more Burton”. And with campaigns like Breeze Champions (women-only rides lead by volunteers as part of British Cycling’s goal of getting one million more women cycling regularly by 2020) and This Girl Can the number of women taking to two wheels is slowly increasing.
So perhaps, soon, women’s cycling will finally get the respect and the races it deserves.