Books and reflections – Eddie Merckx and Beryl Burton

As I mentioned in posts at the time two of the greatest cycling names in history crossed my path recently. I was given a new biography of Merckx as a “going to Belgium gift” by Brian and Marjike and I heard about a possible play about the life of Beryl Burton in the same week.

There was something in the insatiable desire of Merckx that reminded me of Burton’s appetite for racing so I decided to re-read of Beryl’s autobiography “Personal Best”, both as a comparison and a reflection of two riders from the same period.

Without a shadow of doubt William Fotheringham’s “Half Man, Half Bike” is the better read. He is a professional journalist with a good eye for a story but also the variety and competitiveness of international pro bike racing means there is so much more in the content. It is also much more accessible to a wider audience because pro bike racing gets much more media coverage these days. Beryl was above all else a specialist in the very British branch of time trialling. It has a character all of its own, but it is not exactly a thrill a minute sport and Beryl was so dominant far too much of the book reads like a catalogue.

Personal Best - Beryl Burton CoverIn “Personal Best” only editor Colin Kirby really speculates on what made Beryl special. William Fotheringham spends more of his time trying to understand why Merckx just had to win every week, but without ever really getting to the bottom of this driven personality.. And what neither book can tell is what made them the athletes they became. Is there a link to illness as a child, especially in Beryl’s case? One can’t help but recall that Lance Armstrong was good but not great before his recovery from cancer. Today sports science would intervene and give us some juicy titbits, like the lung capacity and low pulse rate of Miguel Indurain or the power output of Mark Cavendish.

Also what I hadn’t realised until I read both books side by side is just how many injuries both were dealing with. If the ability to push yourself to the athletic limit is linked to an ability to overcome pain thresholds then perhaps we have found the common thread that binds them? For now we largely have the results of both careers, and a hint that winning was as much mental as physical with these greats.

I enjoyed re-reading “Personal Best” much more than I expected. In 1986 I did find it a bit boring and I am not sure I really can recommend it as a great read to anyone outside time trialling, other than as a curiosity. But reading it this time I felt both nostalgia for a lost time and a deeper recognition of just how great this athlete really was. I hope the radio play about her life comes off and really manages to capture the essence of the BB story, I for one shall be watching out for it eagerly.

Personal Best – reflections

(Eddie Merckx “Half man, half bike” review to follow in a few days.)

On opening my copy of “Personal Best” there is a handwritten message: “Sept ’86 – she’s an inspiration to us all. – Dad.” On the occasion of my 25th birthday this book was important enough for my father to make this my present, knowing I would understand the message.

Only in the closed world of British time trialling could the legendary status of Beryl Burton truly be understood. Forget the time trials you see on the television for the world champs or at the grand tours. This was a sport that grew up with a very different heritage, a sort of parallel evolution to all other forms of cycling. In the early part of the twentieth century a group of wise men decided that continental style mass start racing was too much for the British public to bare and it had to be killed off. The only way racing on the highway could be considered was to have secret meeting points early in the morning where discrete cyclists carefully dressed in black would ride off at one minute intervals to compete on time over fixed distances. There was also thinly disguised snobbery for the fancy tactics of the continentals, this pure art of time trialling was about speed only.

In the narrow confines of time-trialling world there is no “hand to hand” combat where cyclists could use skill and tactics to ride against each other, it is power in its most pure form. While the sport had moved away from its secret identity by Beryl’s time it was still a relatively narrow world, but it commands a significant cycling community in the UK. Even today there is hardly a racing cyclist who hasn’t at least tried the shortest of all the time trialling distances – 10 miles – and knows their own PB, hence the title of the book “Personal Best”, a shared code.

This makes time trialling very inclusive. Everybody here understands the search for those elusive seconds that could give a new PB or set the fastest time for your club, district or country this year. They can also measure exactly in seconds, minutes or miles exactly just how good the champions of the sport really are. I know the time and place of all my personals, and just how slow I really was! And up to the 1970s the races were also a shared experience. Up to 120 riders of all abilities could set off and have the same experience of the course and the conditions. The champions are scattered through the field so the mere mortals will see them whizz by at regular intervals. Later greater use of cars enabled the faster riders to travel the country seeking fast times and keep the lesser performers off many of the fast courses, but in the 1960s it was still a real melting pot. In preparing this post I was looking at some recently scanned photos from our family album and I suddenly realised that this grainy shot from the Isle of Man Cycling festival in 1966 just sums it up. Isle of Man Cycling Festival 1966 Time Trial Start

My Mum is on the start line ready to ride a festival time trial in what must have been her first ever season of racing. And I think waiting to start just one minute behind her is none other than Beryl Burton.

Beryl belonged to this community, she was their icon, their champion – and all the more accessible for being a Yorkshire housewife who worked on a rhubarb farm and was largely untouched by celebrity. She had come into this closed world as a young Yorkshire woman who won her first race in 1956. By the time her autobiography was written in 1986 we didn’t know she had just won her last solo national title but she had been at the top of the sport for nearly 30 years. She not only won women’s races by enormous margins but then started beating the men. There was not a time trialist in the country who couldn’t measure just how good she was against their own times. Some of the earliest times I can recall are being carried out of the house in the dark to a waiting car because Daddy or Mummy had a race. Hours later we would wake up in some god-forsaken layby where the time trial had taken place. And whenever I might ask “who won?” the answer for the women’s race would always be Beryl, and indeed many of the men’s races.

To cap it all was the legendary 1967 Otley 12 hour. In time trialling the Brits race up to 12 and 24 hours each year to see who can cover the greatest mileage. In 1967 Beryl did what no other woman in athletic history has achieved in any sporting discipline. She not only beat the men’s winner on the day but she broke the national men’s record, completing 277 miles (449km) in 12 hours. I was only 6 years old at the time so I don’t have any recall of it as news but I somehow felt I was part of that time. Back to the family archive and I discovered the result sheet from the 100 mile championship of the year which has one of my favourite family cycling photos.

National Women's 100 mile Time Trial Result Sheet 1967

National Women’s 100 mile Time Trial Result Sheet 1967

Beryl dominant as ever, but 30 women finished the event, not least a novice riding her first ever 100 mile TT. I know I was being carted around such events at the time in the back of the support car so I guess I just absorbed the memories.

If the UK cyclists win medals at the Olympics this year it will be great, but it would be a much fairer test of their greatness if they were pitching against the five or six Gold Medals that should have been won by BB. “Personal Best” is a better book when it ventures off into the more exciting world of road racing and foreign trips such as world championships where she came up against the Belgians, Dutch and the machine that was Russian women’s sport in the 1960s and 70s. But Beryl’s frustrations with the lack of reward for pure effort show too, here was a world in which should couldn’t win every year with pure Yorkshire grit, but her haul of seven world championships is truly incredible. Sadly all women’s racing was excluded from the Olympics until the 1980s and even then a time trial was not included until much more recently. Had it been there is little doubt Beryl would have had far greater national prestige outside the cycling world.

The book quotes a French commentator in the opening line of the forward which sums it up. Maybe not the greatest book, but the greatest female cyclist we have ever seen:

“If Beryl Burton had been French Joan of Arc would have to take second place.”

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