In praise of Nicole Cooke, a real champion

Racing cyclist Nicole Cooke announced her retirement today. Multiple world champion and memorably Olympic Road Race champion at Beijing in 1988

Tonight I heard her giving an excellent interview to the BBC in which she is her usual robust self when describing her views on drug cheats and the impact they have on other riders’ careers. (link below) In the week that Lance Armstrong appears to trying to salvage his reputation on the sorry ground of the Oprah show I think we should salute a real star of our sport.

I am biased about Nicole because I have been following her career for long time and I know that she really is an old school champion, one who made her way up through the sport just before the British Cycling machine started producing champions with almost conveyor like regularity.

Back in the 1990s I was living in Cardiff and I restarted my club riding and racing career with the Cardiff Ajax Cycling Club, then a long standing club with a nice family atmosphere. Down in the schools category a name started to appear regularly – a twelve year old girl was beating all the boys at cyclocross and started winning national championships in unbeatable style. Within a year she was getting a national reputation. I recall Cycling Weekly magazine commenting that most of the senior men could learn a bit from watching her bike handling.

But along with her racing supportive parents Tony and Denise had brought up her and her brother as all round cyclists with a real appreciation of the pastime as well. They had cycled to school and been on cycle touring holidays too but Nicole was always a ferociously competitor and outgrew the gentle riding and school category years ahead of her time. Scarily bright too, doing exams early so they didn’t clash with her racing and a good speaker at social functions and prizegivings.

I have memories of the 15 year old Nicole handing out a thrashing more than a few times at any discipline. A 100 mile February reliability ride in freezing rain and snow, most of the top local riders left my group for dead. While we old men were dying in the café the “youngster” was going the whole way with the lead group – perhaps ideal preparation for that horrible day in Beijing ten or so years later?

Or later that summer when she was given special dispensation to ride outside her youth category with the local senior men as a bit of training. I was well dropped when I pulled off the circuit to watch the race finish, but even by then I had been terrified trying to follow her wheel round some of the corners on the old airfield circuit. Everyone else sort of rode round the corners, Nicole just hauled her bike round in a juddering arc, unforgiving on bike and rider. Not only did she ride with the seniors just below elite level and stay with them all race, she burst from the pack to win the bunch sprint embarrassing some quite handy individuals into the bargain.

She then became our club icon, followed by everyone and gradually a champion respected by everyone throughout the cycling world. Junior champion at every discipline, me shouting at the Eurosport coverage in each victory. Then the Commonwealth Games put her on the national stage, coming from behind after missing a corner after a typical piece of mad and fearless descending.

And that was her style. A colleague of mine at CTC Mick Ives also ran a pro cycling team which Nicole rode for a junior and he said she was relentless and unforgiving on herself and her equipment, driving herself to the limit, probably racing and training too much. Actually now I write this I realise how much she sounds like our other champion Beryl Burton who I have written about quite a bit in the last year or so. (tagged below)

I guess I was one of those who probably believed that she was destined never to quite get the world or Olympic titles she deserved, especially with the coming career of the similarly amazing Marianne Vos. But as if the Olympic title wasn’t enough the sheer bloody mindedness with which she outsprinted Vos for the world title in the same year was the one that had me almost break furniture as I jumped in the air.

That was probably her last brilliant year and it has been tough going since then with injury and team problems, not to mention internal tensions in the British team as her status waned but she remains high on my list as a rider that I would never tire of watching, there was always a possibility that she would do something in almost every race.

She deserves a successful retirement now and the continued respect of our whole cycling world. If she gets her moment in some sort of truth and reconciliation process after all the current rubbish in men’s cycling she will be a force to be reckoned with because she will not hold back.

Respect.

Links – Nicole Cooke on Wikipedia     BBC Radio interview 

Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels – radio play about the greatest cyclist of an era, possibly ever

So at last Maxine Peake’s play about Beryl Burton made the airwaves this afternoon.

I was traveling so I have had to listen to it myself in my hotel room on the i-player this evening – link here.

Followers of my blog know I have been building up the Beryl story since May (Click tab “Beryl Burton” for other posts and material). I had this horrible moment about a week ago when I read the synopsis on line and I thought it might just be terrible and a bit twee, focussing on a manufactured love story between Beryl and Charlie and my buildup would be in vain.

But what made it work for me were the recordings of Charlie and daughter Denise chatting about Beryl as if she was just round the corner and had popped out for a ride, almost like the day she died. It brings that authenticity and honesty I can respect, bringing to life some of the stories from the book “Personal Best” on which it is based.

Such a dominant figure in the cycling history of the period, but spoken of which such affection by the two people who knew her best, even if it is clear she was far from easy to live with. Yes it was a love story.

Aficionados will be cross at some of the corny sound effects to make radio drama accessible and I can assure you that there weren’t crowds, loudspeakers and commentators at 1960s time trials, if there had been maybe Beryl would have been the star she should have been. But I am forgiving, they were needed for the narrative to work and it is hard to portray a superstar at a sport that was invented for its anonymity! If I have one complaint it would be that her achievements still didn’t really come across, she really was such an athlete she is so hard to sum up.

But all in all a really good effort and its placement on Radio 4 will have gone a long way to telling the world about our hidden heroine. I have only seen feedback on twitter so far tonight, but overall it is really positive.

Please give it a listen, and if you can get a copy of “Personal Best” do so, it fills out the rest.

Play about the life of cycling legend Beryl Burton to be broadcast in November

Those who have been following my blog since the spring will know that a radio broadcast featuring actress Maxine Peake gave me two great posts.

“Beryl Burton, Radcliffe and Maconie, Working Class Struggle in 30 minutes – Maxine Peake you are my new star” on May 1st

“Books and reflections – Eddie Merckx and Beryl Burton” on May 28th.

This is because Maxine was writing a play about the life of Beryl. I am now absolutely delighted to discover that it is going to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 27th November at 2.15 because maxine was back on the Radcliffe and Maconie show again on Monday.

Link to the show http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p0fpl

Interestingly she says it has now become “Beryl – a love story on two wheels” with a strong emphasis on the relationship between Beryl and Charlie. I hope it gets a huge audience, in these awful times for cycle racing Beryl stands out like a beacon. If you don’t know the story have a read of the blog post and buy her biography.

Link to the BBC6 radio show on Monday is available until next Sunday, Maxine Peake is on after about 30 minutes. (And another plug for my favourite show!)

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.”

Beryl Burton, Radcliffe and Maconie, Working Class Struggle in 30 minutes – Maxine Peake you are my new star

Do radio shows get any better than this?

Picture Link Silk (tv program) Wiki

I am quietly minding my own business listening to my favourite radio show on Friday. Radcliffe and Maconie on BBC Radio 6 Music has just my sort of music and chat together with some great guests. As I started listening I wasn’t really alert to Friday’s guest Maxine Peake, vaguely aware she’s an actress.

Charmed in 30 minutes by a really genuine character who was great fun. She already had me won over when she chose “Testimony of Patience Kershaw” by the Unthanks,  a amazing song about working class struggle which she felt summed up some of her views. (Performed on my Music to Ride Bikes By Page)

But then twenty minutes in she announced that she is writing a radio play about cycling legend Beryl Burton for BBC Radio 4 which will hopefully come out in September. Maxine enthused about the BB story based on her autobiography Personal Best – the working class woman from Morley who went on to become a world champion in an era of no support and sponsorship.Beryl Burton - Personal Best Cover

It made me pull “Personal Best” out of the bookcase and start reading as a great postscript to “Half man , half bike” last week, two extraordinary champions in a week. Beryl was a fixture of my formative cycling years, I remember my Mum racing against her, probably mid-late 60s. Everyone was just in awe of what she did but she was just so accessible to club cyclists as she rode the national time trialling scene.

Years later I have had the pleasure of riding with Beryl’s daughter and grandchildren at the CTC Birthday rides. We were up in Dumfries and I still recall Dave Bailey from Sheffield being in awe of the Burton aura, but they were just a nice family enjoying their touring.

Can’t wait for the radio play, I hope it comes off.