blog entries

When women were better than men

Imagine if Usain Bolt rocked up to the Olympics and waltzed into the final, as is his want, only to find himself up against compatriot Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce. Imagine if Mo Farah got to the worlds 5000m final to find that Laura Muir had qualified and was lining up against him. Imagine if in this weeks cycling world championships Annemiek Van Vluten had Chris Froome as her minute man. Let's get even more fanciful and try picturing the unimaginable whereby all three women win these races and set world best times in the process.

It'll never happen of course, principally because genders compete separately but also because men cycle, swim, run, jump and throw that little bit better than women with the facts speaking for themselves. Usain Bolt 9.58 seconds vs Flo-Jo 10.49; Adam Peaty 57.13 for 100m breaststroke vs 1:04.13 for American Lilly King; Bradley Wiggins 54.526km(or even better 'superman' Chris Boardman's mark of 56.375km) world hour record up against Evelyn Stevens 47.98km. In general men are about 10% better than women when comparing world best marks and should a women ever better one of these amazing marks can you also imagine how many headlines, tweets and you tube hits the feat would justifiably garner?

So how is it that the only time in history that I can find where a women turned the sporting world upside down and beat all comers is a largely unknown footnote in British cycling history that at the time was worth about 2 column inches in the Daily Mail and little else?

50 years ago today on a grey, wet, Yorkshire morning Beryl Burton set off 2 minutes behind the last male competitor at the start of a cyling event that should have seen her achieve sporting immortality. This time difference wasn't a Formula 1 grid penalty though as she was competing in the Otley CC '12' - a time trail whereby riders set off a minute apart and then hung on in with grim determination for 12 hours with the 'simple' goal of cycling solo as far as you could in the alloted time. The Otley race started with a loop out though York to Tadcaster and back, then on through Wetherby and north through Northallerton before getting back to the finishing circuit at around 200 miles, on which the riders did laps of a smaller loop monitored by marshals.

The bloke starting just ahead of Beryl was Mike 'Mac' Macnamara who had big goals for himself that day as he needed to beat the current 12 hour record to clinch the BBAR(Best British All Rounder) title and both Mac and Beryl started as strong favourites to win their respective events(technically they weren't competing in the same race). Settling into her ryhthm she soon began to overtake many of the men she had started well behind and instintively knew she was 'on to a ride' with her confidence building that she could beat her own record for the event that stood at 250.3 miles. With much of the field falling well behind her and the weather improving she sped by supporters at the roadside and kept hearing groups of club riders shout something about ‘Mac’ and assumed that they were telling her he too was flying. At the 200 mile mark Beryl got the incredible imformation that she was a few seconds up on Mac and  that people had been trying to tell her that she was riding better than him. She now knew she was going to smash her own record if her luck and form held.

Onto the 16 mile finishing cicrcuit time checks were more numerous and on the first lap Beryl pulled back 42 seconds on the remaining man ahead of her on the road. On the second circuit Beryl  had just got back on her bike after answering a call of nature when 'Ping' - a spoke in her rear wheel broke. Riding carefully now she soon came to husband Charlie who stood at the roadside with a spare wheel and so after a quick wheel change Beryl was back in the flow but Mac had gained again on her.

Into the 11th hour Beryl began to see the unmistakable Rockingham CC colours ahead of her and knew she had almost caught all of that days 99 male starters.

Now Beryl was known to be fiercely competitive but for once even she had qualms about passing supposedly the best time trialer in Britain espacially in a race where his stated intention was set a new 12 hour distance record. For a short period she subdued her competitive instincts and contemplated not only how good a ride she was actually on but also the right and wrongs of stealing Macs thunder as it was becoming apparent he was going to set a new 12 hour record.

That she even baulked for a few minutes about overtaking Mac was a surprise to most people but any misgivings she had soon gave in to the urge to dominate and so she inexorably hauled Macnamara in. As she drew level the magnitude of what she was doing clearly needed a grand gesture so Beryl reached into her back pocket and asked Mac ‘Do you want a Liquorice Allsort?’

Reaching for the proffered sweet Mac had nothing to respond with except a rueful smile and a muttered ‘Ta, Love’ as he watched Beryl slowly pull away from him.

As the seconds ticked down, and with Mac not visible behind, she spotted a timekeeper at the foot of a hill that she'd rather not climb again and so pulled in level with him having decided that she'd done enough for the day and was happy enough with her ride. Even though she had finished 45 seconds early she'd completed an eye watering 277.25 miles -  besting Mac by 0.73 miles who himself had beaten the previous record by nearly 5 miles.

She quietly jumped intp her car and Charlie drove her home leaving the cycling world to marvel at his feat even if it went largely unnoticed by the wider public. Male cyclists the length and breadth of Britain desperately tried to wrest the record back from Beryl but it would take them 2 years to do so. Amazingly, given the advances in cycling kit technology and sport science no other woman beat Beryl’s distance until August of this year.

This tale and many other are brilliantly captured in her autobiography ‘Personal Best’ and are all told in an almost ‘matter of fact’ style. Her first road world title(she won two on the road and 5 on the track) warrants no more than a few pages which contrasts massively to the full 300 page book that heralded Cav’s world title. Commenting on her 12 hour achievement she mused that she wasn't surprised that  women might be better suited to longer distances because 'they are used to keeping up the pressure in their daily domestic life....You develop more of a drive than men because so much more has to be fitted into the day'. Whether this was tongue in cheek or a reflection of Beryl's own 12 hour working days I doubt any of us have the drive of this amazing athlete!

Her book documents in detail the staggering quantity and quality of Beryl Burton’s cycling achievements that underline that fact that she was a cyclist without peer, who's steely determination and remorseless pursuit of excellence still provides inspiration to riders of both genders. That she did all this with humilty, generosity and a dry sense of humour add a wonfderful human touch to her superhuman sporting legacy.

Beryl Burton was a class apart and, for a time, demonstrably the best 12 hour time trailer in the world.