Beryl Burton winning the 3,000m World Cycling title in Milan, August 1962. Photograph: Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images
The Tour de France is often described as a battle between the world’s best cyclists. Strictly speaking, though, it’s only a battle between half of them.
When the Grand Départ sets off from Leeds town hall next month, all 180 riders in the peloton will be men. Under rules set by the UCI, cycling‘s governing body, the race is deemed too hard for women. Women are only allowed to ride 80 miles a day in UCI events, way shorter than almost every stage in the three-week men’s tour.
And anyway, the men who control the sport still think not nearly enough people want to watch girls having a go.
It’s cheering, then, that a play premiering in Leeds as part of the Yorkshire festival later this month, timed to coincide with the Tour’s visit, celebrates the greatest British female cyclist of all time. Not Victoria Pendleton or Laura Trott. But Beryl Burton of Morley, who for two glorious years in the 1960s held the men’s world 12-hour time trial record.
In 1967 she pedalled 277.25 miles in 12 hours, famously overtaking Mike McNamara, her male rival, and giving him a liquorice allsort as she passed. It wasn’t until 1969 that a man went faster. No woman has ever bettered her time.
She was also five-times world champion over 3,000 metres, 13-time national champion and the British best all-rounder champion for an incredible 25 successive years. All this she managed to fit around her shifts at a rhubarb farm and bringing up her daughter, Denise, who went on to be a top cyclist too.
Beryl Burton with her daughter Denise. The pair raced together in the 1972 world championships. Photograph: John Pratt/Getty Images“If she was a man, everybody would know about her,” said actor Maxine Peake, who has written Beryl, a four-hander which will open at the West Yorkshire Playhouse at the end of this month. (An eight-wheeler, really, because all of the characters are on bikes.) The play began life on the radio with Peake in the main role. She had been given Burton’s biography as a gift from her art director boyfriend, Pawlo.
“He bought it because I’m always on about female stories and female ideas. We’ve got so many inspirational women in this country, past and present, who we don’t know about.
“Paw wrote: ‘get yourself a tight curly perm and there’s a film in this for you!’ But I thought, who’s going to pick up a film of a female cyclist? You’d just be banging on closed doors, that’s what I thought – even though I know I shouldn’t have this defeatist attitude. So I thought: I could write this for radio. The soundscape of cogs and wheels and wind would be quite interesting.” So successful was the radio version that Bolton-born Peake was persuaded to adapt it for stage, pleased to spread the word of Burton’s under-celebrated career.
Burton received limited fame in Britain, but was revered in continental Europe. According to the forward to her memoirs, a Frenchman once wrote: “If Beryl Burton had been French, Joan of Arc would have to take second place.”
Mostly, Burton accepted her fate as a largely unsung heroine, says Peake, who interviewed Burton’s widower, Charlie, and their daughter, Denise, for the play. “She was only a little bit fed up when she wasn’t getting much recognition, like when she was up for BBC Sports Personality of the Year and she came second to Henry Cooper, and she only got about two seconds of screen time. She said they probably only had about two seconds of her on film anyway.”
Peake, who has received acclaim for her roles in the BBC’s Silk and The Village, does not share the UCI’s view that women should feel grateful this year to be allowed to race just one stage of the Tour – a circuit around Paris after the men have finished. It’s a concession made only after the organisers came under pressure from women including Britain’s Chrissie Wellington, multiple winner of the World Iron Man triathlon event.
“It’s shocking, isn’t it, in this day and age,” said Peake, herself a keen cyclist. “I don’t see how it’s allowed to happen, that they can get away with it … We need to start making a big old racket.”
Charlie was Burton’s greatest supporter, a one-man mechanic, driver, childminder and husband rolled into one. He was ahead of his time, thinks Peake: “Initially I thought this was going to be a story about a housewife and a mother in the 1950s, finding it so hard to get out on that bike, her husband won’t be supporting her and she’s doing it against all odds.
“Then you meet Charlie and you realise it’s not a story about a woman escaping from the shackles of domestic life. He helped her every step of the way. He says: ‘she was a better cyclist than me’. It’s an amazing story, really, even today, that a man would say: ‘you go on, love.’ For Burton, cycling took precedence over everything else, even Denise, says Peake, citing the time mother and daughter were in a race and Burton refused to shake Denise’s hand after she won by a whisker. “Afterwards she said something like, ‘people say it’s because I was jealous, but I wasn’t. I don’t know what came over me, but I just felt Denise hadn’t done her whack.’ There’s an etiquette in cycling that you hold the group, taking it in turn to set the pace. Beryl had set the pace all the way and then right at the end, Denise zipped past her. Afterwards, Beryl wouldn’t let her in the car and made her cycle home!””
Burton died on the eve of her 59th birthday, out on her bike, posting invitations for her party. Peake wells up telling the story: “It was her heart. It just packed up. Apparently it could have happened any time. Someone just found her there in the road with her bike. But at least she died on her bike. It’s like Tommy Cooper dying on stage.”
Peake wanted to write a play which focused purely on a woman’s achievements. When you reach a certain age as a woman on TV, you get typecast, says the now 39-year-old. “I’ve been lucky, but then again I’ve been like: ‘I’m not doing that. I’m not doing that.’ Mistresses and prostitutes and wives, gah. I remember when we were doing Silk, [fellow cast member] Rupert Penry-Jones showed me a tweet which said: ‘Work hard, young actresses, and one day you can play the wife or mistress of a very interesting character!’ … I’m sick of playing parts where a man threatens to hits me and I have to cower. That’s really difficult, a real challenge for me.”
In September Peake will play Hamlet in a gender-bending production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. She’s reluctant to reveal too much but says: “We’re of the mindset that gender is not important. It’s Hamlet, but a Hamlet confused about their gender. Whether we’ll play that overtly, or whether I will keep it as a secret, I don’t know yet. Sometimes it’s good as an actor to have a secret that nobody else knows. I think I’ll be a man, but somebody who has equal quantity of male and female.”
Describing Beryl as a “gentle” play, Peake says her aim was simple: “What I wanted with Beryl, all I wanted really, was a celebration of this amazing woman and her amazing achievements.”
Beryl, by Maxine Peake, is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from 30 June until 19 July