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Theater play brings recognition to unsung British cycling champ

This year's Tour de France set off minutes from Beryl Burton's home in Leeds, England. But few had ever heard of Britain's arguably greatest ever female cyclist until the peloton pedaled past.

She was a Yorkshire housewife, mother and farm worker whose tenacity and determination won her seven world championships, more than 90 national championships including an incredible 25 consecutive wins as best British all-rounder cyclist.

From the 1950s and into the 1970s, Beryl Burton from Morley in Leeds dominated British and international female road and velodrome racing but hers never became a household name before her death in 1996. But a new theater production may change that.

"She was a housewife, a mother, yet she was this extraordinary athlete with this drive and determination," said Maxine Peake, a British actress and writer who has written a theater play about Burton after coming across her story in a book she was given by her partner, a cycling enthusiast.

Beryl Burton holding a picture of herself racing
Photo: Lars Bevanger

Beryl Buton would have loved to see the start of the Tour de France near her home, her daughter said

"I read it, and I just thought, why don't I know about this woman - why do I not know more about Beryl Burton?" Peake said. "The amount she's achieved she should be more in the general public's consciousness."

'Beryl' the play

The play, simply titled "Beryl," has been running for the duration of this year's Tour de France at Leeds' West Yorkshire Playhouse. The first stage of the Tour ran right outside the theater, and only minutes away from where Beryl Burton lived with her husband Charlie, who was also her one-man support team and coach, and their daughter Denise.

"She met my dad at work, and my dad was a cyclist," Denise Burton-Cole told DW. "She must have fancied my dad, and then she fancied cycling - so she did both!"

Denise and her father are also main characters in the theatre production, and were consulted extensively by Peake. Both are very happy with the result.

"It was a bit spooky, but they've got it so right, it's absolutely brilliant," Denise said. "Once I was there in the play as a young girl, I could remember the things happening. And my dad, the parts when I was a baby - he could remember that."

Cinderella sport

It is only in recent years that cycling has become a mainstream sport in Britain, helped by the Tour de France victories of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. British female cyclists have also gained widespread recognition - including Olympic champions Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott.

Beryl Burton holding flowers on a winners podium
Photo: Denise Burton-Cole

Beryl Burton received little renown at home but was well known in Europe

During Beryl Burton's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, cycling was much more of a Cinderella sport, said Denise Burton-Cole.

"She was well known within the cycling world, people just thought she was amazing - which she was," Denise said. "I think at times she wondered why she didn't get as much recognition [outside of the sport]. But now that it's happening, it's just brilliant."

Beryl Burton's national and international victories are hugely impressive athletic achievements, but there is one event which really made the champion cyclist stand out.

Beating the men

In 1967, Burton entered a 12-hour time trial race, in which cyclists would try to cover as much distance as possible in the allotted time. Once she had cleared the field of female cyclists she started catching up with the men, who had a two minute head start to separate the two fields.

By the end of the race, she overtook the reigning male champion Mike McNamara, famously offering him a sweet as she passed him. She went on to win the event, and held the male record for two years. Her female record of 277.25 miles (446.2 km) in 12 hours still stands.

Amateur

Beryl Burton remained an amateur throughout her career, supported only by her husband and funded by her wages from working at local farms. In Europe, where she was far more famous than at home, she was known as "The Yorkshire Housewife."

Sign advertising the 'Beryl' play
Photo: Lars Bevanger

A new stage of Beryl's life opened this summer

This year's Tour de France started near Beryl Burton's home, and ran on the very roads where she'd trained and raced. Her daughter Denise is in no doubt what her mother would have made of the Grand Depart coming to Leeds and Yorkshire.

"Had she been able she would have been volunteering as one of the tour makers, she would have been cheering and clapping as they came by and had she been able to get up into the hills, she would have been there as well. She would have really, really looked forward to it," Denise said.

The play "Beryl" and the attention it has created might finally have given her some of the recognition which eluded her while she was alive.

Beryl Burton died as she had lived; on her bike, while she was out delivering invites for her own 59th birthday party in 1996.

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