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Book review: Beryl - In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete, by Jeremy Wilson

Review by Bob Hart, Rosebank PR & Communications.

We love cycling here at Bay Health Festivals, and dedicate a day of each year’s event to inspiring people to discover the pleasure of riding a bike (or trike if that’s your thing).

So as we get ready for this summer’s festival event it’s a great time to review a book about one of the greatest cyclists of all time - a phenomenal athlete who also embraced cycling as a lifestyle choice.

There’s no more inspirational story in cycling than Beryl Burton - the phenomenally successful British cyclist who most people have never heard of.

This award-winning biography by Jeremy Wilson, published in 2022, recounts her incredible achievements and examines the mindset that led her to dominate her sport for 25 years.

Born Beryl Charnock in Leeds in 1937, she was introduced to cycling in the early ‘50s by her husband-to-be, Charlie Burton. Joining the weekly group rides organised by Morley Cycling Club, she quickly showed a natural talent for riding a bike.

As Charlie recounts: “First of all, she was handy but wasn’t that competent: we used to have to push her round a bit. Slowly she got better. By the second year, she was 'one of the lads' and could ride with us. By the third year, she was going out in front and leading them all.”

By 1957 Beryl was a serious competitor, winning her first national medal with a silver in the national 100-mile individual time trial championship.

She went on to win the women's world road race championship in 1960 and 1967, but is best known for her dominance of the domestic time trial scene.

Her peak came in 1967, when she set a new 12-hour time trial record of more than 277 miles - setting a distance that surpassed the men’s record at the time.

As well as setting numerous further records at multiple distances, her crowning achievement was completing the astonishing 25-year streak of winning the British Best All-Rounder Competition from 1959 to 1983.

The book is packed with stats and information for the cycling enthusiasts, but the most interesting parts of the biography revolved around Beryl’s mindset and family life.

There were no fancy carbon bikes, wind tunnel tests, special diets or pilates regimes back then.

Beryl trained by riding 400 miles a week in all weathers and doing strenuous physical labour on a rhubarb farm, fuelled by tinned sardines, rice pudding and licorice allsorts.

Cycling was a way of life for her - not just a sport, but also her primary mode of transport, the backdrop for her family life and friendships, and a crucial component of her own self-image.

The book paints a picture of the grit and determination required to stay at the top for so long, as well as her famously friendly and generous personality when not racing.

Most of us (none of us perhaps) can hope to achieve cycling feats to match Beryl’s, but we can take inspiration from the way the humble bicycle shaped her life.

Reading this book is guaranteed to make you want to get on a bike. Beryl’s story shows that a bike can take you anywhere; to work, to the shops, around the block, through the woods or even into the history books.

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