Beryl Burton, Yorkshire’s heroine on two wheels

Speaker Mike Darke with Todmorden U3A chairman Keith Coates
Speaker Mike Darke with Todmorden U3A chairman Keith Coates

Yorkshire has a long history of leading racing cyclists and can boast an exceptional world champion in the person of Beryl Burton.

Mike Darke a native of the Potteries and now a Mytholmroyd resident, spoke as enthusiastically about them as any true born Yorkie when he addressed the November general meeting of Todmorden U3A.

British Professional Cycling – Tykes and Le Tour de France was his topic and Mike took his audience back to the beginnings of cycling, cycle racing, and Le Tour.

The first Tour was in 1903, its unlikely origins in the Dreyfus Affair. Dreyfus was an army captain convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans. The largest sports newspaper, Le Velo, supported Dreyfus. A rival paper, L’Auto, owned by someone who thought Dreyfus guilty, was set up but struggled to get close to its rival’s sales and the first Tour was to be the answer.

The Tour was the first staged race and initially, the riders entered as individuals or as a member of a team until the 30s, when it became teams only. In 1945 the first version of the Tour of Britain was held.

Charles Holland and Bill Burl were the first Britons in the race in 1937. It took 18 years for Ravensthorpe-born Brian Robinson to become the first Briton to finish the Tour and the first to win a stage.

Barry Hoban was born 10 years after Robinson, in Wakefield. He holds the record for the most Tours completed by a British rider – having finished 11 of the 12 he started between 1965 and 1978.

Sheffield’s Malcolm Elliott was mainly a sprint cyclist and his breakthrough came at the 1982 Commonwealth Games where he won two golds, but did take part in the 1987 Tour.

Mike told his audience that he rated Tom Simpson as the most successful British cyclist. Simpson was both a road and track cyclist and his major achievements stretched from 1955 to 1967 and included donning the yellow jersey three times in the Tour.

Some may argue with Mike’s estimation of Simpson’s achievements when compared with those of Leeds native Beryl Burton.

Burton won the women’s world road race championship in 1960 and 1967 and was runner-up in 1961. On the track, she specialised in the individual pursuit, winning world championship medals almost every year across three decades.

In domestic time trial competition, Burton was almost unbeatable. She won the Road Time Trials British Best All-Rounder Competition for 25 consecutive years from 1959 to 1983. In total, she won 72 national individual time trial titles. Her last national solo time trial titles were achieved in 1986 (at 25 and 50 miles).

She also won a further 24 national titles in road racing and on the track, 12 road race championships, and 12 pursuit titles.

In 1967, she set a new 12-hour time trial record that surpassed the men’s record of the time and was not superseded by a man until 1969. While setting the record she caught and passed Mike McNamara who was on his way to setting the men’s record.

She also set about 50 new national records at distances of up to 100 miles.

Back to the Tour, and Mike reminded his audience that Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win, in 2012.

The success of the Tour enabled the owners of L’Auto to drive Le Velo out of business in 1904. Mike said that now the Tour is a both a vehicle of consumerism and has grown to be the greatest free show on earth watched on TV by half of the world’s population.

Bill Griffiths presented Mike with a token of appreciation.

The next general meeting of Todmorden U3A is at 1.30 pm on Thursday, December 18, at Central Methodists, Todmorden. This will be a festive meeting including a quiz and Punch and Judy show. Details of group meetings are on u3atod.org.uk or phone 01706 557791.