We sat down with William Fotheringham for a Q&A about retelling the story of a true legend, the one and only Beryl Burton in his latest book The Greatest: The life and times of Beryl Burton.
Q: Starting cycling in the late 1980s, Beryl Burton was always mentioned with affection and admiration in equal measure at the local club room along with the likes of Ian Cammish, Alf Engers & Glenn Longland. Why write about her now?
A: I had had my eyes on doing a Burton biography since seeing Maxine Peake’s play in 2015. Not because I didn’t know before then how great Beryl was - you can’t not know about her if you work in cycling in the UK - but because I wasn’t certain how much traction her story still had 20 years after her death.
I’d also become more and more aware of the issues around women’s racing over the years and I knew her story had resonances today: it’s inspirational - and always has been - and the history of discrimination in the sport needs to be hammered home. And in 2019, the coincidence of the World’s being in Yorkshire was too good an opportunity to miss.
Q: In a recent Cycling Weekly piece (Thursday 12th September 2019), you tried to draw parallels between Burton and a modern-day rider. You mentioned Lisa Brennauer, Kristin Armstrong and Marianne Vos.
Would she have made the same impression in today’s more in-depth peloton?
A: Yes definitely. The point about Burton is that she was far more of an all-rounder than many people realise.
She specialised in time trialling for the bulk of her career, so she’d have had a good run at the world time trial champs now, to start with. She was one of the greatest pursuiters ever as well, so you’d see her doing that again. But she could win a hilly road race in a sprint, she could win a mass start race on the track, and she had supreme endurance ability.
So she’d have stood a really good chance in so many areas today. It’s just a tragedy that she and others were denied the opportunities today’s athletes have.
Beryl Burton attacks during the Pennine Road Race, 1967. Photo: Allan Cash picture library/Alamy Stock.
Q: With many of Burton’s adversaries no longer with us, was it a case of spending hours at the British Library and more specialist titles like Cycling Weekly?
A: Yes and no. Quite a few of her contemporaries are still around and I spoke to a fair few of them, although as with every book I write there were some I wanted to speak to and never found.
But I did spend a lot of time in the British Library leafing through 25 years of the Comic because I like to be really on top of the written sources before I moved to interview people.
Q: It’s a very different project to your last (Sunday in Hell: Behind the Lens of the Greatest Cycling Film of All Time) what was the most challenging aspect?
A: The toughest thing was that there is very little documentation about Beryl’s early years and not many witnesses because it’s so long ago. Plus, a lot of the details in her autobiography are taken straight from Cycling magazine so there were gaps to be filled in a lot of areas.
Q: The Liquorice Allsorts story about Mike McNamara is well known, in fact, it even made it to the back of the Santini Beryl jersey, do you have a favourite anecdote about Burton?
A: I liked the details I got from “Mac” about the Liquorice Allsort story, which I don’t think anyone had written before.
I think my favourite stories about Burton relate to her work on Nim Carline’s rhubarb farm. It was just such an extreme environment, with her and the lads basically busting their backs to try & beat their own records for how many boxes of rhubarb they could shift in an afternoon.
Q: You have written about Merckx, Hinault, Coppi, Simpson - who of the past peloton would you write about next if any commercial constraints were removed from your decision?
A: Roger de Vlaeminck I think, and there’s maybe more to be written about Anquetil, Bobet and Geminiani.
Possibly go completely off-piste and write about one of the great track sprinters like Koichi Nakano. Or a Soviet great like Sergei Sukhorutchenkov.
Q: Any from the current crop of riders?
A: Maybe Julian Alaphilippe, Vincenzo Nibali or Philippe Gilbert; those all-rounder types who win all year.
It’s probably just rose-tinted spectacles but today’s cyclists don’t interest me as much as the riders of the past. They don’t race as much, they don’t win as much, and their lives seem far more circumscribed.
Q: You self published the Beryl Burton book - would you opt for that route again?
A: Yes definitely, I was lucky to have some very good people helping me and they took a lot of the pressure off. It’s harder work than going with a publisher as I have done up to now, but I like the fact you have almost total control over the book. It’s a lot of responsibility and it’s pretty stressful but it’s very rewarding.
Q: Your first cycling assignment was covering the World Championships at Chambery in 1989 for the Guardian. Do you miss covering all the events given the huge interest in cycling now - especially in the UK?
A: I don’t miss any of it really although I still love to be at a big race like the World’s this year. I covered a lot of races and rugby at one stage and it cuts deeply into other areas of your life.
I like the fact that I am on the road far far less now, so I can do other stuff in cycling like working with the junior team I run and being on the WMids region board. I’ve got a job there of trying to revitalise road racing in the region. It’s different to going off and writing and if I can make it happen it will be more rewarding.
Q: Hopefully, you now have more time to ride, what is your favourite route?
A: There’s a very scenic road I like to take to Hay on Wye with outstanding views of the Wye Valley and the Brecon Beacons. Haven’t been down it recently but it’s only a matter of time.
The Great Bike Race by Geoff Nicholson and The Foreign Legion by Rupert Guinness both seen alongside original, period team-issue Santini Wool jerseys. Both published a long time before cycling books were a popular line in your local bookshop.
Q: You have mentioned your affection of Geoff Nicholson’s The Great Bike Race. Mine is The Foreign Legion by Rupert Guinness. What makes a worthwhile timeless read for cycling fans?
A: It’s a combination of things. I think a classic book has to give a completely unique perspective on something. Both of those books you name do that, and in the case of The Great Bike Race it’s one of the finest bits of actual writing you will find in any domain.
If you were looking for others, I’d cite Lance Armstrong’s War by Dan Coyle, Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage, Domestique by Charly Wegelius.
Q: What can we expect to see from you in 2020?
A: I want to get a lot fitter and get back to racing at a vaguely decent level which I haven’t for a few years. I will have a lot of DS work with the juniors and a cottage to restore.
Probably not another book, I’ve written four in five years I think, so I am going to kick back a bit and just see what comes to mind without any pressure.
The Greatest: Times and Life of Beryl Burton Book by William Fotheringham is available from Prendas Ciclismo. Santini has produced a unique Beryl Burton jersey and matching shorts to celebrate her first World Championship victory in Leipzig, 1960.