Two Wheels Good

Keswick's Theatre by the Lake brings us Beryl: Britain's greatest ever sportswoman.
May 26, 2022

Remember the collective excitement when the Tour de France started in the UK?  Streets and entire villages in Yorkshire decorated with yellow bikes. Crowds lining the streets, cow-bells ringing, flags and banners waving. Yet half a century earlier cycling as a sport was unrecognised here, a pursuit for a few fanatics in local clubs, and something that your dad did to get to work before he could afford a car.

It was into that world that Beryl Burton stormed, to become Britain’s greatest ever sportswoman, arguably our greatest ever sportsperson.

She won seven world titles, two road race championships and five track pursuit titles – and 96 national titles – 12 road race championships, 13 pursuit titles and 71 trial titles against the clock. She set a women's record for the 12-hourtime-trial which exceeded the men’s record for two years. 

The only reason there’s no Olympic medal in that tally is that, until 1984, women’s cycling wasn’t recognised as an Olympic sport.

Yet even now, among the lycra-clad superstar status world of the Tour, Giro, Vuelta, she’s largely unknown. “I’d never heard of her” was muttered around the auditorium at the Theatre by the Lake, where Maxine Peake’s wonderful tribute drama is on tour (by way of the Oldham Coliseum).

The Yorkshire lass who collapsed on the verge of sitting the 11-plus (with a heart problem that would lead to her young death at the age of 59) developed a ferocious determination to overcome the handicap of a cruel two-tier education system. She wanted to prove something to the discouraging doctors and teachers, she had to make her mark.

And it was when she met Charlie, a work colleague and enthusiastic cyclist, that her life changed. They married, and he coached and supported her throughout her astonishing career, which took only the briefest of breaks on the birth of their daughter, Denise.

As Peake’s play, directed by Chris Lawson, highlights, there was no gym or fancy training regimes. Beryl developed her strength working in a rhubarb-packing factory, and unable to afford train fares, she would cycle to races – even all the way from Yorkshire to London. When it was too wet to train outside, she’d put her bike on rollers in a room above the Co-op.

And especially revealing are the scenes from Germany, where Beryl went to compete – and win – and was astonished to find herself a celebrity. She was known and admired around the world, but not on home territory.

The dramatic vignettes from this remarkable life are delivered with infectious joy by the cast of four –Tori Burgess, James Lewis, Charlie Ryan, and Elizabeth Twells – who play multiple roles, often with hilarious effect. Peake’s script and their delivery create with warmth and wit the multi-dimensional character that we now find inspirational, not just in the still-male-dominated  cycling world.

The set, by designer Irene Jade, is part garage, part velodrome, with imaginative projection taking us out onto the road with the cyclists, across the Yorkshire Dales and – if they had to – into Lancashire. The bikes on the set were donated by Streetbikes, a Huddersfield-based charity who provide cycling sessions and bikes for all abilities to cycle in a safe and secure environment, to help people improve their health and wellbeing through cycling.

There was recognition, eventually. Beryl was awarded the MBE and then OBE, and came second in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, behind boxer Henry Cooper. She died from heart failure, when out on her bike, delivering invitations to a birthday party. 

Beryl plays at Theatre by the Lake until May 28, and runs at The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, from June 7 – 11. Details and booking: 

Production photos by Chris Payne.