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When Eddy Merckx met Beryl Burton

What did two cycling legends speak about when they met on a rainy day in Nottinghamshire more than half a century ago?

Trevor Ward
17 Nov 2022

The black and white photograph looks like a scene from a 1960s crime thriller. A group of sombre-faced people huddle in the pouring rain; one of them, a young woman wearing a transparent rain cape, looks lost in thought.

Behind her, a young man with the dark, brooding air of a matinée idol is looking at the camera, the faintest hint of a scowl traced across his face. He’s wearing an immaculate suit and tie, forgoing a raincoat for the shelter of an umbrella.

Looking at the scene, I realise I’ve stood here myself, like the people in the photograph, to pay my respects. It is where a fallen hero rests beneath a modest headstone on which are inscribed the words, ‘His body ached, his legs grew tired but still he would not give in.’

The photograph is of a graveyard in the Nottinghamshire village of Harworth, taken on 18th July 1967. The occasion is the funeral of Tom Simpson; the young man is 22-year-old Eddy Merckx. Yet it’s the woman who catches my attention – Beryl Burton, who has cycled 70km from her home to be at the funeral.

Looking at the photograph, which features in the latest Burton biography, Beryl: In Search Of Britain’s Greatest Athlete by Jeremy Wilson, I wonder what she and Merckx talked about.

In 1967 Eddy was on the brink of greatness, fresh from winning his second Milan-San Remo and destined to become World Champion six weeks later. Beryl, then 30, was already a multiple National and World Champion on road and track, and a prodigious breaker of records.

They would have talked about Simpson, obviously. Eddy had been a teammate at Peugeot, while Beryl was a massive fan: the previous winter she had received a kiss from Simpson after winning a track race in Ghent.

Would Beryl have mentioned how her 140km round-trip to the funeral was part of her training? In an age when the stopwatch was considered new-fangled, she rode everywhere, including to her job at a rhubarb farm.

She revealed in her autobiography, Personal Best, how she would be ‘humping rhubarb roots weighing up to a quarter hundredweight for eight hours a day’.

Indeed, writes Jeremy Wilson, ‘Her global dominance during the 1960s was of sufficient fascination for the Soviet Union to dispatch two of their coaches to visit the rhubarb farm to get a better understanding of how she kept beating their best riders.’

Burton would ride from her home in Morley to races all over the country, usually with husband Charlie and occasionally with young daughter Denise in a purpose-built sidecar.

When she travelled to international events, Charlie would often resort to sleeping in hedges or, on one occasion, the doorway of her hotel, such was the paltry amount of expenses amateur riders – and particularly women – were paid by the British Cycling Federation.

So would she have been all smiles with Eddy? After all, she was renowned for her kindness and generosity when not in competitive mode. Or would she have given him a glimpse of the steely single-mindedness that, just two months later, would see her ride one of her greatest races, the Otley 12, where she smashed not just the women’s but also the men’s distance record for 12 hours, recording 443.6km?

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Would Eddy have been intimidated by a woman who would go on to race against her own daughter in the 1976 National Road Race and, after being beaten by her, would refuse to shake her hand because ‘she had not done her whack in keeping the break away’?

Or would he have sympathised with her that women’s cycling wasn’t taken as seriously as men’s – she was regularly referred to in the press as a ‘Yorkshire housewife’ rather than a World Champion – and that there were no women’s Olympic races or Tour de France?

If these two cycling legends spoke at all, linguistic differences would likely have kept their conversation brief, and besides, Beryl was probably in a rush to cycle the 70km home to her husband and daughter.

Yet in 2018, 22 years after her death, Eddy gave a clue about the impression Beryl had made on him. Wilson records how Eddy, speaking to a fan at an event where he and Beryl were inducted into a hall of fame, described her as ‘amazing, totally incredible’ and ‘the boss of all of us’.

Whatever transpired on that grim day back in 1967, we’ll never know. But what I do think is that grainy black and white photograph could well have been a still from the greatest cycling film never made: The Boss Of All Of Us.

Main photo: Mirrorpix via Getty

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