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A review of ‘Beryl’ and ‘Half the Road’ – women’s cycling

Beryl-Burton‘Beryl’ and ‘Half the Road’
4th July West Yorkshire Playhouse & 8th July, Arnolfini

By Nicola Waterworth

It’s been a packed 10 days on the cycling front, what with the Grand Depart of the Tour de France from Yorkshire (definitely men’s cycling) and the more local Bristol Cycle Festival (which hosted a fab number of women-only and women-focused events this year). Aside from the obvious pedalling I’ve attended cycling-related talks, photographic exhibitions, street performances, film and theatre. But it hasn’t just been lack of time that has delayed this post. Two such events, and what to make of the experiences and the links have had me thinking – the production of ‘Beryl’ at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and screening of ‘Half the Road’ at the Arnolfini here in Bristol. While this review was originally to be about only the latter I wanted to write about them both.

‘Beryl’, originally a radio production for Radio 4 written by the actor and writer Maxine Peake, celebrates the life of Beryl Burton OBE, a cyclist from Morley in Yorkshire who was probably the greatest cyclist Britain ever produced. Half the Road is a 2012 documentary film from Kathryn Bertine, a professional women’s cyclist for Wiggle-Honda, and the island nation of St Kitts and Nevis.

‘Beryl’ is in some senses a familiar format; the dramatization of a missing ‘herstory’. That in question is of a woman cyclist who was two-parts determination and one-part grit, who having taken up amateur racing in 1955 went on to dominate the women’s cycling scene over a more than 25 year career that makes the exploits of Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish appear a bit ‘johnny come lately’ to say the least. Burton is truly one of Britain’s all-time sporting greats and well deserves the increasing posthumous recognition and fame she is receiving.

The cast of ‘Beryl’ give energetic and uplifting performances. The depiction of her commitment to the sport she loved and largely financially supported herself through, with the help of her family is engaging, educative and inspirational. Burton’s endeavours to race included regularly cycling across the country to get to the start line; something that would no doubt leave today’s male peloton shuddering at the thought as they dissect their latest race statistics and ‘marginal gains’. Alongside celebrating Burton’s achievements the cast engage the audience closely in a conspiratorial manner about the ignorances, lack of coverage and scant support Burton experiences in a male dominated cycling world. But this is where it stops becoming ‘simply’ a tale of gender inequality because Burton’s experiences were within a sport that lacked recognition at all; Burton was little known and supported outside of the cycling world not solely because she was a woman but because she was a cyclist. While the question of whether things would have been different if Beryl was a man can still be answered with a ‘yes’, by how much it is not really clear.

Fast forward 40-50 years and ‘Half the Road’ similarly uses a gently mocking air of disdain to explain the rules, bureaucratic obstacles, lack of money and apparent sheer lack of will that the male dominated cycling elite demonstrate in justifying the current gender inequality within the world of professional cycling. Except now we’re in 2012. The film makers are clear – professional women cyclists suffer from systematic discrimination because they are women and since Burton’s day (and no doubt during her career) have at points been pro-actively discouraged from continuing to compete. And times for cycling are different; in the ‘westernised’ world at least professional road cycling now attracts big money, sponsors, coverage and the inevitable fame and celebrity that come with it for those like Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins and dare I say his name, Lance Armstrong (who we’ll come back to). While we regularly applaud our women Olympic cyclists (a plaudit Beryl never managed as women’s cycling only entered the hallowed games in 1984) in terms of the professional sport none of this kudos is seemingly for ‘the girls’.

‘Half the Road’ documents in simple and clear terms the many obstacles that litter this path of inequality and how women’s exploits on the bicycle continue to be marginalised by the media, sponsors and most shockingly the sports own international governing body. Using devices such as the ‘Pentagram of Blame’ to highlight the inevitable buck passing of those involved, the audience learns of the paltry wages and winnings, lack of minimum wage, the median age restriction, the ‘excessive memo’ (pertaining to length and number of stages apparently appropriate for the weaker sex) and even the apparent brief possibility in the early 90s of the sport’s governing body (the UCI) introducing a ban on women racing while menstruating (apparently dropped once the matter of policing such a ruling was raised). And yes, that was early 1990s, not 1890s (in the latter decade women were busy being discouraged from cycling in case they developed ‘bicycle face’). The examples of crushing inequality between the rewards and recognition for male and female riders seem endless, but are well summarised in the prize monies awarded for the ‘pinnacle races’ of the respective calendars: 450,000 euros went to Chris Froome in 2013 for his Tour de France victory while Mara Abbott’s triumph in the Giro Rosa pocketed her just 520 euros.

While the film is largely focused on American riders and so misses some of the detail of the European tour it does a good job of engaging us in both the ‘passion and pitfalls’ of being a professional woman cyclist. Even the uninitiated in all things bicycle are helped out with classroom like explanations of the many French cycling terms. But the focus of the film, with the aid of marathon runners, professional women cyclist themselves, willing sponsors, coaches and experts in physiology and exercise, is largely on systematically picking apart the tenuous apparent basis for inequality that pervades the sport’s governing body so completely – that of women’s apparent physical incapability. These entirely ‘imposed limitations’ are shown to be ‘stuff of nonsense’ in the face of examples from not just marathon but also Bristol’s own adopted star Chrissie Wellington who came within minutes of closing the gap between women and men in her astounding Ironman triathlon career.

Nobody in officialdom comes off well, in this sorry story. Pat McQuaid, President of the UCI from 2006 to 2013 is a particular target, and while the interviews have no doubt been edited for maximum, “listen to this silly man spout silly attempts to justify the status quo” value, it is depressing that no-one can sound in the least convincing that they even know enough about the world of women’s racing as it is, let alone able to justify the inequality. This unfortunately includes Brian Cookson, at the time in 2012 UCI representative for women, and now UCI President himself.

But it is in the discussions of the role of the UCI, particularly given the timing of this film, where it feels the film only hinted at something rather important. Concurrent with the making of this film cycling’s elite were finally facing the truth about the rampant and systemic epidemic of doping in the men’s peloton, a truth that could no longer be escaped in the wake of the findings against Lance Armstrong. The ludicrousness of Cookson and others passing comment about what a women’s cycling field is physically capable of when it was clear they could have no clue as to what a clean, male cyclist is capable of deserved much greater attention. Instead the film is diverted throughout into the bureaucratic travails of Kathryn Bertine, as she chooses to qualify for the Olympics as a citizen of a small island nation. While interesting, these issues are not distinct to just women, but are part of Kathryn’s experience and it is after all a film heavily influenced by her very personal experiences. It felt it was implied, but not explicit, that in the face of this torrent of scandal and mistrust the women could actually be something of a lifeline for the UCI; an opportunity to demonstrate a change to the world of cycling and hope for a brighter, more honest and equal future. But instead Cookson and others feel incredibly dated, almost as if we are watching something from the height of Beryl Burton’s career, not 2012.

In some senses the fact that this feels dated could be that in the space of only 2 years since the film’s completion, and thanks in part to the work of Bertine and others, things have moved on some for women’s cycling. Embracing the opportunity for change, taking responsibility to be part of a positive movement and ‘paying it forward’ were all emphasised at this Bristol screening by the introduction of the film by Chrissie Wellington MBE. The 4 time World Ironman Champion was as ever inspiring (we’ve reported on quite how inspirational Chrissie is before). Wellington has actively made a difference in campaigning with Bertine, Emma Pooley and Marianne Vos for the return of a women’s race at the Tour De France (established originally in 1955 the women’s race had a chequered history before finally crumbling most recently in 2009). While a full race is not yet on the cards the organisers are in 2014 committed to running a women’s circuit race under the banner of ‘La Course’. As Chrissie pointed out, the fact that this is on the final day of the Tour and on the famous cobbled street of the Champs-Elysees matters hugely to building the sports profile, and will bring with it guaranteed TV coverage.

Things remain certainly far from rosy in the world of women’s professional cycling – in the week the Tour de France commenced on British soil and continued to have live coverage, ample highlights and other media reporting the woman’s Giro Rosa (at 9-days the longest and most prestigious stage race in the women’s calendar) is not available to view live. Emma Pooley (who in case you missed it has been leading a great British charge in the mountains of the Giro Rosa) has remained vociferous that more, concerted action from leadership is paramount. However, with the work of Bertine to educate and Peake to remind us that this sport has not historically been all about the men, things can look positive, even if there is a long way to go. And importantly in the UK at least there may begin to be a shift in attitudes amongst those sport bureaucrats – British Cycling made clear following the Tour de France leaving UK soil that the lack of an equivalent race for women is a big issue that needs to be addressed.

So, hopefully achieving ‘Bicycle Face ‘will be here to stay for the women!

‘Half the Road’ is now available for download on iTunes
‘Beryl’ is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 25th July

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