Professional cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world.
Every year (yes even this year) we are treated to the three-week odyssey that is the Tour de France when circa 200 elite athletes cycle over 2000km in search of the coveted Maillot Jaune.
For a British cycling fan there has been a lot to enjoy over the last few years. Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the tour in 2012 followed by four-time winner Chris Froome and 2018 winner Geraint Thomas.
But the pro peloton remains resolutely white with only one black cyclist at this year’s Tour – Kevin Reza from the B&B Hotels–Vital Concept team.
Many amateur cyclists will know De Ver Cycles in Streatham. It's an oasis of high-end carbon bikes and has been run by Maurice Burton since 1987. Not many of you will however know Maurice’s story.
"From here, you can go all the way to the Olympic Games" - that's what Maurice Burton's coach told him when, as an eager young schoolboy, he made his first visit to south London's Herne Hill Velodrome. In the following years, Burton did pretty much everything that could be asked of him to achieve the dream that, ultimately, would remain unfulfilled. Burton was Britain's first black cycling champion, but he never made the Olympic squad.
Even at the age of 12 Maurice loved bikes and bike racing, but his enthusiasm wasn’t shared by his family.
“My dad's from Jamaica. He wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. He didn't see the point in me riding a bike," he says. So, if his dad wouldn't buy him a bike, the resourceful 12-year-old found another way.
"One day we were coming home from school, we passed this house and I saw this bike in the front garden and so I knocked on the door later and asked the lady about this bike. Apparently the bike had been in an accident, it was a bit bashed up. I got this bike out of a front garden, fixed it up", he says.
He did a good job. He soon found there weren't many who could beat him on a bike when he first took it to Herne Hill. By the end of the first year in the club he had won pretty much every youth and amateur title going. Further success followed, by 1973, riding on the same bike he found in an old lady’s back garden he was selected for the Commonwealth Games.
Burton also won the first of his national titles in 1973, taking first place in the junior sprint race. But it was also becoming clear that there were some in the sport who weren't so happy to see this young, mixed race kid from Catford on the winner's rostrum. Burton recalls how he was booed for winning his second British title in 1974. He recalls races where opponents threw their bikes to the floor in anger at losing to him, with one rider even quitting the sport altogether. But the saddest episode came when Burton won his second British title in 1974, this time in the 20km race.
"I beat the Commonwealth Games gold and silver medallists at that distance. I beat them, and didn't just beat them, I beat them by about four lengths in a sprint. I was only an 18-year-old boy and I held those flowers up and there were people booing! I think I had a little grin on my face really, and I thought, 'what do you want from me?'".
Despite his success Burton was overlooked for the Olympic squad in 1976. “They looked at me and for some reason, which we probably, well, you know..." He hesitates. "Put it this way. In 1976, I'd won three British titles and wasn't on the squad”.
His frustration led to him turning his back on the UK.
"I went through the motions in 1976. From my point of view, the reason I wanted to go to the Olympics was because I knew in the long term I wanted to be a professional rider, because I needed to earn. Part of what drove me was financial gain and I knew if I got a result in the Olympic Games, that I could go into the pro-ranks at a higher level. I had that one chance and when I realised it wasn't going to work, that's when I left this country and went to Belgium."
He ended up living there for 10 years, becoming a respected rider on the European pro-circuit, competing on both track and road against the likes of Eddy Merckx and becoming friends with Gary Wiggins, Sir Bradley's father. He once even raced in a Belgian national jersey with the blessing of the Belgian federation, an interesting twist given he never got to wear the jersey of his home country.
His racing career was eventually ended when he was badly injured in a crash at a six-day event in Argentina in 1984. But his love of cycling remains undiminished. He still rides daily and has passed his passion on to his son Germain, who Maurice is pleased hasn't faced the same barriers he had to overcome. "He was a European champion and rode in the World Championships as a junior and they did give him opportunities".
Nonetheless, with just one black rider, Kadeena Cox, on top-level funding with British Cycling, Burton believes more can be done to encourage diversity in what remains a predominantly white sport.
"It's not that they're not accepting riders - they're not outwardly working to bring more diversity into the sport, which is what I think they need to do," he says.
Maurice Burton’s achievements are testament to his individual will and determination. So forget Bradley, if you want a true cycling hero then take a ride to Streatham.
If you are interested in promoting diversity in cycling here are some useful links:
Maurice Burton’s achievements are testament to his individual will and determination.