*** This interview is dedicated to Maurice Burton's father, who sadly passed away on October 27 2020 at the age of 101. ***
Maurice Burton was the first ever black national champion in British cycling.
But despite winning three national titles on the track as a teenager and beating some of the leading riders in the world, Burton was never selected for a World Championship squad and was not considered for Olympic selection in 1976.
Burton overcame the disappointment of his lack of opportunity at national level by moving to Europe and racing as a professional on the track and road, including in over 56 Six Day events.
Now 64, Burton runs De Ver Cycles bike shop in Streatham, and took time out from his work at the store to speak to Eurosport’s Orla Chennaoui about his experiences in cycling and what he thinks can be done to encourage more diversity at the elite level of the sport in Britain.
‘I don’t know if I'd have won the Worlds, but I never got the opportunity to try’ - Maurice Burton
Orla Chennaoui: Maurice, you were the first black British cycling champion. The colour of your skin shouldn’t matter, it partly does I guess because so few have come after you. Were you aware at that time of making history in that sense as well as a personal history?
“I didn’t really think of it as making history at that point in time. Obviously I was aware that it was only me but I didn’t really see that, I just looked at it as I wanted to win and that was it really, I just wanted to win.
“When I started to notice that I was treated differently was around the time I went to the Commonwealth Games and thereafter. That’s when I noticed I was treated differently. Before that the coach at the time was Norman Sheil, who passed away in 2018. He was a good rider himself, he was world pursuit champion in 1955, the year I was born. I notice this with a lot of people who are successful, Norman and people like John Nicholson who was world sprint champion (who taught me to drive) people like that, they didn’t worry too much about the colour of your skin. If you had the ability then they were happy to help you.
“The problem was that Norman departed from British Cycling and from that point onward things changed dramatically for me.
“From the time at the Commonwealth Games I noticed things were different. I noticed for example that I had an invitation to meet with the Duke of Edinburgh, it was my name on the ticket, but they arranged it so that somebody else went instead of me. I was 18 years old, I’d just turned 18, and at that point I didn’t feel confident enough in myself to stand up and say ‘well hold on a minute, why does somebody else have to go’.
I came back from the Commonwealth Games and then later that year I beat the gold and silver medallists in the national championship, and some of the people in the crowd were booing.
“That didn’t really worry me too much. But the main point is that from that point onwards, after the selection for the Commonwealth Games, I never got the selection to ride for Great Britain or England again. That’s the thing.
“I wanted to ride in the track world championships in the points race and in the keirin. Initially they said yes and then they changed their minds, and they decided to put me in the road race. Well now, I wasn’t a road rider in the first place, although of course I had ridden on the road. But this was a race on the side of a mountain, where only 13 riders finished, and so I didn’t ride, because I knew that there was something that didn’t add up. So that’s about how it is with me and the selectors and so forth. From the time that Norman Sheil departed things changed dramatically for me.
Despite your obvious talent and your success, you never got a call-up to compete at the Olympic Games. Do you think that was a racist non-selection?
“What can I say? I wouldn’t want to say that the other riders weren’t as good as me, that’s not what I’m saying. But at least what I’d have expected was an equal opportunity, which I don’t think I had.
Initially I wasn’t even on the Olympic selection squad, never mind not going, I wasn’t even on the squad full-stop. There were riders on that squad who I don’t think had even won a race, and I’d already been three-time British champion at that point.
“There wasn’t social media like there is now, but there were newspapers and things and these people started to pick up on it, and so in the end they (British Cycling) relented and they allowed me back in the squad. I went through the process and everything else, but I wasn’t surprised that I wasn’t selected, put it that way.
“I’d already made up my mind that if and when that arrived, I’d just bypass the place all together and go to Belgium (and ride professionally on the European pro tour), which is what I did.”
I know that you’re still closely associated with British Cycling. But when you look back on that period do you think that British Cycling was racist?
“I would say that there were people in British Cycling who definitely were… yes I would say that.
You can’t put a blanket over the whole of British Cycling and say ‘yes, everyone at British Cycling was racist’. But there were people who were involved in British Cycling, people in positions of power, who definitely had some issues with people like me.
“I give you one more example. I was British Champion in 1974, I won the 20km Scratch Championship. The next year I was defending my title, I got boxed in, and I managed to get out of it by pushing a rider out of the way and got through. Unfortunately somebody put their pedal into my wheel in the home straight and I crashed, so I didn’t even finish the race. I didn’t finish the race. And yet British Cycling, or the officials at Leicester, decided to disqualify me. How can you disqualify somebody who didn’t even finish the race? And to me all the they were doing was just to kick home the point. That’s how I saw it. That was the mentality at the time I think.
How did you bring yourself to stay in the sport because that must have been tough to put up with all of this and keep racing?
“I’d been to the European Championship and I’d seen Belgian cycling. From the very beginning I never saw myself as just being somebody big in the UK, that wasn’t really what it was about for me. I’d read about Tom Simpson and all these people and I knew that I didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond, that wasn’t for me. And so, regardless of how the people here decided they wanted to treat me, I already had my ideas that I was going to be moving on, and that is what I did.
“I won’t say that I didn’t have issues abroad, but not to the extent that was here.
“Abroad there’s always going to be issues when you are foreigner, whether you’re black, whether you’re white. In those days it was difficult for a person from the UK to break into top continental cycling. But I had to try. I had to try my best and that’s what I did.”
‘I would have expected an equal opportunity’ – Maurice Burton on his experiences in cycling
Looking back on your career it’s difficult to come to a conclusion other than you were denied opportunities due to the colour of skin. How does that make you feel and is that something you’d agree with?
“I agree with it. All I would say is that it’s a big shame that I didn’t get to ride in a World Championship or an Olympic Games. But more importantly the World Championships to be honest, because the Olympics was only for amateurs, and so once you passed over to the professional ranks the Olympics was out of it all together anyway.
“Back then I specialised in the events that finished in the Six Day races, which is not a format now that it was then. In those days it was very much financially viable and there were 18 six-days in a winter.
But if you had a result in the Worlds in one of those events, definitely if you had a rainbow jersey on your back, that was a passport to ride anything you wanted.
“The closest I got to that was that I rode the omnium once in Ghent, and it was Belgium against the rest of the world. I was the only one in the rest of the world team who wasn’t a world champion, and so on that day in Belgium they decided that I had to wear the jersey even though I wasn’t.
“I don’t know if I would have won the Worlds. But the point is I never got the opportunity to try.”
You are still closely involved with British Cycling, you do a lot of work with them and for them. Would you say there is still racism within the organisation today?
“I haven’t come across it. My son (Germain Burton) was involved in British Cycling, and talking to him he hasn’t said to me anything about having any issues with racism in British Cycling.
“I would have to say, regarding British Cycling, is that they need to understand that to get more diversity, to make it more diverse… well put it this way: you have to understand that a lot of British riders maybe their parents rode or their friends rode. You won’t get that many black people whose parents weren’t involved in cycling. Yesterday I had a conversation with Charlotte Cole-Hossain and she was very fortunate that her dad was a cyclist. My son Germain, again, he was very fortunate that I was a cyclist and I recognised his talent and spoke to him at an early age and said ‘listen, if you want to do this I think you can’.
“But there is a lot more out there, and to identify these people you need to try a bit harder. That’s what I think with British Cycling, they need to try a bit harder.
Maurice, I wanted to ask you about how we can increase diversity in British Cycling.
“I would feel that initially British Cycling could even go back to what it was like when I started. I rode a bike when I was 12 years old, but I didn’t start racing until I was 15. I was coming up to 15 when I went to Herne Hill velodrome with the school, you see. And at that point I remember the first day the coach said to all of us, we didn’t ride that day we had to listen to the talk in the grandstand and then the next week we got to ride. And he said ‘from here you can go to the Olympic Games’. And that was what I needed to hear, because I had no idea. I knew I had some ability but I didn’t know how or where to go with it.
“That was 50 years ago last month. The school used to take us to Herne Hill for an afternoon once a week. Every Monday we went to the velodrome and there were bikes that we could use, that’s where we started from.
From what I understand, at that moment that facility is only for certain privileged schools. Well, to be honest with you the privileged schools are not the schools that they need to be looking to. The schools that they need to be looking to and the ones that don’t have much money, the ones in the run-down inner cities. These are the guys they need to look at.
“I think the first thing they’ve got to do is set up some sort of a system whereby they’ve got youngsters from inner city schools where they can give them access to be able to ride, initially on the track because that’s the easiest way to identify talent I think.
“To do it on the road would be virtually impossible in this day and age, they need to do it on the track. But that’s the starting point I think. Definitely.
Thank you so much for your time and sharing your thoughts with us.
“It’s been great watching all of you on TV, and watching Tao do so well.
"Before I go, I have to mention Dr Marlon Moncrieffe*. Without him, without his exhibitions showing black British champions, we might not be where we are now having this discussion, so thank you to him."
In response to this interview British Cycling told Eurosport that they have localised projects in places like Bristol, Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham, London which are about getting kids in inner cities involved in cycling, which they claim are very effective at a local level.
There isn’t yet, however a national strategy to make cycling more diverse and inclusive, though the national federation is due to make an announcement this week outlining their approach, with an aim off publishing a Diversity and Inclusion strategy by the end of the year.
Eurosport also understand that British Cycling have further plans for talent development in inner cities, which they are working on for 2021.
*Dr Marlon Moncrieffe is a researcher and scholar at the University of Brighton.
In 2018 he launched an award-winning exhibition entitled ‘Made in Britain: Uncovering the life-histories of Black British Champions in Cycling’