The incredible story of Maurice Burton and De Ver Cycles
DE VER CYCLES - STREATHAM, LONDON.
Occhio.cc is delighted to announce that De Ver Cycles are now retailers of Nalini and Campagnolo clothing, along with Forza accessories.
In fact, De Ver Cycles is the very store that inspired our own business model and as a new distributor we are excited to have the chance to explore our relationship with this famous shop and its owner. We only stock brands we are deeply passionate about, and therefore we are picky about who we sell our products to! This philosophy ensures our brands maintain their exclusiveness and hands power to the independents.
De Ver Cycles is not only one of the UK’s most authentic and historic cycle stores, but the founder and owner is ex-British champion and cycling legend Maurice Burton. Maurice was Britain’s first black cycling champion, and his story is an extraordinary one.
De Ver Cycles is based in Streatham, South London and growing up as a kid in the area, Maurice liked nothing more than going out riding his bike whenever he could, especially with his cousin Dexter. Little did he know back then that he’d go on to become a British champion and have a track career that would go down in British cycling history, let alone own such a popular bike shop and club. Perhaps, too, he never dreamt that he’d have a son that would ride for British Cycling and become a European and National Champion.
With a Jamaican father and English mother Maurice had a strict upbringing, and at the time he was unable to convince his father to get him a bike. On a school trip to the swimming baths, he spotted a broken one in a nearby garden and came to an arrangement later that day with the lady owner who told him it had been in a crash. He fixed the bike up and suddenly, he was liberated, and he would meet Cousin Dexter on Blackfriars Bridge and they would be off. His drive and determination evident at an early age.
Maurice realised quickly he had some talent as a rider, and in 1970 at just 14 years of age, a coach at Herne Hill Velodrome told him “From here you can go to the Olympic Games,” and that was all he needed to hear. He would go on to win schoolboy leagues on a borrowed track bike and race local criteriums on the bike he found in that garden, all without his parents being aware, for a while at least.
In 1972, Maurice was invited for the first time to ride the National Track Championships, and by 1973 he became British Junior sprint champion and selected for the European Championships in Munich. Racing wasn’t straight forward though; his basic equipment failed him in Munich, and there was no mechanical support staff like the British team riders have today. He was envious of the professional Belgian set up and he dreamed of basing himself there.
Such was his talent that as GB Junior National Sprint Champion, Maurice was selected for the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand. But this was to be his last GB selection. With new selectors at the British Federation, he was overlooked even though he was by now winning big races in the senior age group. In 1974 as an 18-year-old, Maurice became British amateur scratch race champion, making him the nation’s first black champion. Tragically, racism, boos from audiences when on the podium and certain favouritism amongst the British selectors, meant that he did not go on to represent GB as a senior. He never had the chance to wear the national champions colours in international competition and it’s hard to imagine how this made him feel.
Frustrated but starting to make an impression in Belgium, Maurice would go on to gain good connections there and win favour amongst coaches, organisers and fans. Some race organisers gave him vital breaks here and there, and despite once turning up as a teenager at the famous Ghent stadium on Christmas Day with nowhere to stay, he found himself racing alongside some of the greats and would go on to be invited to all the biggest six-day events during his career.
In 1975 and at 19 years of age his winning performances still hadn’t impressed the British selectors enough however, and it was then that an Australian cyclist by the name of John Nicholson gave him his first big pairing break. They competed together in races in Europe and became part of a group that included the father of Bradley Wiggins and Maurice would later ride with him at the famous Ghent six-day. He returned to the UK in the same year to win the national title in the team pursuit, but by then his maverick nature was frowned upon by the British Federation. They wanted to be the ones that determined who was a success and who wasn’t, and although Maurice’s philosophy brought about a great career as a rider and businessman, it didn’t please his own country’s federation at the time.
Six-day track racing was to become Maurice’s speciality as a rider. With its six-day duration origins founded in London Islington as far back as 1878, racing spread to the US and New York’s Madison Square Gardens, and then to mainland Europe with the format evolving to allow teams of two riders to work together. One rider raced while the other rested. This was Maurice’s life. Beds inside cabins would fill the track centre and six nights of racing would take place from early evening to early morning. The smell of cigarettes, beer and two-stroke from the Derny bikes would create legendary atmospheres. Huge crowds would swill beer and place bets, and the big named riders would be paid handsomely. A win at the Ghent or Berlin Six was a big deal, but race results were often ‘predetermined’ so that the big names would win. There was a hierarchy that needed to be respected. Maurice tells the story of a race he gifted the legendary rider, Eddy Merckx. “It was just the two of us left at the end of an elimination race. I’d already beaten him that night, so he knew I was very keen. He came alongside me and had a little word in my ear. He said, “Will you let me win this one?” I said, “OK, Eddy.” It was an honour that the greatest rider of all time would ask a favour of me.”
1976 was an Olympic year, and the Games were still strictly speaking, amateur. Athletes weren’t allowed to compete if they’d received payment of any kind from their sport and Maurice was able to see the Games as qualification for the professional ranks. Not unlike boxing is today. Maurice wanted to compete and make that final step up to being a pro, and feeling as though he owed nothing to the Federation, he simply came back to Britain that season to see if he could get a place on the team. The selections ended up going to riders who had won nothing, but even as a multiple British Champion, Maurice was not selected. By that point he’d already realised he was competing for a place on the Olympic squad against riders who had yet to win a race and it was obvious any efforts to be selected were going to be in vain.
With the 1976 Olympics now a lost cause, Maurice stayed in London because he was aware of the chance to race at the old Paddington velodrome and win some prize money for his travel back to Belgium. In his own words, “I won the races on Sunday, and by Monday I was back in Ghent”. He would never race in the UK again.
Maurice describes Ghent as a place where he could “race every day and didn’t need a car to get around. If you made the top 10 that meant you could eat steak that night”. His career there would progress at an amateur level in the sense that he wasn’t yet a paid rider, and he would lead a tough life of a six-day track rider scrapping for rides and prize money until he made his mark. He took basic accommodation with other riders, raced where he could, navigated the politics, and paired up with riders who he thought he could win some races with. One such pairing was with a rider called Dirk Herwig, and although they wouldn’t win any overall races, the rider’s father was wealthy and he paid Maurice to pair with him. It was a good period for Maurice, and he was able to turn pro the following year.
By now he was paired with fellow Brit Paul Medhurst and they made a name for themselves from day one. At the Ghent Six-Day that season, the blue riband event of its day, they won the points race against a field that included Eddy Merckx.
His career still took some difficult turns. At one race he realised he’d been doped by an unscrupulous soigneur, and he had to duck and dive to stay clear of dodgy dealings from then on. He rode his luck, too, when he got an 11th hour call to ride the Berlin six-day with Roman Hermann. He made a mark and went on to sign contracts for 16 events that winter.
Maurice calculates that, for a while, he was being paid around £8,000 a week by today’s standards. He won many individual races and although he never won an overall six-day competition, he went on to ride 56 professional six-day races, until a sabotaged bike ended his career.
“It was sabotage. My tyres were cut. In the race they blew out and I broke my leg”
After a long period out of racing due to his injuries, he returned to London a young man with cash to burn. By 30 he was broke. For a while he worked as a cycle courier, but in 1987 his entrepreneurial instincts led him to take on De Ver Cycles in Streatham. Maurice describes in his own words how he came to acquire the shop.
“The business was started in 1977 by Peter Verleysdonk. The name De Ver, is a shortening of his name. Peter was an Australian Pro Cyclist, who came to Europe in 1974 to break into the then very lucrative Six Day Circuit. He based himself in London, but come December he travelled to Ghent, Belgium, to try his luck. I had turned 19 and had already won 2 British Championships. So I joined Peter on his adventure. We arrived in Ghent early morning on Christmas Day. That afternoon we saw the big races held in the Sportpalais. Found a room to stay and so it began. I went on to turn Pro and race in the Six-Day races, unfortunately, Peter was not successful. So he came back to London and learned to build steel frames, and then in 1977, he opened De Ver Cycles. Fast-forward to 1987, I had had a bad crash in a Six-Day race in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1984, and retired from Professional Cycling. I used to visit Peter in his shop, but I think he was missing Australia and was trying to get me to buy his business. Eventually, he lowered his price, and the deal was done. So on 12th July 1987, I became the owner of De Ver Cycles”
Maurice eventually took over the shop next door too and expanded until he’d bought the entire block where he still lives and works to this day with his wife Mia. Except of course when he is in Lanzarote running his boutique cycling holiday camps, enjoying the great weather there and riding his bike with friends. He’s able to run the online shop and buying from there such is the nature of how things can be run in today’s digital world, but the physical shop itself however remains a community success story. It is a superb place for anyone to go and buy their bikes and get valuable expert advice, and we’d be delighted if our subscribers were able to visit. It is also a shrine to Maurice’s wonderful career on the bike and hub for the De Ver Cycling club, which welcomes all shapes, sizes, abilities and backgrounds. “My philosophy is I want everyone. We all have to fit together. I don’t like segregation. Not just colour, or men and women, but financially too.”
All in all, Maurice had an extraordinary cycling career. I don’t think any other cycling store in the UK can boast of an owner like Maurice. He has on several occasions beaten some of the greats, and although he is highly respected across the World, the UK didn’t appreciate him when he was at his pomp. He had to endure some extremely tough times and that is a travesty. His maverick philosophy however ensured that he became a successful businessman. Yet, a more humble and friendly man you could not meet. Whenever I have met and spoken with him, he is always giving of his time, and we at Occhio are proud to have our products on the www.devercycles.co.uk store.
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