The bike man: Remembering Mike Burrows, 1943-2022

The bike man: Remembering Mike Burrows, 1943-2022

Few people can claim to have had as much influence on bike design as Mike Burrows. With the sad news of his death, we’re revisiting this profile from 2013, when Cyclist had the rare privilege to explore his workshop, pick his brains, and admire his collection of incredible bikes

Words Mark Bailey Photography Fred MacGregor

Willy Wonka had his chocolate factory, Victor Frankenstein had his murky laboratory and Mike Burrows – Britain’s most innovative and eccentric bike designer – has a cluttered workshop on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Norwich.

Still fizzing with ideas at the age of 70, Burrows is the visionary tinkerer who designed the iconic Lotus 108 super-bike that catapulted Chris Boardman to a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics – but his impact is much greater.

His ground-breaking Giant TCR compact frame still shapes the designs of bikes in the pro peloton today, his utility bikes are enjoyed by commuters and couriers and his cutting-edge recumbent bicycles and tricycles have set countless speed and endurance records. (Burrows still races and finished fourth in the partly faired category at the World Human Powered Championships in 2012.)

As a wacky inventor, Burrows looks the part with a riotous mop of grey hair – ‘I cut it every Easter so that I’m aerodynamic for the racing season and warm in winter,’ he later tells me – and huge quizzical grey eyebrows.

When Cyclist arrives he’s staring dreamily out of his workshop door and wearing dirty overalls and a woolly hat with three bobbles – red, purple and yellow – that roll around on his head like marbles when he talks. It’s hard not to smile.

The Burrows Engineering workshop is an Aladdin’s cave filled with machinery, tools, wooden plugs for carbon fibre moulds, aerospace-quality foam, scrapbooks full of ‘droodles’ (doodles-cum-drawings), an ancient Model H Milwaukee milling machine, trophies, event passes, precipitous piles of magazines, posters (including Cinelli’s classic nude-female-cyclist-emerging-from-wall) and, of course, lots of bikes.

There is the flame-decorated carbon fibre monocoque that became the Lotus 108, a fully faired canary yellow Speedy, which looks like James Bond’s scuba-sub in The Spy Who Loved Me, and a slick black recumbent Ratracer.

The sight of a Sanyo record player, a pencil-strewn Zucor drafting board and, amazingly, a fax machine reveals he has a more traditional heart than his creations suggest – although he does keep his pens in a wooden clog.

Perhaps it is fitting that such a classically quirky British genius takes his creative motto from a Monty Python sketch in which a bumbling bank robber walks into a lingerie shop and comes out with a pair of knickers.

‘Adopt, adapt, improve – that’s what I do,’ he chuckles. ‘John Cleese said that phrase [it’s the motto of the Round Table, a business and networking foundation] so it must be right. I take my inspiration from life. You see ideas, shelve them in the back of your mind then pull them out and make them better.’

He says he has drawn on anything from model aeroplanes, motorbike fairings and Porsches to birds, BMXs and the work of science fiction writer Douglas Adams.

As we wander the workshop, I can’t help asking constantly, ‘What’s that for?’ and ‘How does this work?’ Burrows answers questions in meandering but fascinating monologues, hopping onto new trains of thought like a savvy sprinter latching onto ever-faster back wheels.

His brain retrieves dates, facts and memories faster than Google. And he is full of feisty opinion. He holds court on modern Tour de France bikes (‘they’re all shit’), the benefits of fat down tubes (‘double the diameter and you get eight times the stiffness’) and why shaving a mohican into the front of your legs or putting insulation tape on the front of your forks will boost your aerodynamics: ‘That small edge will trip the airflow to flow further around and reduce your drag.’

It’s the dimpled golf ball effect, but in bike form. He also suggests that, technically, Bradley Wiggins would be better off climbing Mont Ventoux on a recumbent bike: ‘At the speed he’s travelling, aerodynamics are more important than weight, so although a recumbent might be one kilo heavier he would get a huge aero gain, set against a small power loss.’

Burrows’ powers of innovation can be credited to the fact he grew up knowing very little about bikes. Born in St Albans in 1943, he learnt craft skills from his father – a cabinet maker – then dabbled with model aeroplanes and Dinky toys when his father opened a toy shop.

He left school at 15 and worked as an engineer in a machine shop before moving to Norwich with his wife in 1969 to do ‘boatyard stuff’ on the Norfolk Broads. He later worked at Beaver Machine Tools and Mayflower Packing, before setting up his own business.

Along the way, he picked up ideas from work, the people he encountered (‘One toolmaker called Ron rebuilt antique guns for a hobby and I was fascinated’) and his hobbies:

‘I raced cars and flew model aeroplanes for Great Britain, which taught me about design and aerodynamics. The sky’s the limit. You could make planes and indoor helicopters and single-bladed helicopters and things you wouldn’t imagine – some of it illegal.’

His interest in bikes only started when his car blew up: ‘I stole the wife’s bike – a Raleigh Palm Beach – to cycle to work and I loved it, so I bought a Carlton Corsa 5 Speed and then a Higgins tandem tricycle when the nipper [his son Paul] came along and that was it, I was a cyclist. Then I started getting into the black art of frame building. It was all frogs and cauldrons and very exciting.’

The growth of the Human Powered Vehicle scene in the 1980s, which was free from stuffy design restrictions, electrified Burrows’ interest and he started building versions of the Windcheetah Speedy SL recumbent bike that would guide him to several international championship victories and help Andy Wilkinson set a Land’s End to John O’Groats speed record (41 hours, 4 minutes and 22 seconds).

‘All I was trying to do was go faster and ideas spilled over. What triggered the monocoque idea [later the Lotus 108] was when my friend Simon Sanderson, whose father worked in aerospace [at Hawker Siddeley], got hold of carbon fibre. At the time you didn’t see that in the real world, but it was so strong and light the monocoque became possible.’

He says his ideas were ‘intuitive’ and so conceptually advanced that initially he didn’t even need computers or wind-tunnels to shape it. ‘What I made was a Spitfire and everybody else had a Sopwith Camel so it didn’t matter – it was so much better it was ridiculous.’

He believes his non-cycling background helped his originality: ‘The fastest fully streamlined machine was built by George Georgiev, who is a sculptor. He sees a shape and refines it. It was the same principle with me.’

Burrows had shown his design to Raleigh but faced rejection until his friend Rudy Thoman, who worked for Lotus, saw a prototype hanging on his workshop wall and took it to show the car manufacturer.

‘I’d almost given up,’ says Burrows. ‘Jim Hendry from the British Cycling Federation had taken my original version to the UCI in 1985 to get permission but was rejected. The Lotus name made it work. They wrote to the UCI on Lotus headed paper and it made them feel important so they agreed [in 1990].’

Lotus manufactured the bike, Burrows called Chris Boardman and they were soon in a wind-tunnel refining Boardman’s technique. ‘We were going to the wind-tunnel at midnight because it was cheaper, and Chris was so cold we picked up his shivering on the computer printout.’

He calls the 1992 Olympics his ‘Warhol moment’ and admits he ‘started to well up’ when he watched Boardman clinch Britain’s first Olympics cycling medal for 72 years. ‘It suddenly clicked that they were scratching a name on the wall and making history.’

But Burrows says the cycling federation shunned him. ‘I didn’t get an invite to dinner or anything. They didn’t like it that the bike made the headlines.’

Giant leap forward

In 1994 Burrows was recruited to work for bike manufacturer Giant and set about turning his inventions global. His first creation was the MCR racing bike, which featured a full monocoque composite frame, wheels with flat composite aero spokes and an adjustable stem.

‘The nicest thing anybody ever said to me was the boss of Cinelli, Antonio Colombo, who said, “I wish I designed that adjustable stem,”’ Burrows says. Then came the extra-light, super-stiff Giant TCR with its compact frame and revolutionary sloping top tube. ‘Everything is compact road now,’ he says. ‘That bike just has an X-factor.’

Burrows also created mountain bikes and the Giant Halfway folding bike. A trademark feature of his designs is the monoblade in place of forks. The idea came to him when he saw an 1889 Invincible in the Coventry Transport Museum.

 ‘It is more aerodynamic, stronger, cheaper and easier to work with,’ he says. ‘Only road bikes need forks because they need quick tyre changes.’

But UCI regulations soon strangled Burrows’ creativity. ‘I left Giant in 2000 because the UCI was stopping me building better bikes. In the pro scene they are now all production only.

‘Who designs the Cannondale or Trek bikes? Nobody knows – the magic has gone. The UCI is stopping making bikes better, but you have to make bikes different to sell them, so by definition you are going to make them worse.

‘The rules are in stasis until somebody blows the UCI up. All bike designers can do is fiddle around the edges. Everything is fixed and standardised and mass-produced. Bicycle design is now just about colour, graphics and pick ‘n’ mix Shimano parts.

‘Shimano sends manufacturers catalogues of its components and they make their bikes fit them. Can you imagine Lucas headlights dictating how Ford builds cars?’

As a result, Burrows poured his energies into creating new Human Powered Vehicles such as the Ratcatcher – a fast tourer with aluminium tubes bonded into cast lugs, a monoblade, an aerodynamic tailbox and hydraulic brakes – and the Ratracer, with its light and fast frame made from a single tube that runs from the pedals to the back wheel and a carbon aero monoblade. 

‘I like the recumbent scene because I can win with my brain,’ says Burrows. ‘I can have more influence on my performance with design than with my body.’

Burrows enjoys collaborating with friends. ‘My real strength is knowing that some people are better than me at certain things,’ he says. To prove his point he takes me to see Mike Nelthorpe, a local carbon fibre guru who runs HQ Fibre Products.

Nelthorpe made Burrows’ original carbon fibre monocoque before Lotus took over. He shows me the pre-preg sheets, moulds, deep freeze storage unit and autoclave used to make his creations. ‘My most stretching projects are normally Mike-related,’ he says.

Burrows is equally passionate about utility bikes such as his skinny 2D commuter bike and load-carrying 8-Freight. With its stable two-metre wheelbase, strong aluminium alloy and small 20-inch wheels that start rolling with minimum effort, the 8-Freight weighs just 20kg but can handle 100kg loads. 

It’s used by couriers, florists, busy mums and companies such AV2 hire, which uses a specially made version with ‘batwings’ to transport pop-up screens.

‘They are the nicest customer base because people are buying it to do something. It’s not just a shiny toy.’ He has plans to mass manufacture them in Taiwan.

His lifelong goal, however, is to build a city bike that will be used around the world. He hopes a wealthy company will jump on board. 

‘A city bike has been on my mind for years and it would be very satisfying to make that happen. You’d have the transmission inside the bicycle so it’s clean and simple and the oil stays inside, not on your trousers, and wheels mounted on one side so you can pop the tyre off if you get a puncture. I’d absolutely love that.’

This dreamy vision is a reminder that, despite his obvious frustrations with the flaws of the industry, Burrows retains an ardent passion for bikes. At the end of our photo shoot, he gently places each bike back in the exact place it came from, pausing to have a last look at each one as if tucking them into bed. There is clearly still order – and affection – amidst the apparent chaos of his creativity.

‘I always say that bikes are the only piece of sporting kit that has more of a role outside the sport than in it. Tennis rackets, footballs – waste of time. But bicycles make the world a better place.

‘I’m 70 now. I will carry on doing what I do. I will just get up later and go home earlier. But I want to get people riding bikes. Every bike makes the world a better place.’

Mike Burrows’ bikes

A few example’s of Burrows’ unique approach to bicycles

Windcheetah carbon monocoque

The last prototype of the bike that became the Lotus 108, it features an aero carbon composite monocoque frame with integrated seat post, cantilever wheels and a monoblade to reduce drag.

2D commuter bike

A single-speed, 10kg urban bike with an enclosed chain that only needs oiling every six months. The 2D fits flat against a wall for easy storage in cramped city homes and features a stop to prevent the seatpost being pinched. 

Ratracer

A zippy recumbent racer with a frame supported by a single tube that runs from the cranks to the back wheel to save weight and wheels supported by a slick aero monoblade.

Steel aero

Built in 1981, when Burrows admits he ‘didn’t know much’, this steel aero frame features a split seat tube for a short rear triangle, semi-aero seatpost and brakes blended in for aerodynamics.

Burrows on…

UCI rules

‘Cycling would get a real boost if the UCI opened its eyes and allowed exciting new bike designs to be used in race prologues. That is what sells cycling. It’s not the “Olympic effect”, but the “Boardman Bike effect”: the fact that people can actually go and buy nice bikes they have seen.

‘Today’s bikes, with the diamond frame, were defined by Thomas Humber back in 1890. You can’t see Dura-Ace or Di2 or complex carbon frames. We need to get people excited with innovation. The motor industry understands that. The cycling world doesn’t.’

Success

‘When Boardman was about to win gold at the 1992 Olympics, the media were pestering me and wanted to come and watch me watching him on my TV in my tiny house. It was ridiculous. So I said, “No, you can’t.”

‘I ended up watching it on the big screen at the Lotus factory. Everybody wanted to interview me. Then a few days later a weightlifter was busted for drugs and nobody cared. That’s fame and success for you.’

Modern bike design

‘The problem today is that bike image is everything and magazines and shops don’t help because they want bikes to look different, even if they aren’t any better. If a bike shop chose the wrong colour they would lose 10,000 sales. 

‘The best structural shape for tubes is round. You don’t want square tubes or triangular ones – unless you’re selling bikes. Customers and magazines like things that look different, but they are actually worse, so we don’t get real innovation. It’s a vicious circle.’

The bike man: Remembering Mike Burrows, 1943-2022

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