Mike Burrows was much more than just a legendary bicycle designer

He wasn't one to be constrained by conventions or rules, and one can only wonder how much more he could have done.

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Mike Burrows passed away last week at the age of 79, after two years of sadly unsuccessful treatment for lung cancer. He was best known as the designer of the sleek carbon fibre Lotus bike that Chris Boardman rode to the UK’s first Olympic cycling gold medal in 72 years at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

But there was much more to Burrows than just the Lotus 108. He was an extraordinarily inventive engineer outside of cycling too, and as passionate about utility and everyday cycling as he was about recumbent bikes and reshaping the fast road bike.

Burrows’ achievements also include the Giant TCR design that ushered in the era of compact-framed road bikes; the 8Freight cargo bike; the Giant Halfway folder; the super-thin 2D designed to take up as a little space as possible in a crowded hallway; and a number of recumbent bikes and trikes including the hugely influential Windcheetah Speedy, a trike with a two-front-wheel design that was both more stable and more fun than a conventional trike.

Burrows and the original Giant TCR that ushered in the modern compact road frame. Photo: ©Steve Behr/Stockfile.

Mike Burrows’ cycling story starts in Norwich in the 1970s, where he had an engineering company that later specialised in packaging machines. He was mostly a touring cyclist at the time, but also rode time trials. To the UK’s sleepy, secretive, against-the-clock scene, Burrows brought ideas that were informed by his background in racing model aeroplanes.

Transport journalist Carlton Reid met him in Norwich in the early 1980s. Despite having just bought a touring bike, Reid decided to have a go at time-trialling which is where he encountered a bizarre figure clad entirely in black Lycra, including a balaclava. 

“I just thought ‘all cyclists are incredibly weird,’” says Reid, “but it was just Mike. That’s my abiding early memory of him. And of course being passed by him.”

Long before aerodynamic helmets, Burrows understood the need to keep his unruly mass of hair covered and the benefits of a completely streamlined profile.

Years later, Reid became a cycling journalist and editor of British cycle trade magazine BikeBiz. He’d get a phone call from Burrows almost every month when the magazine came out. 

“He’d talk about anything,” says Reid, “but the UCI was probably his favourite – the ‘gnomes of Aigle’ –and how they were destroying cycling.” 

The time trial scene also brought together Burrows and a young bike racer called Andy Pegg, who would become Burrows’ closest friend. They first met at a race but they really hit it off at a house party where the guests would turn up with fake instruments to take the idea of heavy rock air guitar up to 11. “You’d make a cardboard cut-out Flying V and just thrash it to death ‘playing’ Deep Purple et al,” says Pegg. 

As ever, Burrows had his own ideas.

“He had this incredible buckskin jacket on with tassels all the way along it and he brought a cardboard cutout upright piano. And that was Mike. We just bonded.”

Burrows had built his own bike, described by Reid as a “very strange, low slung” machine and built a bike to Pegg’s own specifications, something even custom builders of the time were reluctant to do. 

Burrows wasn’t just a innovative designer; he was also a talented fabricator. Photo: ©Steve Behr/Stockfile.

That bike was built from the legendary Ishiwata 015 alpha tubing. “I’ve got a great picture of me coming up a slight hill on it, and the whole frame is twisting in two different directions. Superb! World’s lightest tube set!” Pegg says with a laugh.

And then Burrows and Pegg discovered recumbent aka human-powered-vehicle racing.

“That’s where it all started,” says Pegg. “The first ever [UK] HPV event was called the Aspro Clear Speed Challenge at Brighton. It was the first time Mike had seen these strange, aerodynamic go-faster machines. And, he said, ‘Oh, I like this’. He suddenly realised that bikes didn’t have to be a bunch of tubes anymore. He said ‘Why isn’t everything aerodynamic, like a wing, in the bicycle world?’ The nearest we got to aerodynamics was hiding brake cables away!”

And then came carbon fibre. 

Bikes of the early 1980s were almost all made from round steel tubes, with a very small number using aluminium, notably from Alan of Italy, Vitus of France and Klein in the USA. The 1970s had seen an experiment with titanium from the UK’s Speedwell which Luis Ocana rode in the 1973 Tour de France, but for all practical purposes steel reigned supreme. 

In about 1981, Burrows got his hands on some carbon fibre. “A friend whose dad was in the aviation industry had got some off-cuts of carbon ribbon, big, wide, or seven-foot sheets of the stuff,” says Andy Pegg. “Mike started dabbling with it and that is the point where he obviously questioned ‘why should the bike be made of tubes?’ That’s when he came up with the first monocoque, in 1982.”

Pegg describes that bike as “a weird lump, like the Lotus but a bit less refined because it’s made in a small shop”.

Nevertheless it quickly became obvious that Burrows was on to something. At the end of the season, Pegg took that first monocoque to a 25-mile time trial. “I’d done with training, it was all over, it was the off-season. I thought I’ll have a last go on this bike, it looks pretty fantastic.” Despite a cool reception from “the old school” who thought he’d turned up with a “plastic toy” Pegg won the event. “I devastated it”, he says, “I put at least two minutes of that riding time down to the bike. I did a time which no-one did in those days at that time of year and I thought ‘fucking hell that wasn’t supposed to happen!’”

Burrows tried to get the bike industry interested in his monocoque technology to no avail. Burrows and Pegg visited Raleigh where they were received by Gerald O’Donovan, head of the special product division that made the company’s high-end frames. 

“We met him at 10 o’clock in the morning,” says Pegg. “He stunk of brandy and he looked at Mike’s bike and just said ‘It’s a toy. What’s the point? What are you playing at? No-one wants that.’

“A year later Raleigh went bankrupt.”

That’s when the connection to Lotus came in. Lotus test driver Rudy Thomas was a cycling clubmate of Burrows’ when he wasn’t “screeching ‘round their circuit”. He asked Burrows “Why does it have to be a bicycle company making it? Let me take it in.” Thomas took the monocoque to Lotus and the rest is history. Pegg says that Lotus saw the monocoque as a bicycle and as a speed machine, but not as something that had to be made from tubes because they didn’t think in tubes; they were already doing monocoque chassis for cars.

What might have been had the UCI not outlawed machines like the Lotus? Photo: Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT.

Then followed a long development process that culminated in Chris Boardman’s victory in the individual pursuit at the 1992 Olympics. Boardman didn’t just win on time difference, but in a dominating victory caught 1991 pursuit world champion, Germany’s Jens Lehmann, a fairly rare event in track racing at this level.

Boardman’s bike became the centre of an unprecedented media frenzy that saw lots of non-specialist journalists getting carried away and crediting Boardman himself with the design of the bike. The bike undoubtedly helped, but let’s not forget that Boardman was a superb rider at the height of his abilities.

I once asked Burrows whether, knowing how well Boardman and the bike were performing in training, he’d tried to place a bet on Boardman winning an Olympic medal. He had but “no bookmaker would take it” because at the time cycling was such an obscure sport that bookies had no idea how to work out the odds. 

I was unable to reach Boardman for this story, which was written on a day that the UK government and tabloids concocted a massive silly-season story about number plates and speed limits for cyclists. In his capacity as Cycling and Walking Commissioner for Active Travel England I like to think Boardman was too busy knocking heads together at the Department for Transport.

When Burrows’ death was announced, though, Boardman spoke to George Scott of BikeRadar and described Burrows as an engineer who was “just way ahead of his time”. 

“My life wouldn’t have been the same without Mike Burrows,” added Boardman. “There wouldn’t have been a pointy helmet and the amazing bike I rode at the Olympic Games in 1992. Without that, it would have just been a bike race. I can’t imagine – my life would have been very different without Burrows.”

After Boardman’s Olympic success, Burrows was invited to work for Giant, a gig he “thoroughly enjoyed” according to Andy Pegg.

“Literally off the back of [the Olympic victory] they rang up and said ‘would you like to work for us?’ That’s when Mike’s life turned around in some ways. The Taiwanese have this attitude of ‘this is what we’d like you to think of, go away and do it’, and they wouldn’t interfere.”

The most prominent fruit of that partnership was the TCR (which stands for Total Compact Road, TLA fans) a radical aluminium frame with a sloping top tube that followed the mountain biking trend of offering fewer sizes and using seat post and stem length adjustment to fit the rider. 

The TCR started out as a mountain bike frame. Andy Pegg again: “Mike went to Giant and said ‘send me an old scrap 16-inch mountain bike’. They sent him a carbon one with a crack in it, so he patched it up, shoved a pair of road forks in it, made a big long seat pin and got one of the cheap [adjustable] stems and said ‘there you go’. Giant made it into a proper bike and you look at your Treks, your Cannondales — everything is compact.”

Burrows’ one regret about his years with Giant is that he never managed to bring his ideas for a practical bike to fruition. “He was disappointed he never got the shopping bike going. He wanted a bike for the people. He wanted to do the Volkswagen Beetle thing but then e-bikes started to appear and Mike lost ground on that because he was very anti-e-bike.”

After leaving Giant, Burrows worked on a number of projects, including the 8-Freight cargo bike, introduced in the early 2000s. This was another area in which Burrows was ahead of his time. Cargo bikes have become increasingly popular in the last 10 years or so but they were still fairly rare in the early 2000s.

Practical bikes like this were a lifelong theme for Burrows who stopped driving after the oil price shock of the early 70s; he had previously raced saloon cars. “In our early years in the late ‘70s, we all had butcher’s trade bikes,” says Andy Pegg. “Mike basically ran his business for 15 years using a trade bike to pedal into the city to pick up bars of steel and things and pedal back again. And I had one as well and I did my window cleaning round for 20 years with a ladder strapped on the side and a bucket in the basket.”

The 8-Freight was a modern version, inspired by those butcher’s bikes, Viet Cong bikes, and Dutch ‘Long John’ cargo bikes. However, instead of sticking the load out front with a wacky steering linkage from the bars, the 8-Freight had a long, low load area behind the rider. That meant it handled more or less like a regular bike and could be manoeuvred through traffic easily.

It also had a number of classically Burrows features including a single-sided fork and chainstay so that punctures could be easily repaired in the field. Sadly it’s been out of production for some years despite being well-regarded in the courier and cargo bike community. With the way most cargo bikes now have electric assist you have to think a bit of motorised boost might have helped it be more popular.

Burrows the man

Burrows was famous for being, well, blunt, to put it diplomatically. “He could be [direct] to the point of being rude,” says Andy Pegg, “and he was a ‘50s chap so he could be quite misogynist as well. He could be a bit too honest. Sometimes you have to say ‘Well it’s a good idea but maybe you want to do this’, but Mike would say ‘That’s rubbish, what’s the point?’ and wander off leaving the other person crushed.”

At one UK cycling show Mike was asked to judge a recumbent/HPV design contest. He examined all the entries, but refused to award a prize because he didn’t think any of them had done anything innovative enough to deserve it.

I did once encounter the warmer side of Mike Burrows though. In 1998 I was launch editor for a title called Maximum Mountain Bike magazine and travelled down to Brighton to join Mike, Andy, cartoonist Jo Burt and others for a mountain bike ride on the South Downs. 

Stressed AF from the work of launching the magazine, lacking sleep and, as I later realised, suffering from quite severe depression, I was having a shocking time. I threw a bit of a wobbler and ended up riding back into Brighton to get the train home. Mike got in contact shortly after to make sure I was OK and to say that if I ever needed someone to talk to, he was available. 

Heroes

Burrows was looked up to by a couple of generations of cycling designers and general bike nerds, but he in turn had his own heroes. Travelling around when working for Giant he got to meet OG mountain bikers such as Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly. “He liked them because they’d come up with an idea from just messing around,” says Pegg. “They showed that we don’t all have to be roadies. Let’s go take our old paper boy bikes up a mountain and see what happens.

“He got on like a house on fire with Alex Moulton too because he was someone else who thought outside the box of what bikes should be. He always liked the suspension, the rubber ball that turns gently inside out which is its damping factor so it can’t spring back; that’s pretty clever.

“Strangely enough he really liked [Clive] Sinclair even when he did things that were just barmy and wrong. Like the C5 [an electric-assist trike Sinclair launched in 1985] everything he came up with was a good idea but just badly executed. But he was the same as Mike; he wouldn’t accept any form of outside help.”

That said, Burrows wasn’t afraid of the odd wacky idea either. One of his bikes appeared on classic BBC pop-science show Tomorrow’s World, a fully-enclosed recumbent he was working on for a speed record attempt. It was designed to have an extremely low-drag shape thanks to tricks like making it very low and narrow and shaping it so air would flow over it in a laminar fashion to reduce drag-inducing turbulence. However, that left nowhere to put a window so the bike, inevitably dubbed Cyclops, was equipped with a fibre-optic cable and lens so the rider could look forward. To pilot Cyclops, which Andy Pegg says “felt like you’re in a tomb and you weren’t getting out,” you had to wear special goggles to see out.

“This was unfortunately, before the clever video cameras came along,” says Andy Pegg. “What we used was a surgical endoscope cable but of course, it has a distortion factor. So you have this tiny little lens at the front five millimetres across. I’d be sat in this thing, and I’d put on the special goggles, one eye was blanked off and you had the fibre optic wire dangling out of the other one like a sort of metre long worm. So you’re looking through one eye in this black tube and you’d hear Mike shout ‘Start pedalling’. Everything in front looks far away. I was going towards this car and all I could hear was screaming ‘Stop!’

“I stopped and when I took the lid off I was six inches from the car. I never got in it again!”

The end

While Burrows was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago, he didn’t let it slow him down. He kept riding right through chemotherapy (even riding to and from hospital) until about a month before his death when he began to suffer shortness of breath. His doctors told him the cancer had reached stage four and he only had about four weeks left. 

“He wasn’t in any pain,” says Andy Pegg, who continued to pick up and deliver Burrows’ palliative drugs for him. “He asked me what the lethal limit of morphine is, so I knew what was coming. The doctors had given him six half-litre bottles so I suspect the medical establishment knew too. And he did – he had about 200 ml the night before he went to bed last Sunday night. In the morning I went round about seven o’clock and he was still warm, but his fingertips were bluing, which is the sign that you’re gone.

“That’s how he wanted it, he knew he wasn’t getting any better so he checked out.”

Mike Burrows died as he’d lived: on his own terms. He is survived by his wife Tuula and son Paul.

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