Sunday, 28 August 2022

Britain says : "Farewell" to Mike Burrows, the unrecognized and unfeted genius, whose bicycle designs changed the world

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Mike, who has died at the age of seventy-nine, was born in the middle of the Second World War in St Albans, Hertfordshire, in the early summer of 1943 and picked up his craft skills from watching his father at work in his spare time. Richard Burrows was a pattern maker in the de Havilland Bomber Factory, skilled in moldmaking and fine woodworking. 

Like many boys growing up in the 1950s, Mike had an interest in making wooden model aeroplanes. He said that : "The nice thing about it was that : "It's all down to you. You understand the aerodynamics, the mechanics, the structure of things and you could learn very quickly, because something like a real aeroplane you can't afford to take risks, but with model aeroplanes you can churn them out by the week, you can experiment - they break, they break. You can learn how to do it right". (link)

At secondary school Mike's forte was probably metalwork. He said : "I can do things with my hands, I can't understand that. I never learned one of my times tables at school. I can never recite a times table, yet I can pick up a piece of metal and know exactly how thick it needs to be to do something". In fact, he probably had the condition known as 'dyscalculia' and when he left school, without qualifications at the age of fifteen in 1958, he began working with his hands in a machine shop and it was here that he honed his skills as an engineer. He recalled : "One toolmaker called Ron, rebuilt antique guns for a hobby and I was fascinated". He himself now flew model aeroplanes for Great Britain and said : "You could make planes and indoor helicopters and single-bladed helicopters and things you wouldn’t imagine, some of it illegal".

Married and at the age of twenty-six, he moved with his wife to do, as he said 'boatyard stuff’ on the Norfolk Broads. He later worked at Beaver Machine Tools in Norwich, which had been founded by Victor Baldwin in 1951 and had risen to become Britain's main exporter of precision milling machines, mainly to the USA. Mike moved from there to work for Mayflower Packing, before setting up his own engineering business. 

Mike said 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". It was now that his ability to work with and make intuitive judgments about metal came in. He said that he : "Couldn't make satellites or aeroplanes, because that is much too technical, you have to have a computer. But bicycles you can operate at this level and it works for me".

He became part of the 'Human Powered Vehicle' scene in the 1980s, which was free from stuffy design restrictions, electrified his interest and led him to build his own models. It was his 'Windcheetah Speedy SL Recumbent Bike', a trike with a stable, two-front-wheel design that would take him to several international championship victories and help Andy Wilkinson set a Land’s End to John O’Groats speed record of 41 hours, 4 minutes and 22 seconds.  

He said he thought : "I was doing 45 miles an hour laying on my back in these stream lines body shells. Why didn't we do something like that on my bicycle ? So my bicycle started to be designed logically. I started to analyze why bicycles didn't go faster". (link) 

Mike said : "All I was trying to do was go faster and ideas spilled over. What triggered the monocoque idea 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 said : "There was never a bicycle which wasn't made, that wasn't made out of tubing. That was the essence of a bicycle. Basically the traditional bike was a collection of tubes and suddenly I realised it didn't need to be".

He then made the imaginative leap : "With this new material, carbon fibre, you made the bicycle directly in one piece. You simply joined the wheels up with the material directly and you could make it any shape you wanted. It was wonderful". (link) He said he had doodled on paper and came up with some dimensions and then in 1982 rushed off to his father and asked him to make a model frame in wood, in one piece.(link) He now took this to Mike and Sylvia Melthorp who cast the frame in carbon fibre and said : "It was really satisfying because I'd designed a faster bicycle and no one had done that in a hundred years".(link)

Confident that his bike was a winner, Mike would now face years of disappointment in his quest to see it in production and was devastated in the initial negative response from both the industry and the racing world. Jim Hendry of the British Cycling Federation said
: "We took the bike, in 1983, to the World Champion for the International Technical Officials to look at and they had a bit of a laugh and said : "No. You can't use that". We tried again in 1986 when they were a little bit more interested but said : "It's still outside the rules".(link)

Mike himself said : "I could not see how people could not see its advantages . I don't want to be conceited, but it must have been a bit like Einstein : "Look at E = mc² you fools. Can't you see this ?" And : "Maybe I am too far ahead of the game. I'd jumped such a big step that maybe because people are used to looking at collections of tubes, I'd just made something else".(link)

Disappointed by the failure of recognition, Mike went back to work on '
Human Powered Vehicles', as can be seen in his 'cyclops doodles' dated 1985. However, his monocoque was revived when Rudy Thomann, who was a cycling clubmate of Mike and who was a Formular 2 driver and a consultant for the car manufacturer, Lotus, told Mike that the World Cycling Regulations had been relaxed and he thought Mikes's bike was now legal. He asked Mike : “Why does it have to be a bicycle company making it? Let me take it in”. With the Barcelona Olympics just twelve months away, Rudi now showed Mike's bike to his bosses at Lotus, the car company famed for their production of luxury sports cars and molded one-piece bodies.

The Head of Engineering at Lotus, Roger Becker who saw himself as 'Mr Lotus' and said that at the time he carried : "The flag of Lotus and understand what a Lotus must be. That's what I saw in that bike originally. I saw it as a Lotus. There is a mark of performance. There is a mark of style, There is a mark of charisma about the Lotus that I saw in that bike".(link)

Mike himself was clear that it was the prestigious name of Lotus which now earned his bike its professional recognition. He recalled : "I’d almost given up. Jim Hendry from the British Cycling Federation had taken my original version to the UCI in 1983 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".

The prototype was now built with its monocoque carbon frame which worked on the principle that the best way to avoid weak spots, especially at the joints, was to have no joints at all. To find out if Mikes's bike had an aerodynamic advantage, it needed to be tested in a wind tunnel where a jet of air was passed over the bike and the driver and the further it went without breaking up, the less aerodynamic drag and the faster the bike would go.

With cyclist Chris Boardman now on board, Mike recalled : "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". The initial results were  disappointing with the bike producing 6.5 more aerodynamic drag the Chris's conventional bike. Then, the Lotus aerodynamic expert, Richard Hill, solved the problem by lowering the handle bars and the bikes speed potential was realised.(link)

Mike was not invited to the process of molding at Lotus. He said : "I wanted to see some of the molding. Lotus are world famous for their expertise and I thought : 'It would be nice to see what they're doing' and I never got to see any of the early stages of the molding. I never got to see what shape the shape the bicycle had changed to to and I thought : 'That was a bit odd'. I would have thought if someone said : "I've done so and so. What do you think of that ?" That never happened". In the event, Lotus made minor modifications to Mike's model, but the method they used to build the frame was almost identical to his. (link)

When Chris Boardman and the 'Lotus Bike' appeared in the final of the '4 km individual  pursuit' at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, millions of viewers watched it live in Britain. Mike called this his "Warhol moment" and confessed that he : "Started to well up" when he watched Chris, riding the 'Lotus 108' win Britain’s first Olympics cycling medal for 72 years, with a speed of 4:27.357 minutes in the '4 km Individual Pursuit' at the Velòdrom d’Horta, 29 July 1992.(link)

Needless to say, Mike was not present at the Velodrome. He recalled : "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".

Mike celebrated his success at Jim and Julie Linehan's café on the A12 in Norfolk.(link) Mike said : "I'd done, what in a sense I'd always wanted to do. I'd designed the world's fastest bicycle and that was it. I'd done it". He said that it suddenly clicked that they were : "Scratching a name on the wall and making history". At this point he found that instead of congratulations, the Cycling Federation shunned him. He said : "I didn’t get an invite to dinner or anything. They didn’t like it that the bike made the headlines".

His explanation of the bike's success was : "This was a wonderful series of coincidences, that everybody and everything came together; we had Rudi, the wonderful co-ordinator who spoke French; Richard the pure technician who understood all the things I didn't understand about aerodynamics; Lotus with the technical back-up and the name to push the project forward and Chris, the greatest rider Britain has ever produced and that was this magic. The thing just gelled together perfectly at the time and a bit like the Beatles, we've all fallen apart and we're all slagging each other off afterwards".(link)

In 1994 at the age of fifty-one Mike was recruited to work for bike manufacturer 'Giant', the Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer and saw the opportunity to place his inventions in world wide markets. 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. Mike said : "The nicest thing anybody ever said to me was the boss of Cinelli, Antonio Colombo, who said : “I wish I designed that adjustable stem". 

Next, with his extra-light, super-stiff Total Compact Road, the 'Giant TCR', with its compact frame and revolutionary sloping top tube, Mike said : "That bike just has an X-factor". Subsequently, his design was copied by bicycle company manufacturers throughout the world and today's road bikes with the sloping top tube he pioneered all tend to be based on his 1994 design.

Chris Boardman offered insight into Mike's character when he said : He very much did everything on his own terms and accepted the consequences of that as well. It didn’t put him in the limelight and it didn’t put him into the everyday life of people. He was a fascinating bloke. He didn’t do emails, he didn’t do mobile phones, so people communicated to Mike on his terms, which was infuriating but also quite endearing. He was just a character that never quite got the credit he deserved, in my opinion”. 

At the peak of his creative powers, Mike now turned to mountain bikes and his 'Giant Halfway Folding Bike'. A trademark feature of his designs was the monoblade in place of forks. He said that 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. Only road bikes need forks because they need quick tyre changes".

Mike now found that the regulations of the the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for sports cycling, was now strangling his creativity and said : "I left Giant in 2000 because the UCI was stopping me building better bikes". 

He now channeled his energies into creating new Human Powered Vehicles such as the 'Ratcatcher' : a fast tourer with aluminium tubes bonded into cast lugs, with a monoblade, aerodynamic tailbox and hydraulic brakes. This was followed by the 'Ratracer', with its light and fast frame made from a single tube that ran from the pedals to the back wheel and a carbon aero monoblade. Mike said : "I like the recumbent scene because I can win with my brain. I can have more influence on my performance with design than with my body".

He also turned his attention to his utility bikes and his skinny '2D Commuter Bike' was a single-speed, 10kg urban bike with an enclosed chain that only needed oiling every six months. It fitted flat against a wall for easy storage in cramped city homes and featured a stop to prevent the seatpost being stolen. His load-carrying '8-Freight' with its stable two-metre wheelbase, strong aluminium alloy and small 20-inch wheels requiring minimum effort weighed just 20kg , but could handle 100kg loads. It was used by couriers, florists and companies such 'AV2 Hire', which used a specially made version with ‘batwings’ to transport pop-up screens. Mike said : "They are the nicest customer base because people are buying it to do something. It’s not just a shiny toy’.

When he was seventy Mike said : "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".

When he considered his own creative process Mike said : "Adopt, adapt, improve – that’s what I do. John Cleese said that phrase, it’s the motto of the Round Table, a business and networking foundation, so it must be right". Mike was referring to the Monty Python sketch in which a bumbling bank robber walks into a lingerie shop and comes out with a pair of knickers. He continued : "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".

Stuart Dennison, owner of Bikefix in London, wrote : 'To break free from the norm requires some imagination, a critical mind and some stubbornness. It helps if you like to question accepted conventions and are not afraid of a few failures. These are characteristics that Mike Burrows has in bucket-loads. My favourite quote : “That’s a really stupid idea, I know because I tried it” '.

Chris Boardman has described Mike's the ground-breaking 108 with Lotus, as : The most elegant, beautiful piece of machinery that’s ever been designed”. “He went to Lotus because he wanted to see it become something bigger but in some ways it was sad that it became known as ‘The Lotus Bike’, because it was ‘The Mike Burrows Bike’, in polished form”. On Mike's passing he reflected : 
“My life wouldn’t have been the same without Mike Burrows. 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”.

Mike himself said : 

"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".

* * * * * * * * * 
For an expert appraisal of Mike's career : John Stevenson : 'Mike Burrows was much more than a legendary bicycle designer' in 'CyclingTips'. (link)

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