In a shed in Norfolk, a wild-haired man in his seventies, clogs on his feet and woollen socks, a bloodied plaster emerging from one of them, describes himself as “the world’s greatest bicycle designer”.
This is the scene that would have greeted visitors to the workshop of designer and engineer Mike Burrows before his death on 15 August 2022 at the age of 79 from lung cancer. In the wake of his passing, obituaries have detailed his most famous moments, most notably his design for the carbon monocoque Lotus 108 bike on which Chris Boardman won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – Great Britain’s first for cycling in 72 years.
But beyond the aerodynamic bikes that made his name, Burrows’ career has included many more revolutions in bike design, including the Giant TCR (Total Compact Road). Made using the smaller sloped frame of a mountain bike, the TCR transformed road bike design, reducing the sizes a frame needed to come in from ten to three.
Other inventions, including 2D, a city bike inspired by a trip to London that folds flat against a wall, didn’t make it into production, as bicycle historian and writer Tony Hadland explains. Nor did “Gordon”, his favourite design, according to frame builder of Dear Susan bicycles, writer, photographer and director of handmade bike show Bespoked, Petor Georgallou. A prepreg carbon step-through city bike, or “a bike for the people”, as Burrows put it, its enclosed chain case keeps its parts running well and a monoblade fork (where the frame attaches to the wheel) allows the tyres to be changed without removing the wheels.
Another bestseller was the 8-Freight, a cargo bike with its platform behind rather than in front for better steering, easier construction and added safety when used to transport children.
“The godfather of modern bicycle aerodynamics”
While the basic principles of bicycle aerodynamics are “intuitive”, Hadland says, “there’s a lot more science behind that that you can get into. And that’s where Mike’s great contribution was”.
The “godfather” sobriquet comes from Chris Boardman in the foreword to Hadland and Burrows’ “bikeography and biography”, From Bicycle to Superbike.
Boardman describes how Burrows would embark on “linguistic deluges” containing “pearls of genius” “about tripping airflow with carefully placed ridges, or truncated aerofoil sections that could get a bike past the [Union Cycliste International]’s 3:1 ratio rule yet still remain aerodynamic.”
He explains that though these ideas were “commonplace in the world of planes […] they had never been brought into the realm of cycling”, before describing the “galling” fact that others received the credit for the innovations decades later. He concludes: “Mike burrows is, in my opinion, the godfather of modern bicycle aerodynamics. Could the U.K. have made more of his lateral thinking? No doubt and I think we all missed a trick in not embracing his maverick style.”
Lotus chief aerodynamicist Richard Hill, who worked on the Type 108 project, called Burrows “a true visionary, way ahead of his time” in a tribute earlier this year.
He added “[Mike] was famous for transforming his ideas into reality, riding and testing them himself. It was privilege and honour to work with him during the early development of the 108.”
Following the Olympic success, Burrows joined Giant, working there from 1994-2000. He created a road version of the Olympic bike called the MCR Monocoque, the TCR and a folding city bike called the Halfway which was sold for more than 20 years. Despite the successful partnership, Burrows decided to leave after several designs were banned for use in racing (which would in turn affect the designs’ commercial viability) by the UCI, whose regulations, it states, are designed to “assert the primacy of man over machine”.
After his death, Giant Group’s chief research & development officer Owen Chang wrote, “[Mike Burrows] has led the revolution in bicycle design again and again, promoted technological development of the bicycle industry, and changed the riding habits of consumers. He is the best example of industrial innovation, research and development we have ever seen.”
A bird, a plane, a bicycle?
Burrows had earlier engineering success with a machine for packing coins. He got into bikes later through time trials, where cyclists race against the clock on open roads. “Mike didn’t know much about bikes at that time, so he started copying the bikes that [his close friend] Andy Pegg had”, Hadland explains. By 1985, however, he was road-testing his design for the first carbon monocoque bicycle.
Born in St Albans, Hertfordshire in 1943, Burrows left school at 15, but his background and interests provided the basis for his career. His father worked as a pattern maker for the de Havilland aircraft company and ran a model and tool shop which sold model aircraft – the designing and flying of which was something the younger Burrows got into “to such an extent that he was [competing] at an international level” Hadland says.
Burrows was also interested in ornithology, sailing and sculptors such as Barbara Hepworth – in “how rounded forms and tapered forms are inherently attractive, but also tend to be very aerodynamic”, Hadland says. All of which “came together to give him a good feeling for aerodynamics, at a really non-mathematical level”, he adds.
Whereas most interested in aerodynamics would use computers and data, Burrows was technology averse, refusing even to have a mobile phone. As for his process, Georgallou says “he talked a lot about soft design; about not […] fighting the problem but just existing with the problem and letting it work itself out.”
Another great interest was human powered vehicles, most commonly recumbent bicycles, as part of an international movement that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. Burrows became the first chairman of the British Human Power Club and designed and produced several recumbent bicycles, the more race-oriented versions using carbon fairing – an aerodynamic shell, fitted around a frame.
For his work with carbon fibre, Burrows’ long-time collaborators were Mike and Sylvia Nelthorpe of nearby HQ Fibre Products, who were creating motorcycle fairings at the time. They got on well “because I didn’t have any ideas about how a bike should be”, Mike Nelthorpe comments, but Burrows had greater problems taking his designs to the cycling industry.
At a Bespoked festival talk, long-time friend and racer of many of Burrows’ designs Andy Pegg described how Lotus was able to take on Burrows’ monocoque designs precisely because they “weren’t cyclists”, whereas Raleigh “laughed [Burrows] out the building” calling the hand-carved plug for the design behind the Lotus bike a “toy”. Nor was there any industry interest post-Giant.
By all accounts Burrows was keen to talk about his work and bicycle design in general, giving talks, writing columns for magazines and a popular book aimed at “non-technical people” called Bicycle Design: Towards the perfect machine.
However, Georgallou comments that many described Burrows as “difficult” and Hadland mentions old fashioned atitudes towards women that showed prejudice. Neither did Burrows tow the industry line – when sent a new wheel to test-ride he built a rig to more thoroughly prove its innovations a fallacy.
As for his legacy, while Hadland first proposed a book on Burrows’ work in 1998, it wasn’t until 2013 that he agreed to work on the project that became From Bicycle to Superbike, which does record his bikes in great detail.
But Georgallou is concerned about the wider possibilities of archiving his work. He has photographed Burrows’ workshop in detail but also shares a shocking story about Burrows’ bikes being borrowed by ‘bicycle museums’ that turned out to be scams. “A good number of Mike’s bikes, no one knows where they are”, he claims.
He adds that while Burrows “would always introduce himself as ‘the greatest living bicycle designer, I don’t think he ever took his work seriously [or his] design process – if he designed something… it’s the best thing in the world until he designed the next thing, and then it’s just rubbish and not even worth doing anything with.”
“The biggest influence over a bicycle’s look in 100 years”
Numbering Burrows as one of few designers of influence, alongside Alex Moulton and Andrew Ritchie of Brompton, Georgallou says “I’m just really frustrated that there isn’t going to be a Mike Burrows show at the Design Museum […] one guy working out of a shed in Norfolk by himself, and he’s probably the biggest influence over what a bicycle looks like in the last 100 years”.
Until the end Burrows continued to work on the Soup Dragon, an aerodynamic recumbent designed to break land-speed records, as well as continuing to machine parts for the Nelthorpes, helping designers such as Georgallou or alter parts for customers. He is survived by his wife Tuula and their son Paul.
Banner image shows Mike Burrows in his workshop. Image courtesy of Petor Georgallou and Bespoked.