Britain’s Fastest Self-Powered Human: Mike Burrows

In what I hope will be the first of many monthly(ish) articles, of varying lengths, Nikolai and I visited (in)famous bicycle designer Mike Burrows, who has been a constant in terms of support, inspiration and taking me down a peg or two when I need it (always). Nikolai filmed our trip on my Sony A7iii as part of an ongoing project, so I decided it would be especially fitting for Mike to document our trip on celluloid with my Mamiya C330, and a little Olympus rangefinder on Kodak Portra 800 film.

After a tour of Norfolk industrial estates listing businesses named Burrows Engineering, we finally reached Mike’s familiar self-built red brick workshop, which stands out like a sore thumb amongst the prefab corrugated steel structures that often congregate in East-Anglian industrial estates. Having visited Mike a number of times, I knew to pull up around the corner for some hot coffee from an insulated Klean Kanteen to rally ourselves after the five-hour drive. I set up my recorder and Nikolai set up the camera before rolling round to the workshop. It’s not often that Mike forms a sentence not worth recording and I’ve often left Mike’s unit reeling from the barrage of ideas, straining under their weight, trying desperately to remember them all. We were prepared, which was prudent. A pipe organ blared on the radio as we entered Mike’s temple of bicycle design, where we were greeted with a short reprimand for our untimely arrival as he led us over to look at his latest project.

I don’t often get to spend a whole day at Mike’s and although he’s probably fitter approaching 80 than I am in my 30’s, he’s not young and has just recovered from lung cancer (which he recalls in a jolly tone, illustrating his nonchalance by telling me that he cycled to all but one appointment, even the chemotherapy, and explaining that the hospital was brightly coloured and fun). Knowing Mike a bit, I’m super conscious that no one has ever documented him that well. He’s featured in a bunch of magazines for four decades and has even been part of a few mainstream TV shows where he does “Mad Mike” (a moniker pilfered from MTV’s “Pimp My Ride”) very well.

He’s not insincere in his portrayal of “the world’s best bicycle designer”, however, while he is the media-friendly “Mad Mike,” that part of his character is the tip of the iceberg of what makes Mike so interesting and culturally valuable to the cycling community. In a way, it also trivializes the depth and complexity of Mike’s knowledge and commitment to “saving the world” which sounds bizarre as a mission statement, but in a roundabout way, it has been his life’s work.

If you’re not aware of Mike Burrows here’s a brief intro: Mike grew up building model airplanes; when he was old enough, he began racing and tinkering with cars. At some point, he said “I discovered girls”; I’ll translate this as when he met his wife and moved to Norfolk, away from the car racing scene. He worked designing and manufacturing industrial packaging machinery. One day his car “blew up” (I imagine this means literally and I have a visual image that I cling to hard enough to make me not want to fact check that) so he started cycling to work. He then started racing time trials; which led to the discovery that building bikes weren’t “a dark art that only people on the top of French mountains did” but just engineering, and he was good at engineering so started building bikes. Mike designed some extraordinary time trial bikes in the ’80s, working with a close friend “Nelly” aka Mike Nelthorpe, in carbon fibre.

This led to what Mike calls “the Lotus incident”. “The Lotus incident” was the time that Mike worked with Lotus to develop Chris Boardman’s hour record bicycle, which also won lots of stuff at the Olympics in 1992 before becoming banned by the UCI for presenting riders with an unfair advantage over “sticky bikes” (the label that he has prescribed to all bikes made from joined tubes). It is worth noting that before Chris Boardman took the record, it was held for a few hours by Graeme Obree, famed for cobbling a bike together from bits of an old washing machine. The bike that hangs proudly in the National Museum of Scotland, was in fact made quite nicely. Using sealed bearings from a washing machine for its super low q factor custom machined bottom bracket and it sports cutting edge wheels from HED (who Mike recalls as “the only people who seem to know anything about aerodynamics in bicycles”) and one of Mike’s “forks”.

“It’s not a fork darling it’s a mono blade” Mike somehow interjects in my stream of consciousness. I ask Mike (real mike) how he made said mono blade; he explains that he roughed it out of a billet of solid aluminium with a mill before shaping and polishing the blade by hand with a file. “By hand?!” “Yes Peter, that’s how a file works” Mike pokes fun at my raw fillets. I guess both of our bikes are a little rough around the edges because the focus is on an overall design or aesthetic rather than a slick product. This is where I feel I really connect with Mike, as on the whole we probably operate on opposite ends of some kind of spectrum. If you want to know more about Mike’s life and see some of the amazing bikes he’s built, you can buy his self-published autobiography “From Bicycle To Superbike”.

Visiting Mike is always such a treat, because, in the hallowed temple of bicycle design, buried amidst the prototypes which are often the earliest examples of tiny bits of design that have somehow permeated into almost every bike made today, are little crumbs pointing to his life’s work as a sculptor. Behind the drawing board are half a dozen incredibly tactile lumps of wood on a shelf below an original Joe Burt painting. Across the room hangs a faded Barbara Hepworth poster from the Tate Modern, sandwiched between a Cinelli poster of the very much dated 90’s Pirelli calendar persuasion, some Chinese calligraphy and a hand-carved lime wood plug from which a monocoque carbon mold was taken. I remember visiting the Eames show in London with Mike a few years ago; having always thought of him as an engineer, it was the first time that I realised how aesthetically concerned and culturally aware he was.

I ask Mike about his sculptures and if he’s still sculpting. “No, I don’t do that anymore, I can’t. I just don’t see the point. That’s a nice lump of wood but it doesn’t do anything.” He points towards his latest racing recumbent that he was building during my previous visit, which has now been used and retired. “This is much better; it actually does something; it looks just as good as a Barbara Hepworth and you can ride down the road on it. I don’t feel the need to make sculpture anymore and increasingly I don’t feel the need to make bikes but this bloody soup dragon! I’m surprised he has named his latest bike after a cameo character from the kids stop motion series “The Clangers” because he usually uses names from “Thomas The Tank Engine”; a nod to a trainspotting phase he went through.

I have to get this bloody soup dragon out of my system, and it’ll be nice to have something to sign off on.” There’s a striking similarity in the visual language used between that satisfying lump of wood and his dusty semi-faired super recumbent and it’s not an accident. Smooth satisfying organic forms accented with hints of space race futurism. On a purely aesthetic level, his bikes are masterful pieces of design, every bit as stylish and sophisticated as the M-505 Adams Brothers Probe 16 concept car renamed the “Durango 95” in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, designed as an experiment in the extremes of styling as an indicator of speed. Or the XP-755 “Mako shark” concept by Larry Shinoda that has informed the styling of every Chevrolet corvette since 1961. Although there were working prototypes of each, these cars were only really cutting edge as the aesthetic of “fast” of their time, they are essentially the same useless lumps of clay that Mike shuns. Every detail on this last semi faired race machine is an improvement on a lifetime’s worth of refining the bicycle for the purpose of absolute speed.

I tried to explain Mike to Nikolai (who rides a bike but is a film guy, not a bike guy) in the car so he knew what was going on when we arrived. I explained that he graduated from racing cars to racing bikes. “So, he’s a speed junky?”, Nikolai asks. I’d never considered that knowing Mike, but looking at this bike I felt the need to ask, “Do you just love going fast?” Mike’s reactionary look didn’t make me feel any better about asking what already felt like an alien question. “I don’t have any interest in going fast! When I raced cars, I actually put smaller engines in them. It’s about performing better, and light cars are better round a racetrack than cars with big engines. Efficiency. That’s the thing about the bicycle I’ve always admired. I’ve always liked the idea of doing more with less, that’s the thing that’s always driven me and doing things properly.

When I race, I’ve never had that killer instinct, like I have to beat other people, but I have to do it properly. If you’re racing, you’re racing ok. You’re out there to try hard and to try and win the race and people who just ride around not bothering really piss me off! I suppose I’ve always been a bit of an anomaly. In simple terms, I don’t like football and I’ve never understood opera. I’m somewhere in the middle” (he pauses in genuine contemplation) “Or maybe somewhere off the edge. We are what we are. Like the current campaign of toppling statues…. Basically, putting statues up at all is a very bad thing, because when you’re putting a statue up it implies this is a great person.

I’m convinced there are no great people. There may be great events and great actions and things but people have too many faults. They really do. I’m not a great person although I may very well be a deity.” Something I’ve heard at an earlier time, as a correction when introducing Mike to my wife as “a bit of a legend”. So, this time I could take the same joy in watching Nikolai squirm from behind the camera at this awkwardly arrogant sounding “Mad Mike” statement as Mike does. He pauses to enjoy his tiny triumph as Nikolai shoots me a nervous glance. “But very much in the Greek tradition, because the Greeks recognised their gods as being able to do one thing especially well, beyond the ability of normal human beings or whatever. But they allowed them to have all their faults and their shortcomings.

The gods did bad things and I definitely have faults and shortcomings of Olympian proportions but at the same time I can design bicycles better than anyone else and I bloody well do it! And that’s what we should recognise in people. This person can do great things and we recognise that, but that’s what we should put up, plaques with information. This person did this thing which is brilliant but they also did all these other things which were terrible.” He goes on to explain that he already has the biggest monument in London. The London eye, which is essentially a bicycle wheel on a mono blade, designed by some engineers that he gave a lecture to after “the Lotus incident”. I suggest that after his death we affix a plaque to it “dedicated to Mike Burrows, the world’s best bicycle designer, who may have propagated some of the ideas used to erect this structure”. Mike adds “and who talked far too much and didn’t wash enough.”

I’m determined to suppress Mike’s media savvy and talk about sculpture and his mastery of visual language, that always seems to be side-lined by vox-pop segments of his exposure in the media. I guess I set a precedent by bringing Nikolai to film, which may not have helped with this, but I don’t regret it. Mike has two desks in a well-lit mezzanine above the machine shop, separated by a drawing board. There is no computer. He doesn’t use a computer or “the webby thing” or a mobile phone. I’m not talking about a smartphone, I mean he doesn’t recognise any requirement to contact people or be contacted outside of his home or workshop, both of which have a landline. I point to a smooth piece of wood poking out from under one of the desks below a shelf of prototype hubs and derailleurs and other ephemera glistening in the afternoon light. “What’s that?” Mike stiffly bends to his knees and pulls some packaging materials out from under the desk. He stands up with the recovered object slightly short of breath shuffling one foot back into its wooden clog.

“Father made this, he was a craftsman, he worked with wood but he also made our first television in the ’50s. I don’t mean he made the cabinet, I mean as a woodworker in the ’50s he soldered the resisters and so on, and made a television from a diagram that he found. I guess that gene carried down, it’s quite nice really, he was a craftsman, I’m an engineer and my son is a scientist (physicist) that’s how the gene has popped up each time.” “What is?” I ask. “It’s the plug we used to make the mold for the Lotus bike”.

I find it kind of shocking and sad that the original hand-carved form of “the best ever bicycle” is under a dusty desk in Norfolk not celebrated as part of the permanent collection in the Design Museum. I keep calling Mike the world’s best bicycle designer, partly because that’s what he uses to describe himself, and that sounds pretty arrogant, but it’s not meant that way. He also tells me there are no other living bicycle designers…” I design bikes” I interject. “No, you make very expensive toys for people, you’re a craftsman who makes nice bicycles but you’re not a bicycle designer.”

“You have to be successful to be a bicycle designer and you’re not successful.” (Silence) “Good design is making something radically different enough to be a new design not just tweaking the geometry here and there; it has to be demonstrably better by improving performance and be influential. How many people are copying your bicycles and how much faster do they go? Everyone in the world copied this one (points to Giant TCR) and everyone in the world wanted to copy this one, (points to the flame job, which is the final iteration of the Lotus bike) but they couldn’t because the UCI banned it. By this formula, the Lotus bike IS the best ever design of a bicycle and as the person who designed it, Mike is the best ever bicycle designer.

This point is debatable (I’m not about to open that can of worms) but remember the “webby thing” doesn’t exist in any practical sense to Mike and it’s impossible to argue that the person responsible for compact geometry road bikes, inline cable adjusters, monocoque carbon frames, and mono blades on bicycles hasn’t had a significant role to play in the design of the modern bicycle. After the “Lotus incident” Mike had a well-paid job designing for Giant, being flown all around the world and celebrated for his achievements. After the UCI banned many bits of his design for presenting an unfair advantage, he responded by making t-shirts that read “illegal drugs 2% faster, Illegal bikes 200% faster”. Giant failed to patent the inline barrel adjusters that he designed while working there, and didn’t go into production with the monocoque city bikes that he designed.

He and Giant decided to part ways. “Then what happened?” I asked. “Nothing. After seven years of very successful partnership getting paid to fly around the world and do shows and give talks and be famous, I was back here in this little workshop, (I’ve always worked from here, but now I didn’t have to do all the traveling thank god), and nobody wanted to know. The phone didn’t ring. You’d have thought someone would want to employ me, but here I was and no other companies had the faintest interest in hiring me, which seems odd. I get calls all the time but usually from people outside of the bicycle industry saying “Mike design me a bike.” I explain to them that they’re wrong, read them the riot act, and send them on their way.” “And how did that feel?” “I mean it’s not a problem… it’s just frustrating because I know I can do better, and my one talent is being wasted. I know I can do much better than the stuff that’s being churned out at the moment. I wouldn’t want to go back because I’d just get in fights with everyone and nobody wants that. Don’t get me wrong, Giant has plenty of technically brilliant engineers who could teach me a thing or two, but who don’t have any feel for the bicycle”

Mike is so brutally honest about everything; always because he’s more passionate and sincere in his goals than anyone I’ve ever met and he’s not willing to sacrifice or compromise in making them happen. He doesn’t care about whether or not people like him and he’s not looking to make friends. He wants to propagate ideas and “save the world”. It’s a big part of why I respect him as a person and as a designer. Some great Mikeisums:” I know it’s shit because I made one and it doesn’t work” (which is often his response to my latest new and brilliant idea) or “If rubber bands will work then use rubber bands.” We pause.

I don’t know what to say. “Is that why car companies can’t design bicycles with all their resources?” “Never mind the car industry! The bike industry can’t even design bikes! Car companies can solve car problems. Everyone thinks Formula One is so amazing but the only thing they’re any good at is making one-seater racing cars. Even the aerodynamics aren’t transferable. They don’t have any knowledge of bicycles. The bicycle is special, and it deserves special treatment. It’s not just like some stupid bloody motorcar. You have to have a feel for the bicycle. You can’t just shove a bigger engine in it, kind of thing. It needs to be super-efficient or whatever. Of course, it could all be so much better. The city bikes could be more reliable and aero bike could be more aero or whatever, and you’re not going to go shopping in it but there’s a place for things like the soup dragon as well”

A couple of years ago Mike quit racing. I had to make a tough choice between going to his last race party or building a bike for Grinduro in Scotland. I chose Grinduro, which I don’t regret because it was super fun and I got some cool purple shoes. I have to say, I was kind of worried though because as long as I’ve known Mike, every time I’ve gone to visit, he’s been working on optimising the design of his latest racing bike which I guess is what you do as the world’s best-retired bicycle designer. That’s what he lived for. So, I was happy to hear that he had another project on the go…. The Soup Dragon. His goal was to beat the pedal-powered land speed record, working with the Southbank University on a super aerodynamic body shell for his chassis and an athlete powering it. Long story short the bike was taken to battle mountain where these activities occur, where it was damaged and left, much to his annoyance (mostly because it meant he didn’t have a project to work on during the COVID lockdown).

Mike and the university are back on talking terms and are collaborating again. They’re making a fairing for his chassis, designed by a computer to be the most aerodynamic functional object ever made. “How so?” “Nothing is just designed to be totally aerodynamic; airplanes have wings which aerodynamically speaking are a disaster.” I brace myself for my mind to be expanded. “It’s got no geometry. It’s got no trail, there’s no head angle, which might be a problem. This has done 45 miles an hour and it’s fine at 45, when it was at Battle Mountain it was having problems at 55 but that’s after it was badly smashed up so I’m pencilling in that it was to do with the damage. That’s why I’m rebuilding it now, to find out. Because if that works it’s simple, and it points in the direction you want to go and that’s all you need. I had the sense to realise that aerodynamics these days are so advanced that its way beyond what looks right is right.

That’s how I started and that’s how the lotus bike was designed, if it looks right then that’s enough of that. This is about computing power and Glen Thompson from London Southbank has spent many hours slaving over a hot workstation getting this shape absolutely spot on but with a bit of human input. Even the computers don’t really understand exactly what’s happening. The best guess is that ground interaction is a bad thing but that’s yet to be proven.” “What do you mean the computers don’t know what’s happening?” “Well this is it; we realised it’s not in the book. The level of aerodynamics we’re working with here. If this works and if This theory turns into practice this’ll be the most aerodynamic functioning object in the world. Nothing, nothing in the world. No animal, no man-made machine will be as streamlined as this object. It’s got a little bit of tire poking out the bottom which isn’t great, but otherwise, this in theory is the perfect aerodynamic object, but that’s not in any book. No one has ever needed to make a perfect aerodynamic shape.

Once you get to this level of optimisation of perfect airflow things happen where the numbers just really aren’t there. The airflow over the front section is perfectly laminar, each little molecule perfectly in place, all nicely lined up but when it gets to the high point and goes around the corner and the object is getting smaller you get a little vortex build up and that will be your boundary layer, and that’s inevitable, but between the laminar and the boundary is a transition zone and this according to the computer is a problem. It doesn’t know why and it doesn’t know what’s happening in the transition zone but it knows it’s a problem. If you tell the computer that this surface is perfect and has no skin friction at all then the transition zone disappears but in the real world, everything has friction because nothing is ever totally anything, and the moment you type in there’s a little bit of friction, then there’s a transition zone and there’s more drag from the transition zone than anything else. So (shrugs) we’ll let you know on that one!” Mind blown.

I’m happier knowing that Mike has problems. To add to his problems, he has decided to pilot it himself to break the British land speed record. “I can do 200w at a heart rate of 150bpm, you only need 200w to get it to 50mph so your Grandad could ride it and beat the record which is just as well because in essence, your Grandad will be riding it!”

He has boxes and boxes of incredible bits of design that Giant failed to capitalise on in the 90s because they didn’t need to. “They don’t care about producing the most efficient and reliable city bike because they’ve got a massive great big factory in mainland China and they make lots of money for their shareholders and that’s what their goal is like any other company. At the end of the day they’re not there to save the world. That’s my job, that I’ve taken on (he chuckles)” I like how there’s no bitterness in his matter of fact tone. He’s a realist who’s completely comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t need to exist in any other way.

He rummages through a box of prototype castings. “What’s that?” “It’s a crankset.” “When did you make that?” “That was in the 90s when I was at Giant.” I pick up the two arms and fit them together mocking up how they’d look on a bike in my mind. The casting is a bit rough but they’re very light and the integrated bb axle with a spline in the centre has been machined and fits together with satisfying precision. “I made those while I was working at Giant because everyone was using bigger and bigger down tubes and so they needed a bigger BB to attach them to, so I made a 30mm axel to go in a bigger bottom bracket shell with bigger bearings, it’s much lighter and stiffer than square taper and has a narrower q factor” “They’re like a Campag ultra torque for t47?” “Yea, but no one wanted to know, Giant didn’t make components at the time so I called SRAM after I finished with giant and said look, I’ve got these cranks that are lighter and stiffer and whatever and they told me they’d take a look if they were passing.

So, I asked them why they would ever be passing in Norfolk sort of thing” “That’s pretty rough?” “I could happily say my life has been perfect, and what makes it perfect is the imperfections, you have to take the rough with the smooth. Have you read Affluenza by Oliver James? It’s great because it puts figures on philosophy and makes it science. That’s very important to me” I like the way he does this with everything, and I’m envious of him for seeing things that way. There’s a story of Mike being given a pair of extra stiff wheels to test for a magazine. Rather than riding the wheels for the review, he built a testing rig to measure their stiffness in different directions and then measured deflection in the tyres separately and added the figures together to show that with the tyres the wheels were only an imperceptible margin stiffer than his own ordinary hand-built wheels. “The reason that George Orwell’s 1984 was the worst-case scenario for a dystopian future was that the situation is irreversible as it seems is happening now.

It presupposes that the things most important to most people are money and power, but data suggests that’s not true, no amount of money or power increases happiness. The formula for happiness is to be old, married, have a couple of friends, and live in Denmark. Of course, not everyone can live in Denmark. Money and power don’t matter. Socialism is also silly because people should be paid according to their worth in ability and effort, but that needs to be judged by someone else otherwise they’d pay themselves a thousand times more. In reality, even the most brilliant person is only twice as good as the average and so they should only get paid twice as much as the average, and it’d make them and everyone else happier and more motivated.”

“Your mission is to save the world. What do you mean by that? Save the world from bad bicycle design?” It had been on my mind since the first time he’d said it. “To save the world from itself I suppose? If you look at the populist theory of what we want and what we want to be, that’s like the Arnie approach, it’s big and brash and that relates to the motor car. Then you have what was philosophy and is now science, thank god, the people who really understand what makes us happy, and that relates to the bicycle. They’re small and quiet, the Gretta Thunberg approach if you like. Being happy is whether or not we take that on mass. Taking more heroes of her ilk than we do Arnies. I don’t know. The bicycle it’s going in that same direction, and better bicycles mean more people riding bicycles.”

Mike has no plan for the future. “Something comes up and I get on with it” Nikolai and I were with him for around 9 hours during which he didn’t stop or eat anything and only drank one small cup of tea because (I’m convinced) he only needs ideas for sustenance. We left hungry and exhausted. There’s so much to Mike, but this is a monthly(ish) column, so I’m going to head back in a few months to catch up with how he’s doing, becoming the world’s fastest pensioner and Britain’s fastest self-powered human. Next time I’ll take sandwiches.