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From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

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An illustrated authorised biography of Mike Burrows, a man who has changed how we think bikes should look.

Chris Boardman riding the Lotus bike during the National Cycling Championships in Leicester in August 1992
Chris Boardman riding the Lotus bike during the National Cycling Championships in Leicester in August 1992
Chris Cole/Getty Images

Title: From Bicycle to Superbike
Authors: Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows (with a foreword by Chris Boardman)
Publisher: Hadland Books
Year: 2016
Pages: 188
Order: Hadland's Blog
What it is: The story of Mike Burrows, one of the UK's most innovative and influential bicycle designers
Strengths: Tells the tale in a laidback, playful fashion that suits the man whose story is being told
Weaknesses: Maybe you want more techs mechs with it without having to reach for Bicycle Design - The Search for the Perfect Machine

This year - this very week, in fact - we're two hundred years on from Karl von Drais and his Laufmaschine (aka the draisienne aka the hobby-horse), which is generally considered to be the start of cycling history. Modern bicycles, though, didn't come along until 1885 or so and the advent of the Rover 'safety cycle' - bikes that looked like what bikes should look like. A hundred years after the arrival of the Rover, a bike ride was organised to celebrate the centenary of the modern, diamond-framed bicycle. As well as looking back, the organiser - the cycling historian and publisher John Pinkerton - wanted to look forward to the next hundred years. So he invited along Mike Burrows, a bicycle designer doing some interesting things in the area of aerodynamics. Burrows brought along with him a bike he'd built the year before, the Windcheetah Mk 1, the world's first "aerodynamic monocoque bicycle."

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

If you don't already know by now, that bike eventually evolved into the Lotus that Chris Boardman rode to victory in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, ending a 72 year drought during which the UK had failed to win a single Olympic gold medal in cycling (yes, that's right: 72 years with no gold medals, 25 in the 25 years since - go figure). That Lotus had begun its life a decade earlier, growing out of a bike Burrows had built for himself in 1982, a sixteen inch aero frame (he normally rode twenty-three) - basically, a baby bike with a seat-post like Cyd Charisse's legs - which he called the Windcheetah (cheating the wind and fast as the cat):

"Frame builders at this time were trying to improve aerodynamics by using somewhat ovalised tubing, but all this did was reduce frame stiffness as it was not oval enough to give an aero advantage. So if it can't be aero, make it smaller, and by using a 24 in. front wheel the top-tube could be the same level as the top of the 700C rear wheel. Creating a very small, stiff frame - the less stressed bits that stuck out from it then could be properly aero section. So the seat-post and bars were machined, filed and polished ally [aluminium]."

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

To get to the monocoque, that baby bike met with carbon fibre and Barbara Hepworth:

"As to the shape of the monocoque, Mile recalls that, some time about 1965, his wife took him to an exhibition of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth. This inspired him to take up sculpting, carving bits of oak fence from his back garden. He thinks the shapes he carved influenced the shape of the monocoque."

Among the people who got to ride one of those first Windcheethas was a sixteen year old from the Wirral - Chris Boardman:

"It was a futuristic looking thing. No frame tubes, just a single, solid carbon fibre triangle. It had wing-shaped handlebars and aerofoil section forks machined from a solid block of aluminium. The rear disc wheel was aluminium too and the whole thing weighed a ton. Despite the mass and the fact that it was way too large for me, once it got up to speed it felt noticeably quicker than the team issue bikes on which we were competing."

A trip to the Coventry Museum of Road Transport in 1985 - after the Pinkerton-organised ride - inspired Burrows to copy an idea from the nineteenth century and add something important to the Windcheetah: a monoblade front fork.

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

The Invincible safety cycle with its monoblade forks

At this stage, Burrows firmly believed that the monocoque was the way forward, as he wrote in a humorous allegorical essay in Bicycle Action + The Bicycle Buyers' Bible in 1986:

"The time had come when the small, two-wheeled machine also had to cast off its tubes. When it came, it was in the form of a saviour who cast out the false Gods - a handsome prince, bearing a black monocoque woven from the cocoons of the carbon moth and bound together with resin gathered from the Epoxy bush. And lo! It was to be the strongest, lightest and shiniest of all the small two-wheeled machines. Like the first mammal it was faster, and more efficient, than the dinosaurs. And like the first mammal, it is set to take over the world from the dinosaurs."

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

Mike Burrows in action upon the Windcheetah

The sauropods in the UCI, though, banned monocoques, affirming their faith in three tubes and the truth. However, in 1991, they relented and reversed their rule change: the diamond frame was not, after all, an essential element of the bicycle (there would be more mind changing this way and that in the years that followed, but life's too short and that's all way to complicated for here). Around this time Rudy Thommann visited Burrows's Norfolk burrow and saw the latest iteration of the Windcheetah hanging on a wall. Burrows had by then given up trying to sell the idea to bike manufacturers (among the marques to turn him down was the then leader of the pack in the UK, Raleigh). Thomann asked could he borrow the bike and show it to his bosses at Lotus, the General Motors owned sports car manufacturer who, a decade and a half before, had provided James Bond with a Lotus Esprit. Thomann thought Burrows's bike was something Lotus would be interested in:

"I could see the bike was the absolute synthesis of everything Lotus stood for - innovative concept, modern materials, and making less do more."

At this point, Chris Boardman re-enters the story:

"[In] early 1992, I received a phone call from Rudy Thomann, a French test driver at Lotus cars and an enthusiastic amateur cyclist. He told me they were exploring a relationship with a man named Mike Burrows, a bike inventor who lived close to their head quarters in Hethel. Rudy asked me whether I'd be interested in going to the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) wind tunnel outside Birmingham to help test Mike's prototype. I was on the M6 heading south before the phone was back on the hook."

The rest, as they say, is history: confusing and no one's really sure quite how what happened happened. Lotus took Burrows's bike. After taking it apart and adding bits of their own they glued it all back together with the resin of that Epoxy bush. Over the course of three days in July it carried Boardman to victory in Barcelona's Velòdrom d'Hortawith, bringing instafame to all involved. That should have been followed by a road version of the Lotus bike going into production and great wealth meeting that great fame. But ... well, things. GM were in the process of off-loading Lotus and the local bosses wanted to do an MBO: short-term thinking said that keeping the value of Lotus depressed was best - the management would pay less to buy the company - and that gave no incentive to make the Lotus bike a success. An offer from Raleigh to co-finance production of the bike was turned down. When the road version was finally released, in limited form, it retailed at a whopping £15,000 (£24,000 to £40,000 in today's money - the sort of price which even today's spendthrift MAMIL's would balk at unless it was badged by Rapha). The Lotus was deader than the dinosaurs, especially after the company got sold to the Bugatti owner Romano Artioli, who was bankrupt within three years.

Ask almost anyone today and they'll probably tell you that Chris Boardman rode that Lotus bike to the Hour record in 1993 (sort of like the way they'll tell you Andy Hampsten won the Gavia stage in the 1988 Giro d'Italia). But by the time that came about relations with Lotus had soured and Boardman turned to a French-built bike that used tubes and a diamond frame. Burrows by then had built a replica of Graeme Obree's Old Faithful, which failed in an attempt on the Hour record due (Burrows thinks) to someone not being able to count laps properly. Burrows himself did eventually get to design and build his own Hour bike: Abraham Olano - the first 'next Miguel Indurain' - was lined up to take a tilt at the record but, like the bike the Renault owned Gitane built for Laurent Fignon's planned Hour bid in the 1980s, it was never ridden in anger. Burrows himself did ride it, and even he was surprised by how fast it was. Part of that, he now figures, is down to the fact that he had put a casing around the chain:

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

"[The] aerodynamics of a bike chain are really, really bad, so bad that covering them up with an 'old-fashioned' chaincase would seem to be worth about one mile an hour on your top speed."

The monocoque, then, never really did displace three tubes and the truth and, beautiful as Burrows's story is, it all really went nowhere, save for a couple of bad experiences that became great anecdotes. Except ... well, look around today's pro peloton and the influence of Mike Burrows is hard to miss. All those sexy little frames with their Cyd Charisse seat-posts, that's Burrows's fault:

"The bike that Mike build for Graeme Obree, with its Specialized wheels, ended up in a glass display case on the Specialized stand at the 1993 Interbike trade show in Las Vegas. It caught the attention of representatives from the Taiwanese bicycle maker Giant, who had a stand nearby. They telephoned Mike, which lead to a series of meetings, including a visit to the Milan cycle show and the first of many trips to Taiwan."

Giant had gone from building-and-badging other people's bikes (Schwinn to Colnago, Trek to Specialized) to making a name for themselves, primarily in the world of mountain biking. Burrows helped show them that what they were doing with off-road bikes they could do too with road. Thus was born the compact road frame. The Manolo Saiz owned ONCE squad - the forerunner of today's Astana team, by way of a hostile takeover - rode them in 1997 and two decades on they've changed the whole notion of what we think a bicycle should look like.

* * * * *

From Bicycle to Superbike is an authorised, illustrated biography of Mike Burrows - written by the cycling historian Tony Hadland - with Burrows himself providing commentary on each of the bikes he's designed in a career that stretches back four decades. The story told above, that's actually the least of what Burrows has done. It's the stuff that's earned him fame among technical incompetents like me but for the people who actually understand techs mechs Burrows is at least equally famous for his work with HPVs and city bikes.

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

From Bicycle to Superbike gives equal weight to both sides of the story, which it has to, as they're not separate, the same innovative ideas appearing again and again in the different bikes Burrows has built, be they super-fast laidback recumbents or a freight bikes.

Written in a laidback style - if it was an audio book it'd have to be read by Eamon Andrews - Hadland quips his way through the story of Burrows's life:

"Some 20 miles north of central London, in the county of Hertfordshire, lies the city of St Albans. There, on an April Monday in 1943, Mike Burrows was born. They say that Monday's child is full of grace but there was a war on and grace was in short supply. There was, however, plenty of inventiveness around his birthplace. Just down the road the engineers of the De Havilland company designed and built the Mosquito multi-role combat aircraft. A few miles away the ingenious scientists of the Special Operations Executive invented folding motorcycles, guns disguised as fountain pens and exploding rats."

As well as the story of Burrows's life and the story of Burrows's bikes, From Bicycle to Superbike also comes with a couple of old articles written by Burrows, such as the one quoted earlier about the carbon moth and the epoxy bush.

For the hardcore techs mechs fans, Bicycle Design - The Search for the Perfect Machine is probably the book to read if you want the science side of the story1 but that can't be separated from the personal: understanding how Barbara Hepworth influenced the Windcheetah is surely as important as understanding the right headtube angle? And that's what From Bicycle to Superbike gives you: the story behind the numbers. And the story of how bikes came to look like they do today.

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

From Bicycle to Superbike, by Tony Hadland and Mike Burrows

1 You should probably also read Bicycle Design - An Illustrated History, by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing, published by MIT Press.