I first came into contact with Mike Burrows in 2013 when his friend Richard Ballantine died. The publication I was working for at the time wanted an obituary and hadn’t had a particularly good relationship with Mike, partly because of its reluctance to feature laid back recumbent cycles. As the least unacceptable face of the magazine, I was asked to get in touch and see if he’d chat. I was told not to worry if he sent me away with a flea in my ear.
As a natural-born wimp, I figured sending an introductory email or text would be best, but I quickly realised that would be impossible: Mike didn’t do the internet or smartphones (which should perhaps be a lesson to us all). So I had to call the number for Burrows Engineering – Mike’s personal treasure-laden bike workshop just outside of Norwich – and hope for the best.
Quite contrary to expectations, that initial conversation was a mind-expanding delight and the first of many phone calls with somebody who I quickly came to realise was the closest thing to a genius that I will ever encounter, and which cycling will probably ever have. Listening to Mike talk about fairings, aero dimensions and engineering basics was a wonder in itself, even if you did have to keep hyper-alert to stop facts, concepts and witty asides flying over your head.
Anybody who wants to know what Mike achieved needn’t look far. The highlights are the development of aerodynamic monocoque bicycle frames – the most famous being Boardman’s 1992 Lotus bike; the cable barrel adjuster – Mike was miffed that he and Giant never patented it and he missed out on untold wealth (I don’t think it would have made much difference to him); the now ubiquitous compact road bike frame – lighter, stiffer and cheaper to manufacture with fewer sizes required than traditional top tube frames; the one legged suspension fork – a concept that Mike believed, with compelling reason, was directly ‘borrowed’ by Cannondale to make the Lefty; ever-developing recumbent designs such as his iconic Speedy and Ratracer; the Halfway folding bike; the 8-Freight utility bike; the list goes on and on. If it was human-powered and had wheels (and not necessarily just wheels, I can faintly recall chatting about human-powered flight with him) Mike has probably contributed something to it.
Before becoming the world’s greatest bike designer, Mike’s professional career actually involved making packing machines for banks, but in his spare time he tinkered with different forms of engineering. His cycling hobby was informed by other interests he had or at least had had, such as motor racing, model aeroplanes – the root of his intimate understanding and knowledge of aerodynamics – and sailing. That last pastime eventually led him to make the inline barrel adjuster. “They’re just one screw and one reverse screw inset, like you’d get on rigging,” Mike explained matter-of-factly.
However, his interest in cycling and human-powered vehicles changed from being just a hobby in the late 1970s to an all-consuming obsession by the mid-1980s. In 1984 he built the first ever aerodynamic carbon monocoque time trial bike, and so started his habit of making landmark moments in the history of bicycle design.
Not that anything was ever straightforward. Mike’s goal of making faster and faster, and better and better bikes was regularly hampered by petty politics and an overbearing cycling establishment. But in 1992 the Lotus bike came along – which brought Mike’s genius to public attention – and then Giant came calling, which meant that for a few years Mike’s genius was even available to the masses.
That brings me to my favourite story about Mike, which he told me himself and involved a test ride on the newest version of his Ratracer recumbent race bike. At one point on his route, Mike drew up alongside a couple of road-bike-riding MAMIL types who had stopped at the kerbside. They marvelled at Mike’s low-slung speed machine and couldn’t believe it when he said he had designed it himself.
“You should have seen the look on their faces when, just as I left, I pointed at their bikes and said, ‘Oh yes, and I designed your bikes, too!’” he chuckled.
Quite how he has never been formally recognised by the nation has always escaped me. If Jony Ive can be called ‘Sir’ for designing the iPhone, the combination of Mike’s Olympic-winning innovation and the global influence he had with the Giant TCR, quite aside from all the other stuff, would seem to be more than equal.
After my initial phone call with Mike, something rather wonderful happened: he called me back a few weeks later – I can’t remember about what – but over the course of the next few years we would be in touch quite regularly. If he phoned, it was often to let me know about the progress of a project that he had on the go (around this time he was working with TV personality Guy Martin on the 24-hour tandem record); if I called, it was either just to say hello or to get his input for an article.
I first met him in person at Bikefix in London for the launch of the republished version of his autobiographical book, ‘From Bicycle to Superbike’. I’d only ever seen photos of Mike, and the one that stuck in my head showed him standing on a London street, outside Bikefix as it happened, holding his beautifully simple ‘One Way’ city bike. For some reason, the photo made him look like a giant and when you combined it with his authoritative voice on the phone, I was expecting to meet a towering almost sergeant-major-like presence.
In fact, in the flesh he was much more ‘cyclist sized’ and it was his wild hair – in keeping with the persona of a slightly crazy inventor – that was most striking. He was just as personable as he was on the phone.
Despite his no-nonsense aura, Mike was always happy to chat about anything – although he’d be especially happy to chat if it was about bikes. These were anything but dour, earnest calls given by some boring old professor-type; these were always incredibly invigorating chats, punctuated by Mike’s dry humour and disdain for stupidity.
The last time I met up with Mike was pre-Covid at Hillingdon. He was racing with the Human Power Vehicle Club and, even in his 70s, he was a sight to behold on his bike. Mike’s passing is especially sad because he seemed like the kind of character who would go on for ever, if nothing else, by force of personality alone.
However, his death has reminded me of something he said during that first conversation we had about Richard Ballantine: “The thing about Richard is that he was a very nice man. He was just really nice. Nobody is going to say that about me when I die.”
It’s the only time I can think of where Mike was wrong. Reading some of the comments online of people’s interactions with Mike, as well as being a genius, he actually was a very nice man, particularly to those who appreciated him.
Mike had an incredible life making human-powered machines that changed the world. He never got the recognition he deserved as widely as he deserved, but amongst many of those lucky enough to have come into contact with him, he garnered a respect, an admiration and – dare I say it – even an affection that may well be unique in cycling. Mike was never shy to say he was the world’s greatest bicycle designer; nobody paying attention would ever doubt it. We shall never see his like again.