TOWARDS THE PERFECT MACHINE
Born in St Albans, his father was a cabinet maker who went on to own a toy shop. This was heaven for the young Mike, who used to play for hours in the shop. His favourites were model aircraft – and even from a young age, Mike began to create his own designs.
Mike left school at 15 and became a machine engineer. He later married Tuula and they had one son named Paul.
In 1969, they moved to Norfolk and Mike became a boat builder. They lived in the village of Rackheath, just outside Norwich.
He loved designing things. His first invention was a machine that put individual packets of crisps into multipacks. This was bought by many crisp manufacturers.
Then he designed a machine that would ‘wrap’ coins, making it easier for banks to distribute money to their customers. This was installed in banks throughout the country.
Alongside his work in the boatyard he set up his own company.
One day his car broke down and he had to borrow Tuula’s bike to get to work. He wasn’t very impressed with her bike and believed he could design something better. And so, his work designing bikes began.
All bikes at the time were made of rigid steel frames and were largely ‘sit-up’ bikes. He decided to challenge the accepted norm of bicycle design and create a more efficient system.
He designed a prototype of a bike where you sat low to the ground with your pedals out in front of you. He had invented the recumbent bike. Early versions were the ‘Ratcatcher’, ‘Ratracer’ and ‘Ratracer B’.
His big breakthrough came when a friend’s father who worked in the aviation industry gave him some carbon-fibre offcuts. Mike realised they could be moulded to make a more aerodynamic shape. This would be ideal for track racing. The technique he designed became known as ‘monocoque’ i.e. the loads and forces were held together by a single skin. Mike said he got the inspiration from looking at a Barbara Hepworth sculpture.
He took his newly designed bike to the British Cycling Federation (BCF) – and it took him years to persuade them to even consider accepting it.
The BCF took it to the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) in 1985, who immediately rejected it.
Mike felt his progress had been checked – until a friend suggested he take the design to Lotus, who were also based in Norfolk. He did – and they immediately agreed to get involved in producing his designs. “I hadn’t even thought of Lotus but they understood it; they understood why the bike was made like that.”
Mike was obsessed with aerodynamics and used Lotus’ wind tunnel to perfect his design. It had a much higher seating posts and lower top forks. It was a composite frame which was designed to minimize wind resistance and drag. And each bike was designed specifically for the requirements of its rider. He called the bike the Lotus 108.
Because Lotus were such a powerful company, in 1990 the UCI accepted his design.
He summed up his design by saying bike frames were just tubes attached together and he just filled in the gaps – a solid bike frame.
It was ridden at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, by British rider Chris Boardman. In the final of the 400 metre pursuit, Boardman came up against Jens Lehmann, the German pursuit World Champion – and blew him away.
Mike’s design was vindicated…or was it?
The UCI were still unhappy about the bike. They said the bike was too expensive. Cycling was for everybody and rich countries with wealthy cycling federations and large manufacturers had an unfair advantage.
Mike was very frustrated with the conservatism and determination not to progress. He said, “I’m not the best bicycle designer in the world, I’m the only bike designer in the world.”
He felt the real reason they objected was, “The UCI wanted bikes to look like bikes.”
He was convinced the 108 could be transferred from track to road. In 1994 Chris Boardman rode an updated version (the Lotus 110) in the Tour de France prologue (time trial) in Lille, and not only won it but set a competitive time trial world record with an average speed of 55.152 kilometres per hour. This record was to stand for over 20 years. Boardman called the Lotus 110, “The most elegant, beautiful piece of machinery that’s ever been designed.”
Not all of his designs were successful. He tried to modernize the ‘Old Faithful’ bike Graeme Obree had used for his world hour record and offered it to Obree for a new record attempt. But Obree hated the new design and refused to use it.
Mike was then recruited by the American company Giant, then the biggest manufacturers in the world. Mike moved to Taiwan where their headquarters were. There he created the ‘Giant TCR (Total Compact Roadbike)’, which has remained the standard design for every road bike since. It improves the frame rigidity and power – and made racing bikes much more commercially viable – a truly revolutionary design which reduced manufacturing costs.
He also created the pink and yellow bike used by scientist and TV presenter Adam Hart-Davis for his ‘Local Heroes’ television show.
He also designed mountain bikes, tricycles (the ‘Speedy’ or ‘Windcheater’) and the Giant Halfway (an exceptionally thin foldaway bike) for the company.
But he still met resistance. Concerned by his drive for greater efficiency and speed, the UCI passed the ‘Logarno Charter’ in 1996. This limited new designs, stating cycle racing should be about the athletes not the designer.
Mike stayed with Giant for 4 more years but then he resigned, stating, “I left Giant in 2000 because the UCI were stopping me building better bikes. In the pro scene they are now all production only (i.e. mass produced)”.
He returned to Norfolk and worked at improving recumbent bikes, tricycles and then he invented the 8-Freight Cargo bike, which is now used by courier companies all around the world. It was named after an old British Rail freight engine.
He wrote a book on bicycle design in 2000 entitled ‘Towards the Perfect Machine’. As he got older he became more interested in efficiency than speed. “Bicycles offer the possibility of a better, more efficient society”.
He worked in his Rackheath workshop, which he had designed himself, using the proceeds from his time at Giant, surrounded by heavy machinery and parts of bikes, classical music blaring away and with newspaper clippings of his past achievements stuck up on the walls.He never used a computer, hand-drawing each design. One of his friends, Andy Pegg, said, “Even his shopping bike was something to behold”. Every bike he designed and made he actually rode.
The only time he was not designing was when he was pursuing his other passion, birdwatching.
He co-built the bike Guy Martin used in his 2014 TV programme ‘Speed’, where Martin broke the land speed record on two wheels.
Mike kept racing himself. He was part of the British Human Power Club, which organised club races for recumbents and more unusual bike designs. His personal aim was to get faster each year. He said he was trying “to outstrip my own ageing.” He won his last race at the age of 75.
Many of the component parts on modern bikes were invented by him.
Mike was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was still designing bikes in his workshop the week before he died.
Chris Boardman called him, “the godfather of modern bike design”.
Alan Goodman, the current chairman of the British Human Power Club said, “He was a lovely bloke and a great friend.”
Mike’s close friend, fellow cyclist Andy Pegg said, “I was his test dummy before Chris Boardman came along…He was opinionated, outspoken, maverick and always turned out to be right. He was 30 years ahead of his time – A proper eccentric genius”.
RIP – Recumbents Inspire Pedalers