How a Norfolk man changed cycling for ever

Simon Freebrey with his Lotus 110 bike, which was made in Hethel. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

Simon Freebrey with his Lotus 110 bike, which was made in Hethel. Picture: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

A Tour de France triumph 25 years ago began in Norfolk

Bicycle designer Mike Burrows at his workshop in Rackheath, holding his speed time trial bike he has

Bicycle designer Mike Burrows at his workshop in Rackheath, holding his speed time trial bike he has used locally, which was originally commissioned for a Spanish Once team, and his Norfolk Gordon bike, right, which he has designed as a culmination of all his design ideas. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

Exactly 25 years ago Chris Boardman powered into the cycling record books, winning the first day of the Tour de France in a time-trial record which remained unbeaten for 21 years.

He was riding a bicycle designed and made in Norfolk.

Just 263 of the bikes, were made by Hethel-based Lotus - and the remaining models are treasured by owners around the world.

Three years ago enthusiasts got together to launch a club dedicated to the Lotus 110. They now have members as far away as Australia and New Zealand. But some of the bikes stayed nearer home.

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Simon Freebrey, of Norwich, bought his Lotus 110 in 2015.

"I first fell in love with the Lotus Bike when I saw the 108, the predecessor of the 110," said Simon. "It was spaceship looking, such a leap forward, a game changer."

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Norfolk engineer Mike Burrows, who designed the Lotus 108, is still cycling, and working on bikes. His Lotus 108, with a carbon composite frame designed to minimise wind resistance and drag, led to the Lotus 110. In 1994 Boardman rode it to win the first day of the Tour de France at Lille, achieving the fastest ever average speed in a Tour de France time trial. The record stood for 21 years.

"I remember the stage was flat and perfect for Chris Boardman's style," said Simon. "I watched as rider after rider crossed the line on their colourful steel bikes and then Chris pushed off for his timed run. I remember being in absolute awe at the look of the black and yellow F1 car of bikes. His riding position was super low and with a perfectly straight back and I thought I bet there is hardly any drag at all. I think we all knew right from that moment two things. One, Chris Boardman was going to win this stage and two, the bike world had changed forever!"

More than 20 years later Simon spotted a Lotus 110 frame and forks on an internet auction site. He placed what he described as 'a cheeky bid' and was astonished to find himself the owner of a Lotus bike.

"I'd bagged my dream bike, but at that stage I didn't know much about them other than I loved the look and appreciated the heritage," said Simon. He joined the Lotus 110 Club and said: "My bike has firmly become a most prize possession. It gets looked at daily, but ridden rarely. I do ride it, but only when Snetterton Race Circuit opens its doors for bike riders to ride the track.

"It's quite clumsy at low speed but then it's not designed for low speed. It's heavy too, it's not the paper light modern carbon bikes, but it is fast, even for someone like me. The bike gets loads of attention when I do use it. People like to have their photo taken with it. Every cyclist knows about the Lotus bikes and they know how significant they were. I would go as far to say that they are arguably the most iconic bike and quite rightly so. And to think it all started with a radical idea from Mike, a local engineer, and potential recognised by a forward thinking car manufacturer all home grown here in good old Norfolk."

Mike Burrows, now 76, is still designing, modifying and repairing bicycles, in Rackheath, near Norwich, and still cycles every day. He only retired from cycle racing last year. "I won my last race at the age of 75!" said Mike.

A keen cyclist, he had an engineer's eye for what might make a speedier bike. His Lotus 108 was so far ahead of its time that it was actually banned by the world governing body of cycling after Boardman's success.

Mike said he had originally come up with the concept a decade before, but no-one in the cycling industry had been interested. "I hadn't even thought of Lotus, but they understood it; they understood why the bike was made like that."

However, as soon as the Olympics was over the team disbanded. It meant he was not involved in completing the Lotus 110. Instead he became a designer for the world's biggest bicycle maker, Giant.

He introduced sloping top forks and very long seat posts, making the bikes lighter, stiffer and more aerodynamic. Even today he can say: "Almost every bike in the Tour de France is down to my work."

Mike' engineering skills began early. His father ran a toy and model shop and he grew up making model aeroplanes. From the family business he moved into engineering boat parts, and then manufacturing packaging - and a machine to wrap coins which was installed by banks across the country.

Some of his recent designs include recumbent bikes and a big butcher's bike with a back basket. "It sends out the message that there is no hurry," said the man who helped design some of the fastest racing bikes ever seen.

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