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In pictures: Lotus's classic bikes

Peter Stuart
16 Jul 2019

It’s 25 years since the Lotus made its Tour debut. Cyclist meets the collectors of this iconic bike to learn about its turbulent history

This article was originally published in Issue 78 of Cyclist Magazine

Words Peter Stuart Photography Chris Blott

Some bikes are objects of beauty, some are unique concepts and others are prized antiques. The Lotus bike is all of these – its sleek, curved silhouette is a reminder of a time in cycling when science, automotive engineering and the pinnacle of the sport collided.

For enthusiasts, though, the Lotus 110 is about more than looks – it also has a complex history and is probably loved and loathed in equal measure by those involved in its creation, development and eventual demise.

Cyclist has travelled to a country house in Dorking to meet four owners of the Lotus 110 frame. They are all members of the Lotus 110 Club, which was formed to connect some of the owners of the 250 or so bikes that are still in existence.

The number 110 may seem immaterial, but in fact holds a great deal of importance. The story behind it, however, begins with a very different bike, the brainchild of infamous and enigmatic British engineer Mike Burrows – the Lotus 108.

Flowering of the Lotus

Coming from the world of recumbent bike racing, where he developed numerous high-speed prototypes, Burrows was looking for a project in conventional cycling.

His brand, WindCheetah, turned some heads with a highly aerodynamic monocoque frame, the WindCheetah Monocoque Mk 1, in the mid-1980s. It was a revolutionary design, but at the point of development no one was interested.

‘I took it to all the bike shows and said, “Isn’t this wonderful?” and I just got blank looks,’ Burrows recalls when Cyclist catches up with him.

‘They said to me, “Why have you covered the tubes over?” and I said, “I haven’t covered the tubes – this is a tube in the shape of a bicycle.”

‘Nobody could understand it. And so I just thought, “F**k it, I’ll go back to racing recumbents.”’

Burrows shelved his frame. The cycling industry didn’t seem prepared for such a bold leap forward in technology, but his bike would soon come to the attention of a different racing industry.

‘Rudy Thomann, a young French racing driver, was working with Lotus on the development side, and he also rode in the same club in Norfolk as me,’ says Burrows.

At the time, Lotus was in considerable financial trouble and was close to being sold by parent company General Motors, so it was in need of a positive PR story.

‘Rudy came by my workshop and saw the monocoque bike hanging on the wall. He took it to Lotus and suggested that they consider making a bike. Lotus said yes, and we got off to a great start. Sadly it all went sour at the end…’ Burrows trails off.

The product of that first relationship was the Lotus 108, a one-sided monocoque marvel.

Through a partnership with the British Cycling Federation, Lotus developed the bike for Chris Boardman, and he took a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics aboard it, creating a piece of cycling history in the process.

Boardman, however, wasn’t entirely enamoured with the amount of attention being focussed on the bike by the press and public. 

‘Chris put in all the effort at the Olympics and in the end everyone was talking about the bike and not him,’ says Paul Greasley, historian for the Lotus 110 Club.

Lotus, on the other hand, was thrilled with the success but wanted the spotlight to remain on its engineering ability, and not the eccentric genius of Mike Burrows. So began the great rift in the Lotus-Burrows venture.

Breaking the mould

‘Burrows probably saw the bike as his pension,’ says Greasley. Lotus, however, had other ideas.

Burrows continues, ‘They made a second mould, and that’s when things started going a little sour between us. They appointed their own engineer and aerodynamicist; they obviously wanted to make the Lotus bike and not the Mike Burrows bike. I didn’t spot this coming.’

Lotus moved away from Burrows’s single-sided design, and modified the frame to accept any groupset, where it was previously track-specific. Needless to say, Burrows was far from impressed.

‘They started making changes aerodynamically that really didn’t add anything to it,’ Burrows argues.

‘For instance, they changed the curve of the down tube for some reason, which with hindsight was a load of bollocks. They just wanted it to look different.’

As for Burrows’s 108 frame, rumour has it seven of those used for Boardman’s Olympic bids and Hour record attempts were sold to collectors, for £25,000 each.

Despite Burrows’s cynicism, the Lotus 110 still managed to help Boardman to a Tour de France prologue victory in 1994, with an average speed of 55.2kmh.

That remained the fastest stage of the Tour ever ridden until Rohan Dennis went even faster in the summer of 2015.

Despite the continued sponsorship by Lotus, Boardman seemed to develop a pretty dim view of the 110’s fame. Speaking in 1994, he told reporters, ‘The team got some frames and we’ve used them. That’s as far as it goes.’

From there, the Lotus 110 took another odd turn, as production left the UK altogether. Tony Wybrott, a member of the Lotus 110 Club, was involved in the production of the original batch of Lotus 110 frames. He worked at Bristol-based motorsports composite company DPS.

‘We made six development frames that then went to Lotus to be tested, and then we made a batch of 50, which I think went to the Gan and Once teams,’ Wybrott recalls. ‘It’s hard to know where those DPS ones went – we’ve traced 10 of the remainder so far.’

The majority of Lotus 110 bikes that exist today are in fact of South African descent. To save money, Lotus changed production companies in 1994, switching from DPS to Cape Town-based Aerodyne.

Aerodyne made around 200 frames before the axe fell. ‘In 1996 Lotus had a change of management and also a change of ownership, and the focus was moved back onto cars,’ Greasley says.

The final nail in the coffin came with the UCI’s Lugano Charter in 1996, which banned the use of monocoque non-tubed bikes in competition. However, that didn’t spell the end of the story for the Lotus bike, which may be about to see an unlikely resurgence.

As a consequence of its age, the Lotus has recently come out of copyright and so is on the cusp of being copied legally.

‘A company out in South Africa is now doing a replica,’ Wybrott tells us. Perhaps the 110 could still have a chance to reform the world of cycling?

It’s a silver lining that even Burrows can appreciate. ‘Looking at it now, the bike made history,’ he says. ‘Chris got his gold medal and won, and I ended up working for Giant and developing the compact frame,’ he says cheerfully. ‘At the end of the day, the good guys won.’

 

Tony Wybrott's Lotus 110

Produced by DPS, this Lotus is a souvenir of Wybrott's time making the bike 

‘I worked at composites company DPS in Bristol,’ Wybrott says. ‘Lotus had manufactured the 108 themselves but they didn’t want to do the 110, so they came to us and we made the moulds, and went on to make the bikes for them. We made a batch of 50, which I think went to the Gan and Once pro teams.’

When the frames came back after use Lotus was happy to destroy them, but Wybrott suggested auctioning them off for £100 – and he was at the front of the queue.

‘The weave is easy to see on mine because it’s not painted,’ he says. ‘You can also see the segments. You have a piece for the right-hand side, a piece for the left-hand side, and then inside is a separate piece, which comes on the inside of the chainstay and gives you that detail for the rear wheel cut-out. It’s three pieces in effect.’

South African company Aerodyne later took over production, and Wybrott says the only difference is that Aerodyne’s 110 has ‘that little detail right behind the chainring – a hole for the front mech.

‘The UK-produced ones don’t have that. Also the South Africans did three sizes: small, medium and large. We only did one size: Boardman’s size.’

 

Dan Sadler's Lotus 110

Produced by Aerodyne, this custom-painted Lotus is a TT project in progress 

As a youth, Sadler had a fixation with the Lotus 110, and the 108 before it. ‘I was young and impressionable,’ he says. ‘I was 15 in 1992 when Boardman won gold in Barcelona, and I’ve just been fascinated by the bike since.

‘Everyone wants a Lotus, really – it’s the go-to bike. And now I’ve got one I’d never let it go.

‘I paid £700 for the frame on eBay 12 years ago,’ he adds. ‘These days, for something in that condition, you’d have to pay between £6,000 and £8,000.’

Sadler had his bike painted. ‘It was plain carbon when I bought it,’ he recalls. ‘I had it done just because I like those colours. Black on white is always a good look.

‘I’m not racing on it right now, but the only reason is that I can’t adopt the position I currently ride on this bike – I can’t get the front end low enough. I’m trying to get a custom stem that drops the whole thing down. It will get raced again at some point.’

Would he ride the 110 for pleasure? ‘No. It’s too expensive!’ Sadler laughs.'

 

Tom Edwards' Lotus 110

Produced by DPS, this is a pure collectable reconstruced to Boardman's spec

‘This is an exact copy of the one that Boardman rode in the World Time-Trial Championships in 1994,’ says Edwards.

‘All the components are Mavic originals from the 1990s. The most difficult thing to track down was actually the Mavic handlebar. There are lots of old tatty ones but finding a clean set was really hard.’

Despite being 25 years old, much of the componentry looks surprisingly modern. ‘The really innovative stuff back then is the mainstream now. For instance, the concealed cabling was pretty new at the time.

‘The previous owner modified the seatpost to put a normal round seatpost in it,’ Edwards adds with a wince. ‘So I had a carbon specialist remake it, as it was an integrated seatpost before.

‘We made a stub out of it and then the seatpost is actually just a standard Cervélo seatpost that slots over the top. Like a tooth crown.’

Unlike his fellow 110 owners, Edwards doesn’t use the bike for racing. ‘I just have it for pleasure,’ he says.

 

Michael Porter's Lotus 110

Produced by Aerodyne, Porter's bike is a practical racer

‘I can’t remember how much it cost,’ Porter says with a laugh. ‘I bought it a long time ago off a guy who used to race cars with my dad.’

Porter races his bike regularly, but it was something of a journey to get to the point where it was competition-worthy.

‘It had quite a few cracks. Mercedes repaired it. It cracked here,’ he says pointing to the top tube. ‘It cracked there,’ he says, pointing to the head tube.

‘Mike Burrows repaired the front fork but made the gap above the fork crown a little big. It kept coming loose so we’ve riveted it now,’ he adds.

‘Fibrelite made the chainring and they also did the logo for it. They asked Lotus for permission to reproduce the logo. It’s nine-speed but I always have it set up for friction shifts.

‘My favourite time-trial distances are 10 and 25 miles. My personal best time on it is 50 minutes and 20 seconds for 25 miles. I’ve also done a 20 minutes and 14 seconds for 10 miles – both just below 30mph.’

It’s plain that Porter can make his 110 move quickly, but does he ever ride it purely for pleasure? ‘No, not much. I worry I look like a bit of a knob when I do!’

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