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The Ratracer Story - Sinking ever lower

Ratracer 1A
The first prototype
Ratracer De Ville
Getting lower!
VLR - The Very Low Racer
Cadillac - its all made in carbon and the wheels are in line!
B2 under construction - hub centre steering
B2 with hub centre steering
mike burrows

Mike Burrows charts the way down...

The best way to boil frogs is to put them in the pot while the water is still cold and slowly turn up the heat. Not that I have ever wanted to cook any amphibians myself, but I have just realised that my new Ratracer B2 is the equivalent of a pot of boiling water and I would not have gone anywhere near it just eight years ago when the project started.

I was already going quite well in Sports class on my Ratcatcher, but that was not where the big boys played. No, they were all on low racers — very fast and very sexy. Even good friend and generally sensible fellow Vaughn Read was now riding a 'Baron Low', which I ended up doing some work on and inevitably thought: 'I could do that', so I did.

Starting point was not the existing and quite sensible Ratcatcher, but my Speedy three-wheeler where of course I sat quite low, and I even borrowed the Speedy's 2"x0.125" wall tube for the front curved section. There is something about curved tubes not being as stiff as straight ones (I think). Still with 2"x0.0625" for the rear straight section, and the usual casting and Loctite to join them. Also for the rear end, I was able to borrow one from the 8Freight with its 70mm drum-brake rather than the 'Catcher's' disk set-up.

Prototype had cut down Speedy seat which was to be pattern for eventual integrated version. First fully tail-faired version went to Bikefix for Denise Wilson to race. The Ross low racer frame that Stuart was proposing to build up for her to race on having been one of the spurs that got me started. (It was very heavy!)

Denise then proceeded to beat not just the other girls but on at least one memorable occasion all the boys.

I never managed to go quite so well, usually getting dropped by the big boys after a few laps, and even the De-Ville version with its fancy carbon bars and gold anodising failed to carry me to glory.

Inspiration for 1a was provided by Neil Flemming who had won unfaired twice on his regular Ratracer, but who now had a No-Com, which is well into the boiling category. And it went like it, lapping Newport at unheard of speeds, and on a day that was particularly bad for my biorhythm cycle, or something. Anyway I was crap and Neil's new toy was magic, and without a tail fairing! Very curious. Could it be the hamster bars, I wondered? I had chosen 'scorpion' originally as this was what Razz-Fazz and Birk were using, and it did seem logical to point your arms forward and minimise their frontal area. But maybe, I thought, it was by tucking in the elbows and hands that a better overall shape was produced?

I made up a pair of 'double' bars and did a series of roll-downs that showed that 'hamster' was indeed faster than 'scorpion' (at least in a Ratracer, other bikes may be different). I quickly produced three pairs: for myself; plus Stuart and Denise who both did 'personals' for their Eastway evening 10's.

I also added the now standard aero cranks, but still no wins for me. But once I got used to the 'let the force be with you' attitude needed to race with these bars I really started to enjoy myself and could hang onto the fast boys for a bit longer.

I have to come clean here and admit that there was another Ratracer built just before the 1a. This was one of my 'big ideas'.

Most laid back bikes and nearly all low racers have 'small' (16"-20") front wheels. Convenient for design but not so good for rolling resistance which goes up on account of not just size but also the lack of tyre choice, and they do tend to be a bit wobbly compared to larger wheels. So a 700c would be nice. But where to put it? In the middle was the answer and with the crank axle (B.B.) in the middle of the wheel. Similar things had been done before but never on a low racer. One reason being that your heels would hit the ground on account of the 13" B.B. height. But that was with 170mm cranks. 170mm? Those were the days. No, we, or at least I was now using 145mm cranks and so Ratracer 'B' was created. This involved quite a lot of machining as there is nothing hub-centreish in the Shimano catalogue but it all went together quite nicely.

So you ask, where is it now? In pieces, that's where. Firstly it did not go as fast as several quite good theories said it should. It was very iffy in crosswinds (possibly the disked 700c stuck out the front?); the lock was very limited, and worst of all when you got close to the back of another machine it was not your pedals that rattled harmlessly on its boot, but your front wheel that could no longer be used for steering/balancing = ouch.

Back on a nice evolutionary path I decided a slightly bigger and more pointy boot would be a good move, and as the rules of unfaired were in something of a flux I would include a removable 'bodyline' fairing. Also a removable 'last bit' to reduce size for transporting in motors. And borrowing from Simon Sanderson the driveline chain went inside.

This 'custom' was the fastest yet and I was mostly able to keep up with quite fast people for quite a long time, but without actually beating any of them as such.

Shape was now quite good. I decided the next thing was size, which meant lower and more laid back. And so the V.L.R. (very low racer) was born, still with the ally frame and custom boot but now sporting a power bulge to get all of the chain inside. This few inches lower, it turned out was a very good move performance wise but it did make the water quite a lot hotter (As Adrian is discovering). But I was finally one of the big boys, not the biggest as there was Paul Colander on a No-Com, who is either Mark Cavendish's long lost brother or has one or those 'lectric things in his bottom bracket!

So there I was, aero, small and even doing some training. What else could I do? Well I thought how about what every other cyclist does first? Get the weight down.

So no more ally tube and castings that I can do, but a moulded carbon frame that I need Mike Nelthorpe to do, although in practise I have been one of the many pairs of hands needed to wrap the U.D. carbon around the foam core. Also the 'custom' three-piece boot was tweaked and a new mould produced for a one-piece version that was no longer integrated with the seat, which  could  have  its  angle  adjusted more easily. I also did something rather silly in this one, a thing that I had not done for many years. I mounted the rear wheel using both ends of the axle! I know this was not very clever, but the rear wheel needed to be in the centre as the boot was so low that there was not enough room for an offset (V.L.R. had a power bulge). Although to be fair it does seem to work quite well and could have potential in some situations.

So one shiny new all carbon-fibre long, low, 'Cadillac' and matching glass-fibre 'Buick' and lo and behold I am the big boy, at least for domestic purposes. Last year's trip to Tilburg was a disaster for a variety of reasons.

Which brings me up to date; and where to go from aero and small and light? Well it's back to the big(ish) idea and back to hub centre steering again but not quite so radical as 'B' and inspired by Johnathon Woolrich's 'Hocus Pocus' but single sided, of course, and also now single sided at the back, but still with wheel on centre line.

Hub centre allows me to get a 451 wheel in the same space as a 406, as there is no real 'crown'. So a slightly lower rolling resistance and no head-tube or vertical blade so lower frontal area. Lock is still limited but also the remote steering reduces the tiller effect and allows some 'gearing' which feels nicer.

Wheelbase is 50mm longer and the seat is laid back even more, almost to No-Com and that is 100°C.


First race for B2 was Scunthorpe and a lack of glory, but no great disasters. Adrian cunningly decided to crash after the finish this time, which gave him a big advantage, and he beat me by a length. Helped not a little by my rear end, sorry the bike's rear end, flexing to the point where the boot rubbed on the tyre. Resulting friction and noises rather spoilt my concentration.

Brands was better, seat spring was 'locked out' and very light carbon-fibre rear axle replaced by a heavy (but stiff) steel one, and victory was mine! Helped quite a lot by Adrian being somewhere else, and Andrew crashing on his behalf. 

So I still don't know how good it is.