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Blast from the past: the Rough-Stuff Fellowship

In-depth
25 Jan 2021
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Formed in 1955, The Rough-Stuff Fellowship was a pioneer of off-road riding expeditions – as these stunning photos prove

Words: Max Leonard Photography: The Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archive

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship has a valid claim to being the oldest off-road cycling club in the world. It was founded in 1955 by a Liverpudlian called Bill Paul, after he placed an advert in The Bicycle magazine: ‘I believe there is still a small select circle who love the rough and high ways amongst the mountains of Wales, the Lakes and Scotland,’ he wrote. Turns out he was right.

In May of that year, 40 or so cyclists gathered at the Black Swan pub in Leominster, Herefordshire, for the inaugural meeting and the Fellowship was born. In those days there were no suspension systems, electronic gearing or 40mm tubeless tyres, but it didn’t stop them taking their bikes to some of the most rugged and remote parts of Britain and, in some cases, far beyond.

 

What is ‘rough stuff’?

For most, the simple definition is that rough stuff ‘begins where the tarmac ends’. It encompasses everything from easy trails and bridleways to drove roads, gravel tracks, footpaths, mud, scrambles and full-on hike-a-bike.

Unlike mountain biking, where the goal is often to ride the most technical terrain, rough-stuffers have never been afraid to get off and push. They’re not out to go faster or further or harder – or not all the time, at least. ‘I never go for a walk without my bike,’ founder member Bob Harrison once joked.

It’s partly thanks to Harrison that the Rough-Stuff Fellowship is experiencing a surge in recognition. In 2018 the newly appointed RSF archivist, Mark Hudson, received 34 handmade oak boxes from one of Harrison’s old riding partners (Harrison, who died in 2002, was a cabinet maker by trade). Each box contained several hundred slides that documented in beautiful Kodachrome colours more than 50 years of exploits with the RSF.

There was Harrison in 1954 in the Dolomites, on the Passo Sella and the Pordoi before they were touched by tarmac. There he was on the track on High Cup Nick in the Pennines in 1955; in Wales in 1960 hoisting his bike over a stream; in Cornwall in 1981 pushing his bike around the South West Coast path; in the Dales, the Cairngorms, the Peak District, Ireland… The list goes on.

Of course, it only made sense to turn this treasure trove of photography into a book (called The Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archive, Isola Press, £28 from roughstuffarchive.com), and what we have on display here is a mere handful of the images from the book.

 

Breaking new ground

In addition to holding regular local meets in the UK and many tours abroad, the RSF has been responsible for some historic firsts. In 1958 four of its members made the first self-supported crossing of Iceland’s desert interior: 168 miles in 10 days, via a 700m pass and three river crossings in an inflatable dinghy they carried with them. And they all rode fixed-gear.

Ron Bartle from Preston, now aged 85, explains how he came to be one of the four: ‘I only joined the RSF a week before the expedition. Three lads from Huddersfield Wheelers were going, with Dick Phillips as leader, but at the last minute one of them couldn’t get released from National Service. I had less than a week’s notice.

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‘Crossing the rivers was the worst part for me, especially the river Tungnaà, which had defeated Dick on previous occasions. It was Ray Bottomley who came up with the idea of the rubber dinghy. I’ve always been a bit wary of water, what with not being able to swim.

‘I would think we rode about three-quarters of the way. Some of it was on vehicle tracks, which bedded down the lava for smooth riding. It was very sandy lava, but some of it lay in great blocks, and there was lots of twisting and turning to get around them.

‘We all rode fixed. That was the style among tourists at the time. We just didn’t think gears were reliable enough.’

In 1984, two RSF riders rode their steel Mercian bikes up the track and over the glacier to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, on their way from Derby in the Midlands to Western Australia. They estimated they pedalled 20 per cent of the route from Kathmandu to Everest, and remarkably managed to get only four punctures between them.

Phill Hargreaves, now 57, says, ‘Most people fly in to Lukla in the Himalayas, but we cycled from Kathmandu along the same route the original 1950s expeditions followed. We were doing these massive climbs to 8,000 feet and then dropping back down again. We managed to ride quite a bit of it, but there was a lot that was too rocky.

‘A lot of people up there had never seen bikes before – they didn’t know what they were. We camped on the field in front of the Tengboche Monastery and let some of the monks have a go on the bikes.

‘We didn’t lock them up, and in the night a monk buckled one of the wheels. It had completely collapsed but fortunately we managed to spring it back and tighten a few of the spokes and get it rideable again.

‘The other bit that sticks in my memory was the last bit, up the glacier from Gorak Shep,’ Hargreaves adds. ‘It had been cloudy, so we’d only got the odd glimpse of Everest. We were in our tents at Gorak Shep when someone got up for a piss in the night and saw it was crystal clear, so we all went up to the viewpoint at Kala Patthar and watched the sun rise over Everest.

‘The glacier was amazing, but the most ridiculous place to take a bike. There were big crevasses and it was carrying all the way.’

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship did not, of course, invent riding bicycles off-road. That’s been going on since well before there were ‘roads’ in any modern sense.

To take just one example, in 1890 a man called Amos Sugden took his solid-tyred, 23kg bike over Sty Head in the Lake District. And for years there was a lively debate in the cycling press about rough-stuff riding.

In 1919, one of the greatest early advocates, WM Robinson (widely known by his journalistic pseudonym ‘Wayfarer’) wrote an account of crossing the Berwyn Mountains in North Wales in deep snow that inspired generations after him. One of the first acts of the RSF upon its formation was to put a plaque on ‘Wayfarer Pass’ in his honour. And in March 2019 more than 50 cyclists, led by cycling writer and photographer writer Jack Thurston, completed a celebratory centenary ride.

For decades the Rough-Stuff Fellowship prospered, as did rough-stuff riding as a visible – if niche – pastime. In the British Cycle Tourist Competition, organised by the CTC from 1952 until the 1980s, officials often went to great lengths to challenge contestants with tough bits of rough-stuff riding, including river crossings and other hazards. But with the rise of mountain biking, traditional rough-stuff gradually faded from view.

 

The old and the new

Look at Harrison’s photos today and they reveal a bygone age of cycling style – a time when you might set off on a bike ride wearing a shirt and tie and plus-fours, or a bobble hat, rain cape and brogues, and no ride was complete without a brew stop to make tea and maybe to smoke a pipe.

They show canvas tents, heavy sleeping bags and primus stoves all strapped to overloaded bikes, as well as the real community around the RSF. Since its inception the club has had a large number of female members, as well as older riders, younger riders and children.

Among the bikes in the pictures you might spot the odd rare lightweight hand-built gem, but mostly they are nondescript tourers. Rough-stuffers often preferred Sturmey Archer, because internal hub gears meant there was no fragile derailleur to get bashed on rocks.

For the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, it really wasn’t about the bike. It was all about good clean (sometimes dirty) fun. Half a century later, that remains the great attraction of gravel riding – just exploring and having the most fun you can on two wheels.

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship is still going strong and has more than 1,000 members worldwide. To join, or for more info, head to RSF.org.uk

 

This article was originally published in issue 2 of Cyclist Off-Road magazine