UK; Rough at the top

The Rough Stuff Fellowship is a very British phenomenon. STEPHEN McKAY takes a closer look.

Grim-faced men in their fifties and sixties, each turning a well-chiselled chin to the searing wind and rain as they drag a Bob Jackson, laden with cotton duck, across a pass that takes them from one exposed valley to another, yet more exposed valley.

OK, our description is a bit of a parody. But what is the Rough Stuff Fellowship really about? Quite simply, they're a group of cyclists who enjoy off-road riding, but instead of driving out to the countryside with high tech MTBs, they load up (robust) tourers and go off in search of the wild places, riding along tracks and byways, or across open terrain. They usually sleep under canvas (sometimes literally), in mountain huts, or sometimes out in the open. One of them even specialises in sleeping in caves.

It's easy to believe, in this age of the mountain bike, that the only way to deal with steep hills and harsh  terrain is to use lighter components and carry less gear. But there is another way: just pack whatever you need, use a strong, comfortable touring bike, and when you hit a hill or rough terrain... get off and push! Some see this as a defeat, as failure, as selling out, as simply not having enough fat tubing. But others enjoy the change of pace - it's a handy moment to take a drink, check the map, or just enjoy the view. And that's the hallmark of the Rough Stuff Fellowship: taking heavily laden bikes on camping expeditions across remote mountain passes in Britain and on the Continent. As one member Public Relations officer Phil put it: "you see a couple of roads marked on the map, going up two sides of a mountain. There's no connection marked, but there's bound to be one. So you go out and find it. You camp in the next valley, and the following morning you press on, probably doing much the same thing again."

Ever since cycling began, people have been taking their bikes over the most inappropriate of tracks and byways; it was well into this century before tarmac became common for country roads. But as road cycling became the norm, many cyclists were still drawn by the sense of adventure, the access to the most spectacular areas, and the simple absence of cars up on the hills. The RSF's book ‘The Early Years' suggests that the phrase 'rough-stuff' was "quite widely indulged in by the outbreak of the 1939-1945 war". Demobilisation saw the activity grow in popularity, but it was not until 1955 that around forty men and women gathered at the Black Swan in Leominster, to found the RSF. It was Whitsuntide, 1955, and the Rough Stuff Fellowship was born.

RSF members often had their pleasures abroad, and their members have access to literally hundreds of route guides for rides in the Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites and the Massif Central, as well as in Britain and Ireland. The first expedition abroad, to Iceland, was in September 1958. In those days the journey to Reykjavik meant three nights at sea. The account of the tour is astonishing, in these days of titanium bottle-cages and credit card touring. Here's Bernard Heath's description of how they crossed the Tungnaa glacial river:

"Monday, 8th September. The cold wind and rain of yesterday had disappeared, and been replaced by gathering mists as we breakfasted on our rations of porridge and cocoa. The dinghy was prepared and the 600 yard nylon line was run out in big loops along the sandy beach. Standing well out in the icy water, Dick acted as anchor man... Ron guided the line to Dick, whilst I stood by as a free man in case of any snag or emergency. Cheesey, using the expedition spade as a paddle, soon floated out into the middle of the pool where the current, although still strong, was easier... he seemed to be getting nearer - would he make it? Nearer and nearer, now only a few feet away, and then spade struck rock and sand, the tiny craft being punted the last yard or so. 'He's aground!' Proudly, like a man setting foot on a new continent, Cheesey strode up and along the far bank carrying the dinghy."

We are also told about the RSF's 1955 version of the cyclist's energy food bar: "We found, lying in the sand, some discarded dried fish. Someone, then unknown (although we later learnt they were Icelandic cyclists), had cast it away as unfit to eat. We fell upon this morsel, cooked some and devoured it with obvious relish."

But that was then, and this is now. The Fellowship still draws profitably on its sense of history, but is clearly not stuck in the past. Their members may tend not to bother with MTB gizmos, feeling that appropriate technology is not always high technology. So while Rough Stuffers don't have much interest in suspension for example, the new wave of hub brakes and gears are not ignored.

Fighting for access rights is now becoming a major part of the club's activities. As one member put it: "You cycle a route for years, and suddenly you can't ride it any more. It's a worrying trend, and it needs to be opposed." The RSF has embraced the internet. Clicking onto their site (www.rsf.org.uk) brings up an introduction to the group that is clear, interesting and thoroughly modern in its layout. The RSF has suffered in the past from an ageing membership, but they are making a conscious decision to respond to this and - thanks mainly to the website - new members are now coming in, and benefitting from the enormous experience of those who've been riding the rough for decades. The new members are drawn from the mountain-biking generation, but nevertheless feel attracted to the simplicity of the Rough Stuff Fellowship's unique brand of off-road cycle-touring.

Two quotes from the Rough Stuff Fellowship: The Early Years

"It appears that a man named Amos Sugden claimed that he had crossed the Sty Head Pass in Lakeland equipped with a bicycle of some 50lbs weight and shod with solid tyres. The date was August 1890 and, although this was quite early in the cycling scene, he made no claim to be the first. Was he merely following another cyclist's footsteps? His achievement was no mean feat, and caused quite a stir in the current wheelers' world. Just to rub it in he subsequently went on to cross most of the Lake District foot passes."

"By 2.30 pm I was traversing the tops of the Long Mynd, this being after a visit to Condover to see the Elizabethan Hall and Leebotwood, to see the old drovers' inn of 1600 AD. Hereabouts two cyclists - then unknown to each other - passed in opposite directions, but each going to the same place [the RSF inaugural meeting, 1955]. Arthur Matthews and Harry Parkinson are now popular members of the Lancashire Section. Harry, by the way, unable to obtain a bed that night, slept on a pile of gravel at the roadside." Bob Harrison.

Further reading: Mountain Biking Before Mountain Bikes. A Bike Culture article.

The Rough Stuff Fellowship website

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