When the Going Gets Rough: Off-Roading with The Rough-Stuff Fellowship Cycling Club

These are the characters at the heart of The Rough-Stuff Fellowship, a proudly amateur cycling club where no one takes themselves (or the terrain) too seriously.

This article first appeared in Volume 30: Health.

Eccentrics? Never," quips Michael Ely. "We're all completely normal, well-rounded members of society." I am chatting to Michael about The Rough-Stuff Fellowship, the self-proclaimed oldest off-road cycling club in the world, which unites those drawn to byways and tracks. The fellowship was formed in 1955 and was inspired by the writings of Walter MacGregor Robinson, the so-called "Wayfarer", a fearless rider and one of the first cyclists to publicise taking a bike over a mountain pass in the years after the First World War.

Coined in the early 20th century, the term "rough-stuff " means the opposite of "smooth-stuff", aka tarmac. The fellowship was born in rebellion against the motorised road. Frustrated by increasing traffic in the 1950s, Bill Paul and other founding members sought peace in nature. "We wouldn't describe ourselves as mountain bikers," Michael, the Membership Secretary, tells me. "The ethos has always been concerned more with the love of the countryside than sporting competition." During rides, they don't battle against the landscape. This spirit means there's no judgement against walking - in fact, it's encouraged. Riders often hike their bike across rough terrain, sometimes lugging the heavy frame on their shoulders.

Sometimes I think the club has got very soft. When I read the articles now, they’re heading to the pub for lunch. I remember eating picnics in the rain.

Norman Hodghton, the Editor of Rough-Stuff Journal

A typical Rough-Stuff ride is varied; you don't go off-road without reason. You can travel from a dual carriageway to a dirt track, canal path or epic mountain crossing. "I've waded through rivers and ridden tracks on a tandem," Norman Hodghton, the Editor of the bi-monthly Rough-Stuff Journal, excitedly explains. "Looking back, I've done some very silly things; I've finished long trips and realised no one at home knows where I am." The Journal captures this essence of freedom and adventure. Within it you can find tales of cyclists trudging through snow or camping out for a week. Norman, who has been a member since 1962, jokes: "Sometimes I think the club has got very soft. When I read the articles now, they're heading to the pub for lunch. I remember eating picnics in the rain."

Recently the club appointed an archivist and the photographs, maps and memories uncovered have been put together in a photobook by Isola Press. The pioneers in these images wear shirts and ties, baggy trousers, waterproof ponchos and leather shoes. There is nothing of the high-tech gear and outdoor-wear we're used to seeing today.

Brimming with quirk, the photographs depict the characters at the heart of The Rough-Stuff Fellowship. They are riders that see the funny side of a challenge - whether it's a sudden downpour, fall or transporting a bike down a cliff-face - and they embrace it with a smile, tea or a pipe. The Rough-Stuff is a proudly amateur cycling club; no one takes themselves too seriously.

Today, it has several groups around the UK, which meet throughout the year. Should you ever encounter them on a track, you might wonder at the eclecticism. Ex-Chairman Steve Griffith writes: "On a ride once, I counted a couple of traditional steel touring bikes, a Brompton, a Rohloff and a range of off-road machines." The only thing that's generally agreed upon is the need for low gears and a good guard against all the mud.

The Lowdown

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archive book can be purchased at isolapress.com. Any readers interested in joining the club can find more information at rsf.org.uk.

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