The Rough Stuff Fellowship, which claims to be the world’s oldest off-road cycling club, was founded in 1955 by Liverpudlian Bill Paul, who organized a gathering of around 40 cyclists interested in off-road adventures, especially those involving difficult ascents. Their aim was simple and glorious: ”exploring how far an ordinary bicycle and a can-do attitude can get you.” (I admit the name “Rough Stuff Fellowship” feels a tad cringy now; out of context it could pass as the name of a creepy Victorian S&M cult. Alas, in the 1950s, I don’t think it had the same double-entendrism.)
The tradition of this kind of “rough-stuff” riding actually goes back much further, at least to W.M. Robinson, aka “Wayfarer,” who in 1919 penned a famous account of crossing a snowy Welsh pass on his bicycle. And decades before that, cycle-travel pioneers such as Thomas Stevens in the 1880s, were no-nonsense originators of what we now call “adventure cycling” or bikepacking.
Select photographs of RSF activities have been available online for a while and the organization, which still exists, mainly in the UK, has been getting some good press in recent years. Recently, though, archivist Mark Hudson helped put together this book-length collection of RSF memorabilia and photos, some black and white, others faded colour, gathered from a handful of RSF members between the 1950s and the 1980s.
The RSF, as archivist Mark Hudson explains, was most active in the north of England, where peaks, moors, and the high passes of Wales and Scotland were within reasonable reach. (In the summer, they’d take trips abroad together in search of even bolder challenges, in the Alps, for instance.) Many of its members had fought in the war, and were not daunted in the slightest by the challenges of difficult terrain.
Perhaps the most amazing thing in these photos is the incongruity between the terrain and the bicycles. Modern readers/cyclists will shake their heads at the machines these rough-stuffians were riding: ordinary, utilitarian road bicycles, with no shocks and with tires no wider than today’s on-road touring rigs. Yet the terrain is extreme: big boulders, deep bogs, and what could generously be described as goat tracks. Fording full on rivers; carrying bikes over fences, hauling them up extreme inclines.
Today, cycling this terrain would require expensive full-suspension mountain bikes, plus-size tires--and still be considered extreme, the kind of activity engaged in by only the fittest and most devoted adventure cyclists. But that’s the most remarkable thing about the RSF: the people in these photos look like ordinary blokes and dames, wearing ordinary clothes, riding ordinary bicycles--just in extraordinary places.
In these photos you see not just athletic young men. Rather, it’s men and women, couples, families, and lots of older cyclists. Many of the images capture the social aspect of the RSF: people chatting, laughing, visiting over a thermos of tea and a sandwich, or smoking a pipe while fixing a puncture.
One of the many delights of this volume is the 1950s cycling fashion statements--short hiking shorts, dorky vests, collared shirts, and knee-high woolly socks. The men smoked pipes, often while riding. Everyone is dressed more like a hiker than a cyclist. And crappy ponchos for the rain. So many crappy ponchos here--it’s awesome.
For me, the other part of the book’s title--archive--is another element of its appeal. This volume is both an actual archive and a kind of tribute to the idea of an archive, or at least, the kind of scrapbook/archive created by amateur enthusiasts in the middle of the twentieth century. In addition to the photos of cycling, we also get photos of original member cards, newspaper clippings, yellowed handwritten notes, boxes of old documents, old slides, and, coolest of all, an insert of a couple of original RSF Journal newsletters.
Much of this material comes from one original RSF member, cabinet maker Bob Harrison, who kept meticulous records of his collection. One of my favorite shots in the book shows the oak cabinet he made to store the hundreds of slides. These images bring back fond memories for me of library card catalogues and my parents’ collection of family slides that we used to watch on the old carousel projector and pop up screen in our living room.
The days of magic lantern--or even living room--slide shows may be over, but books like this can help connect us to traditions that many don't even know existed. This archive would be right at home on the coffee table of a certain kind of adventure cyclist, a gravel rider or bikepacker with an interest in cycling history and how we preserve it--and maybe a secret desire to don a poncho, light up a pipe and go for an adventure off-road.