In October 1954, the now-defunct British magazine The Bicycle published a passionate column by W. H. (Bill) Paul, that celebrated cyclists who searched for the wild, remote, and off-the-beaten-path adventures and called for “the formation of a fellowship of such rough-stuff enthusiasts.” Soon enough, ten people answered the challenge and they became, along with Bill Paul, the founding members of The Rough-Stuff Fellowship.
The idea of founding such a group was floating around a few decades earlier, in fact, inspired by none other than the legendary ‘Wayfarer’, which was the nom de plume of Walter MacGregor Robinson, a true pioneer of off-road cycling in the 20s and seen by many as the Godfather of Rough-Stuff. But the official RSF club took root on Sunday 28th May 1955, in a small pub called the Black Swan in Leominster near the English/Welsh border, subsequently becoming the oldest off-road cycling club in the world. To shed some light on the unusual name, the term ‘rough stuff’ evolved in the early part of the 20th century to describe the contrast to the smooth stuff (meaning tarmac).
According to their website, “a year later membership had reached 165 and over the years it steadily increased to an all-time high of well over 1000 in the 1980s and now in 2015 more or less stable at around 600.” Back then, the members mostly used road bikes and fixies but now the mix of machines is as eclectic as the riders involved. Although being predominantly UK-based, the club has members all over the globe.
The Rough-Stuff Fellowship has recently been drawing the public’s attention by a brilliant Instagram feed, increasingly growing in popularity. There were (and are) some avid photographers among the RSF members and it became apparent that there’s a huge body or documentary work stashed away somewhere in multiple drawers. We Love Cycling contacted the man who was met with the challenging task of collecting and cataloguing the fragmented Rough-Stuff Fellowship memorabilia, clippings, hand-drawn maps and, most importantly, photographs of over six decades of the club’s existence – meet the RSF archivist Mark Hudson.
“I took on the role of archivist at the beginning of last year. This is a new position within the club to collect and index the RSF’s history. Because it had never been all in one place before, I had no idea at first what there would be. Initially, I was sent a small box of photographs and some documents. It wasn’t until I started to speak with some of the older members that I realised there must be a lot of images scattered around the country. It took a few months, but I managed to track down the extensive slide collection of Bob Harrison, a founding member of the Rough-Stuff. There are over 10,000 slides in his handmade oak wooden boxes. All indexed with location and date. This makes up the bulk of the image archive and what I have scanned and uploaded to Instagram.”
“Subsequently, I have found more images and material. There is currently around 20,000 images in the archive, along with many letters and documents, plus equipment used by members in the past. There is still quite a bit more to collect and discover. 60+ years of history of members who were prolific photographers and extremely keen outdoors people. As well as collect these items in one space, I really wanted to share them. Most of the photos had never been seen by a wider audience outside the RSF. I started the RSF Instagram feed in order to do this, and it took off immediately. It’s had such an amazing and positive response from everybody. And that’s really how the idea for the book came about.”
Yes, you read that right, there’s a full-colour book of the very best funded by a Kickstarter campaign about to be released on 12th June 2019, called The Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archives and you can pre-order it here and here. “In their own quiet, very British way, these men and women were pioneers, pedalling and carrying their bikes and pitching their tents where angels feared to tread. Mountain bikes, gravel bikes, bikepacking – they all followed in the tyre tracks of the RSF. This book celebrates their style and spirit,” the book’s website heart-warmingly sums up its contents.
And the forever-captured moments are something to behold. The RSF archive is a true feast for the eyes even though you might not count yourself among cyclists aficionados. Not only are the pictures masterfully composed and taken and their “vintage” colour grading is to die for, but they immerse you in a different, not-so-long-gone world with a sweet air of nostalgia.
Slightly charred tea kettles dangling from loads of proto-bikepacking bags (or just bags) tied to various parts of the frame or piled up on the rear rack. Speaking of tea, the pictures show us that minutes spent resting while brewing a fresh cup or enjoying some quality pipe time were crucial bonding rituals during trips across all generations of members. The smell of tobacco, cookies, tyre repair kit glue, and field-cooked fish fingers on a portable gas stove paired with knee-high socks, lots and lots of knitwear, deerstalkers, bobble hats or stylish shorts (“to end all shorts”) – it doesn’t get more British than this.
Some club members also have a few major feats under their belts – like the time two Rough-Stuff Fellowship members were the first to cycle to Everest Basecamp, completely unsupported, in October 1984. They spent two days acclimatising in Lhobu-tse and it took 14 days to reach the goal and 9 days to return. As you can see in the picture below, bucket hats and windbreakers truly were the life and essence of the 80s.
Another time, another expedition made history in September 1958 by a fully self-supported crossing by bicycle of Iceland’s interior that had never been done before. All four Rough-Stuff members rode it fixed and their gear list included such gems as two Primus stoves with over a gallon of paraffin or a 15-year-old one-man rubber dinghy.
It was extremely hard to pick images to be featured in the article because the whole collection is a proper treasure trove – head over to RSF’s Instagram and we guarantee you’ll get lost there for hours and still be left craving for more. We also strongly recommend pre-ordering The Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archives book as the crown jewel of your cycling library.
All images are ©the photographer/Rough-Stuff Fellowship and are used by permission.