The Rough Stuff Fellowship Is a Celebration of Doing Hard Things, Together
In a small town in England in the early 1950s, a group of Brits gathered at a pub to form the world’s first off-road cycling club. They came from all classes—barons rubbed elbows with foundry workers—but were united by their love of the wild and a shared belief that a bike could get them anywhere they dreamed of. Seventy years on, Tom Vanderbilt heads to the UK to join a few current members in pursuit of the rough stuff.
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The query, politely probing, came in the October 27, 1954, issue of The Bicycle, a British weekly. “Who wants to join a ‘Rough-Stuff Fellowship?’ ” The letter writer, one W. H. Paul, had been prompted by an article, published a few weeks before, asking, “Are the rough ways losing their popularity?” Noting that he’d always “been a searcher of the remote, wild and more desolate country,” Paul decried the prevalence of the “modern lightweight” bicycle, “with its Continental this and super that,” which impels the rider “to keep on the billiard-table surfaces of the modern tarmac.” He suspected there might be a “small, select circle who love the rough and high ways.”
He was not wrong. His letter provoked other letters. “The sense of adventure and interest to be found in traversing country without signposts and metal highway is infinite,” wrote one respondent. Penned another: “I feel that this aspect of cycling has been much neglected, because of the fact that it is too slow for the majority of modern club-folk.”
Such was the collective response that a year later, over afternoon tea at the Black Swan, a hotel in the Herefordshire town of Leominster, a ragtag group of a few dozen cyclists gathered for the inaugural meeting of the Rough Stuff Fellowship. In a sign that this might not be your ordinary cycling club, the founding members of the RSF elected as their first president Sir Hugh Rhys Rankin, third baronet, who, as the Daily Telegraph noted upon his death in 1988, was “an extraordinary character whose eccentricity was remarkable even by the rarefied standards of the baronetage.” A member of the First Royal Dragoon Guards calvary and a broadsword champion, Rankin worked as a sheep shearer in Australia, flirted with Islam (before eventually settling on Buddhism), ran for office as a professed “bloody red militant,” golfed the most courses of any amateur in England, and of course was a dedicated off-road cyclist.
Decades before free-spirited bike geeks in Marin County and Colorado started rejiggering old Schwinns to bomb down hills, and nearly three-quarters of a century before the gravel bike became a commodified thing, the Rough Stuff Fellowship was established on a quietly radical proposition: that a bike’s utility did not end where the paved—or even unpaved—road did. And so men and women, often couples, cheekily took their bikes where their bikes weren’t meant to go: on chunky bridle paths, over forbidding fences, and through treacherous mountain passes (a pursuit members called “pass storming”). Sometimes they looked like they were cheating death; sometimes they looked like they were out for a Sunday picnic—often they probably did both. They did this not on the specialized all-terrain machines of today, but on the skinny-tired, fendered, internal-gear-hubbed, drop-barred, steel bikes they might also have ridden to work, and dressed not in Gore-Tex but in woolly sweaters, high socks, and boots, with nary a helmet to be seen. As often as not, they were pushing their bikes through unrideable bits (“I never take a walk without my bike,” quipped one member, in what would become a club mantra) or shouldering them as they forded rivers or, roped, clambered down cliffsides. They typed up their expeditions in a hand-illustrated newsletter, whose editor claimed that he would accept “anything I can read, bearing on our pastime.”
Men and women cheekily took their bikes where their bikes weren’t meant to go. Sometimes they looked like they were cheating death; sometimes they looked like they were out for a Sunday picnic—often they probably did both.
The idea of competition was anathema, with one exception: a yearly photo contest. Among the RSF were any number of keen lensmen, who documented the group with striking prodigiousness. When these pictures began quietly to appear, in 2018, on the Instagram account @rsfarchive, it felt as though we were witnessing the opening up of some Wes Anderson wormhole. Cyclists like myself, thinking we were living—now—through the historical emergence of a new kind of riding, were startled by these hardy Kodachrome emissaries from the past, outfitted in their plus fours and tweeds, floating bike-laden dinghies over Icelandic crossings, grinding down snow-covered tracks marked Unsuitable for motors, puffing contemplatively on pipes in the Welsh moorlands. A book, The Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive, followed in 2019, and its success prompted another, Further Adventures in Rough Stuff, late last year.
I was bewitched by these images. Wanting to know what the “world’s oldest off-road cycling club” looked like today—and desiring, as a kind of homage, to tackle one of its most iconic challenges—I headed to England.