Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive (2019)

A bewitching photographic record of a singular group of cyclists in decades past

Isola Press £28 208pp 978-0-99-54886-5-6 21cm x 27cm

Judged by this volume, the Rough Stuff Fellowship is a club for those who enjoy pushing bicycles up improbable slopes. Ploughed fields, mountainside screes and cliff faces are among the inclines on which they are pictured toiling.

That such a singular pursuit should result so beautiful a book is some surprise.

A handful of cyclists have favoured tracks, byways and footpaths since the bicycle’s arrival. Kuklos mentions ‘rough stuff’ frequently, and Wayfarer’s snowy Berwyn ride of 1919 was the stuff of legend from the moment his account was published.

The RSF came into being in 1955 as a club for off-road cycle tourists. Today its membership numbers just short of 1,000, but in cycle-touring circles they have always inspired a modicum of awe, if not incredulity, for their willingness to traverse improbable landscapes. Its claim to be ‘the oldest off-road cycling club in the world’ is sound, although how much ‘rough stuff’ actually has in common with mountain biking is open to question.

The book, which save for an introduction is entirely photographic, is a delight. Production (Kickstarter funded) is sumptuous, the pictures are of a striking quality, and the landscapes depicted are mouthwatering. It is a glimpse into a departed world of corduroy shorts, frame-fitting Primus and the conviction that any terrain is best enjoyed by bicycle.

That such a book is possible is the real revelation, because, as well as sharing an unusual pursuit, the RSFers have enthusiastically, and very capably, documented their adventures. Its journal has been an RSF cornerstone from the outset.

This volunteer-produced magazine, currently bi-monthly, has stuck to a consistent formula – members share their stories in words and photographs (with GPX files also available from its website these days). They were fortunate to have Bert Williams as editor for the first seven years, who clearly set high standards. And long-standing annual awards for writing, photography and sketching have pushed members to up their standards. 

Even given that, the quality of this selection is outstanding. The pictures capture a joyous, companionable enthusiasm for traversing the outdoors and overcoming whatever obstacles topography provides. Giving the pictures space to breath – most are from 35mm colour slides – shows off their quality. Albert Winstanley’s medium-format black and white’s are the icing on the cake.

Given that the RSF thrives yet, this might not be the last glimpse into its archives – although appeals for copy in contemporary RSF journals hint that chronicling rides has slipped among members’ priorities. I hope this isn’t the case. That the joy beaming from these pictures can be multiplied through their being shared, should be a spur to all cyclists to record their pleasures.

I confess, incidentally to a fondness for the RSF because my late brother Adam was a keen member in the mid-1980s and wrote this for the RSF journal.

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