The Rough Stuff Fellowship | Off-road Cycling Pioneers

Before Gore-Tex, Lycra and carbon fibre frames, there were rickety bicycles, flasks of tea, and a group of off-road adventurers. Welcome to the rough stuff, where two wheels can take you anywhere.

11th March 2024 | Words by Jazz Noble | Pictures courtesy of Rough Stuff Fellowship


“I am a rough stuff touring bike
My owner’s pride and joy
I’ve mudguards and a saddlebag
I’m clearly not a toy.
I wouldn’t say I’m shiny
But I am my owner’s pride
And every day, come rain or shine,
I’m guaranteed a ride.”
- Mary Hodges, Rough Stuff Fellowship member


Like all great ideas, the Rough Stuff Fellowship was born in a pub. Specifically, in the Black Swan Pub in Leominster, Herefordshire, in the spring of 1955. After placing an advert in The Bicycle magazine, Liverpudlian Bill Paul and around 40 other cyclists convened to create what is thought to be Britain’s first ever off-road cycling club, the Rough Stuff Fellowship – or RSF for short.

Paul’s advert read: ‘I believe there is still a small select circle who love the rough and high ways among the mountains of Wales, the Lakes and Scotland...This prompts me to suggest the formation of a fellowship of rough-stuff enthusiasts.’

A Rough Stuff Fellowship member with their bicycle on a cycling trip in the countryside on a muddy country path.

Formed for people ‘who, in pursuit of their pastime, traverse the rougher and less beaten ways’, the RSF champions the gnarlier cycling routes. Think: rocky mountain passes and meandering valleys, snow-capped ascents and gorse-laden plateaus, muddy bridleways nestled between never-ending boglands, and much, much more.

Rough stuffers have never shied away from a good old-fashioned hike-a-bike either. In fact, they encourage it. It’s less about getting somewhere faster and with ease, and more about journeying with your friends to the wilds of the countryside. And if that means you need to get off and push; you get off and push.

A pair of Rough Stuff Fellowship members on a cycling trip in the countryside carrying their bikes across rocky cliff edges.

A Rough Stuff Fellowship member on a cycling trip in the countryside carrying their bike over their shoulder up a steep and rocky ascent.

As you can see, shouldering bikes and carrying them across streams and nail-bitingly narrow paths is also encouraged. ‘I never go on a walk without taking my bicycle’, was the motto of founding member Bob Harrison.

A Rough Stuff Fellowship image of a cycling trip in the snowy mountains on a very steep cliff edge and narrow path.

The definition of rough stuff is that it ‘begins where tarmac ends’. A far cry from city roads, fastest known times and firmly trodden country paths; more often than not, there was no path to be found. Member Steve Griffith wrote: ‘to the dedicated rough-stuffer there is no such thing as a dead end’.

A 1960 journal reads: ‘Climbing steeply…and edging along a narrow lodge with almost perpendicular drops into the valley below, it was hard plugging and very dangerous, small trees and lots of undergrowth giving a false sense of security.’

A Rough Stuff Fellowship member with their bicycle on a cycling trip in the mountains with snow-capped peaks, rocky paths and sunshine.

‘The news was that it was three miles to the top and over terrain impossible to take cycles’, the journal continues. ‘Well, we were in a spot and no mistake. The crossing must be abandoned! The immediate problem was how to get down the valley road. Going back the same way was too dangerous… so we must continue by forging a way through the bilberry bushes and hoping to find some way of crossing the wide river at the bottom.’

‘Hope rekindled, we moved forward as best we could. Then that hope was dashed to the ground as we came upon a huge wide waterfall thundering down the mountainside. It was now misty and visibility poor. We were wet through. “Shall we try and cross it?” George asked. I had to agree.’

A pair of Rough Stuff Fellowship members on a cycling trip in the countryside taking their bikes across a river on a small floating platform.

Just one tale amongst years and years of meticulous journaling, publishing, photographing and archiving; it’s almost hard to believe at times. Ranging from incredible landscape shots and images of bike wheels bent completely out of shape to written accounts of conveniently ‘foraged’ turnips swiftly tucked away in saddle bags; you could spend week after week lost in these archives.

A Rough Stuff Fellowship image of a bent bicycle wheel on a cycling trip in the countryside.

Beyond the UK, RSF members Phill Hargreaves and David Clarke even cycled from Derby, England, to Derby, Australia, completing the first known trip to Everest’s south base camp by bike along the way. Further records unearthed an impressive traverse of Iceland's Sprengisandur in 1984, though long-haul adventures have never been the fellowship’s focus.

A Rough Stuff Fellowship member on their bicycle cycling down a rocky bath on a cycling trip in nature.

Local, everyday riding, on the other hand, is key. It's the weekend adventures that the RSF champions. The ones where you rally a group of pals, pick a point on a map, and cycle there regardless of weather or terrain. With a flask of tea in your pannier, a trusty two-wheeled workhorse and a waterproof jacket to see you through – what more do you really need?

A group of Rough Stuff Fellowship members with their bicycles on a cycling trip in the countryside with fields, forests and mountains.

Often found riding steel framed, old-style bicycles, dressed in plastic ponchos and knee-high cotton socks; the gear-crazed cyclists of the current age are not to be found here. No vision of a MAMIL in sight (see google for further info).

A group of Rough Stuff Fellowship members with their bicycles on a cycling trip in the countryside with plastic ponchos on and a lake in the background.

These were, after all, the pre-Gore Tex years, well before the likes of lightweight, carbon fibre frames, skin-hugging Lycra shorts, and tech-heavy mountain bikes. It was the time of ordinary gear for extraordinary adventures.

A Rough Stuff Fellowship member rests with their bicycle on a cycling trip in the countryside dressed in a plastic waterproof poncho.

Beginning with 40 members, within just one year membership had reached 165, steadily increasing over time to roughly 1,000 members. And whilst the fellowship began as a local endeavour, regional groups have since formed in Lancashire, the North York Moors, the Northern Peak and South Pennine area, North Sussex, the South Lakes, and the Yorkshire Dales (who are otherwise known as the Yorkshire Mucky Lane Riders). Though less active, you’ll also find groups in the Cotswolds, Kent, the Welsh Borders, the Home Counties, and Nottinghamshire.

John Finley Scott, the Californian credited with the invention of the mountain bike, was also a member of the RSF. Though living far from the group’s homelands, the RSF’s influence, it would seem, could not be contained. With routes ridden across Europe, Africa, Asia, North and South America, and beyond, the rough stuff lifestyle knows no bounds.

A group of Rough Stuff Fellowship members with their bicycles on a cycling trip in the countryside with fields, forests, bogs and mountains.

United by a love of open hills, life on two wheels, and the cycle routes less travelled; you only have to flick through the archives to see the appeal. And what an incredible archive it is. Including photographs, journals and articles dating from its conception up to now, the RSF archives are a wonderful insight into adventures gone by.

More than this, they serve as hopeful inspiration for adventures to come. If you’ve ever felt held back by not having the ‘right’ bike, or the ‘correct’ gear, the RSF archives encourage you to think twice about the possibilities of both your kit, and crucially; the possibilities of yourself.

A group of Rough Stuff Fellowship members with their bicycles on a cycling trip in the countryside with fields, forests, bogs and mountains.

A couple of Rough Stuff Fellowship members taking a break in the mountains on a cycling trip with their bikes on a sunny day.

Secretary of RSF Henk Francino writes: ‘The type of cycle may have changed – we have got those who prefer the good old tourer or a hybrid, tandem or folder and those who prefer the mountain bike, but in the end, the bike is just the means to cycle on and enjoy.’

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A Rough Stuff Fellowship image of a muddy bike, muddy socks and muddy shoes on a cycling trip.

A Rough Stuff Fellowship member carries their bike over a fence on a cycling trip in the countryside.

Jazz Noble is a London and Northern Ireland-based writer with a passion for hiking, cycling and the outdoor world.

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