A bit of rough stuff by Tony Greenbank of the Cumbria Magazine.

Roughstuffers really are the stuff of legend as I discovered recently. To become a member of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, the cycling club that was formed fifty years ago long before mountain bikes from California’s Marin County came into vogue, you have to be hard as tyre-puncturing nails.

Formed by cyclists who wanted to get away from roads and instead cycle on tracks and byways, the RSF has held many meets in the Lake District since the days of bikes with steel frames, wrap-around lugs, no suspension, no V-brakes and gearing to make your hair curl.

Roughstuffers pass-stormed over Sty Head and Walna Scar and Stake and Garburn on bog-standard typres - often carrying the painful angular steel frames, equipped with no more than a Sturmey Archer hub gear or even no gears at all, just a solitary sprocket and an unyielding saddle.

The ‘Rough Stuff’ name would occasionally crop up through the years that followed wherever enthusiasts of the Great Outdoors shared a crack.

There was the Roughstuffer who was apparently struck by a flash of lighting while on his circa 1946 sit-up-and-beg Royal Enfield (Made like a Gun) on Loadpot Hill at the end of High Street.

Although the heavy steel frame of his bike vibrated like a tuning fork and his hair stood on end, he didn’t seem to worry. He thought he was having his photograph taken.

In Langdale, so another tale goes, a Roughstuffer fell over while pedalling across the upper reaches of Langdale Beck in Mickleden and unable to rise from the river bed as the flood water poured over his head. Undeterred, he jammed one end of the handelbars in his mouth and breathed in air from the other end that was sticking out of the water snorkel-style... Until his companions rescued him after several minutes.

I have been later informed this is a fanciful tale. And that such a survival feat would be by the laws of physics impossible. But you get the idea. And I did see a feat that at the time seemed just about as implausible on Scafell Crag.

We had climbed Pinnacle Face Direct from Lord’s Rake to Hopkinson’s Cairn. Next Stop: Great Eastern on the East Buttress. Between the two is Broad Stand, the Lakeland ‘bad step’ rated by Alfred Wainwright as top of the league for seriousness and an incredible accident blackspot.

At the top of this rock corner, about to lower ourselves down on to the ledge a few feet below, so sloping that if you were to drop onto it you would be decanted into space for hundreds of feet to the rocks and scree below, two men were making their way upwards. Over their shoulders they carried ancient bicycles with battered frames and covered in mud. I think we evinced surprise. “Aye,” said one, “we’re buggers for punishment.”

As we waited for them to climb up and past us, they mentioned the Rough Stuff Fellowship, only amazingly they weren’t  members. But what they said sounded about right. “Maybe they’ll let us join now” said the one with the old Hercules with sit-up-and-beg handlebars.

Nothing changes, they say, and the RSF goes from strength to strength, as uncompromising as ever. Members are still in evidence who use those old steel frame bikes with Carradice saddlebags, still produced in an old mill in Nelson and a truce emblem of the Roughstuffer. I know this becaused I arranged to the RSF South Lakes Group on day’s spin in the area east of Coniston at a cafe in a little garden centre near Holker Hall.

So intent was the group on the day ahead, and on steering successfully from one objective to the next, that I lost track of time and the RSF as well. They set out wheeling on a showery morning along the Mosses road from Holker to Haverthwaite, then turned left along the Cumbrian Cycleway to eventually cross the wonderful, airy bridge that spans sands and water across the River Leven at Greenodd. Then on to Spark Bridge.

Near Nibthwaite on the Cinderella shores of Coniston Water in a torrential deluge, a peleton of riders - as it would be called in the Tour de France - sped past my parked car, their mudguards protecting their backs from the black streaks that cyclists acquire riding in the rain with unguarded wheels. Thinking those valiant souls were the RSF, I gave chase. Only ten minutes later did I realise those wallet-sized purses stashed beneath the saddles were not the Carradice classics that many RSF aspire to and that I was actually trailing the hotshots of Clayton Velo, out for a sprint from Morecambe on their winter bikes.

Sadly, by then I had completely missed the Roughstuffers. They had meanwhile ‘stormed’ up a lane from the Nibthwaite phone box then crossed Bethecar Moor by a green road, sadly trammelled by aggressive four-wheel drive vehicles that give way to no man and motor bike trials riders (ditto). Finally, catching up in Coniston, they told me the views of Coniston Old Man across the lake were that day among the best imaginable, and probably no different from when the monks from Furness Abbey used this route to travel to outlying farms all those centuries ago.

“We are happy medium between out-and-out mountain bikers and road racers,” said Steve Griffth, 42, a laid-back, youthful Roughstuffer with a dynamic job. He is an operations manager for the Royal Mail in London (the famous Night Mail on express trains was his responsibility - including its closure). “Modern road-racing bikes are so sensitive you feel you need a snooker table surface to ride them on, and they seem to go in straight lines. The knobbly tyres of mountain bikes are a drag on the road - like hard work!

“So the popular choice of bike is called a hybrid, midway between the two extremes. We can do a lot of what mountain bikes do, if not all. And we take great pleasure in travelling at a more relaxed pace. How do you admire a Bog Orchid you have just squashed with your tyres?”

Rocky and mountainous sections are a popular choice of the RSF. Pass-storming Black Sail and Scarth Gap to reach Black Sail Youth Hostel might have been meat and drink to earlier riders, and still appeals to some today, but most Roughstuffers, he reckons, prefer lower level tracks, on the outskirts of the Lakes which are grassy and quiet - free from the mist that collects on the Lakeland felltops.

Fords have a magnetic attraction, and many an RSF photo competition has been won with a picture of Tilberthwaite or Winster or Carrock Splash fords - some times with the rider losing their balance. It is even great fun, so one rider explained with a grin, standing on the footbridge and having a good laugh at those risking their necks. But occasionally it involves everyone standing in the ivy current near Hell’s Pools, say and passing the bikes across when the depth is above twelve inches (bad for bearings). No one gets left out, the group goes at the pace of the slowest, and the Lantern Rouge - the last man as in the Tour de France - is encouraged to go in the middle of the peleton, which  makes riding much easier in the slipstream of those ahead. Only one thing: riders who are fit yet who shirk their go at the front to make the pace have a name... Wheelsuckers.

Simeon Orme, a six-foot Roughstuffer who is a greenkeeper at Morecambe golf course and who daily enjoys the ever-changing  views across the bay to the Lakes beyond, says RSF riders still like the old ways - like wearing a cycling cape and souwester, though bicycle clips are seen less often these days.

But he agrees that there is one thing that Roughstuffers are, and that is ingenious. If a brake cable snaps then a bootlace between brake and handlebars suffices. A broken carrier? Then a bit of broken branch can be a useful splint. And a buckled wheel? It can be levered straight between the bars of cattle grid or between a gatepost and gate. Lost for puncture patches? No worries. Postage stamps will do.

One Roughstuffer on an icy road near Torver found his lights dimming because his dynamo was losing tension on the slippery rubber of his front wheel. Undaunted, he found an ideal way to tension the dynamo against  the type - by removing his braces and using the elastic, How his pants stayed up was not mentioned.

As Steve Griffth says, “We have good companionship, good humour and good tracks - and good cafes” (though truce Roughstuffers would still rather  sit on a log and  ‘drum up’ a brew with an open fire and billy can than be seen dead in a cafe).

This article was first published in the April 2005 issue of the Cumbria Magazine

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