Fish Out of Water: The Rough-Stuff Fellowship by Ben Haworth of Singletrack Magazine.

In the run-up to our meeting with the Rough Stuffers, I must confess to not being overly enthused about the prospect of riding with the Rough-Stuff Fellowship. I had read about them in old mountain bike magazines and their own ‘Rough Stuff Journals’ and the type of riding they appeared to do did not look particularly adrenaline inducing and overall tone seemed a bit officious and formal. It didn’t help that the days immediately before our meeting had been filled with constant grey drizzle and gusting winds.

Sim (photographer for the day) and I met up at the Singletrack Office under leaden skies. I could tell he was overly optimistic about getting any decent pictures, but we loaded up the car with bikes anyway and set off to our rendezvous point at Digley Reservoir above Holmfirth.

After doing at least superfluous circuit of Huddersfield ring road we were finally passing through Holmfirth. Sim mentioned that this was the place they used to film ‘Last Of Summer Wine’. After brief pause we both shot knowing look at each other and smiled. “How appropriate” I said.

As we pulled out of Holmfirth on the fantastically steep and twisty A6024 the clouds suddenly cleared to reveal acres of lovely blue sky and big panoramic views all around. Seems like it was going to be nice day after all.

Pulling into the car park about ten minutes late I was half expecting there to be no-one there, but thankfully the Rough Stuffers seemed to be much more like mountain bikers than roadies  when it came to punctuality and pre-ride faffing. We parked up, threw some bikes together and introduced ourselves.

I was riding a full suspension Santa Cruz with some 2007 bits bolted to it and Sim was on a shiny new lightweight Commencal but I think myself and Sim were far more interested in their bikes than they were in ours. I got the impression that Rough Stuffers aren’t easily seduced by shiny new things, they just want to know if it’s going to work without any hassle... for years.

Their bikes were a testament to this. Most of the group were on mid-range hardtails from a few years ago - no nonsense, good value machines. A couple of other guys were on bikes of a much quirkier  disposition.

Roger (Brian Parkinson) was riding a 20 year old Saracen mountain bike, fully rigid and with elevated chainstays. He explained to me that he did buy mountain bike a couple years ago ‘with suspension and disc brakes’ but it kept going wrong so he left it to gather dust in his shed and got back on his old trusty Saracen.

Ken was riding a ‘Hill Special’ touring bike - the sort of bike that is synonymous with the Rough-Stuff Fellowship. Almost 30 years old, made from lots of skinny steel tubes, drop bars, downtube shifters, full panniers, cottered cranks, U-brakes, dynamo... the lot. (At the end of the ride Ken, who speaks through a voice box, admits that he doesn’t always ride the bike nowadays and only brings it out for show now and then - he  has a regular mountain bike as his main ride now)

Time to ride

After a quick group photo it was time to hit the trails. Immediately as led out up the first climb begins my gears begin to jump about  everywhere and I was quickly left for dead. I traced  the problem down to dislodged cable ferrule and sorted it but then had to bust a gut to catch up. Tortoise and the hare indeed.

I caught up with the group, only to be unceremoniously dropped off back again as they big-ringed it down a scary (to me) fast road descent; I had to freewheel due to my ‘rad’  chainset’s lack of big ring. My bike’s fat types didn’t exactly help either. However, this enforced coasting session permitted me to sit up and look around. The skies were super clear and I could see for miles. I could see the weirdly abrupt border where the cities stopped and the countryside began.

Eventually I caught up with the group Roger guessed I might struggle to keep up without a big ring, through he did say that he like ‘my’ ideal of having a bash guard instead of big ring because he’s always bending chainrings - instead he has a shed full of them. I made a mental note that Roger is the person who is hardest on his equipment and decided to ride alongside him for a while.

We set off down some entertainingly whoopy overgrown doubletrack and although I got ahead (on my modern full susser) I could hear from the sound of his rattling panniers that Roger was not that far behind. I could tell he was giving it his all to keep up and it was only the occasional waterbar that he had to slow for that was holding him back. As we joined a minor road and regrouped, Roger and I exchanged mud-splattered smiles in silent recognition of how much fun it is to act like children.

Feeding the children

All children need regular feeding and so without any further ado the group stopped for our first cafe stop. The cafe stop is clearly an integral part of a Rough Stuff ride and there are several degrees of cafe stop as well. This one was only a ‘small one - a small one still seemingly allowing for several bacon and mushroom butties and gallons of tea. Splendid Stuff.

Upon leaving the cafe Sim and I quietly pondered the contents of  all the pannier bags draped over these bikes; there’s clearly no need for them to contain any food and drink. (We would never find out what they did actually contain). After a brief debate about which way to head out of the village (“I don’t know, I haven’t done this route for 12 year...”) we were off again.

As the group split and settled into smaller groups of  similarly paced riders I found myself riding alongside Peter. It turned out that he’s the General Secretary of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship and knows a great deal about the founding and history of the group. He seemed a bit suspicious of our reasons for doing a feature on the RSF. He will have seen the features in other magazines from a few years back that were slightly less than respectful and was wary of it happen again.

I’ll be honest and admit that the ‘gentle poking fun at’ approach was the first angle I thought of when this article was mentioned. After all it’s the easiest thing in the world  to raise some entertainment out of ridiculing people who are bit different.

And yet, as I climbed up the rubbly track alongside Peter listening with keen ears to the genuinely fascinating history of the RSF, ridicule was now the last thing on my mind. In the eyes of most folk these chaps should be using their retirement to play golf or go crown green bowling. Instead here they are riding bicycles off-road through rain and mud in the middle of nowhere and having laugh. What is there to ridicule exactly? How different is that to what we ‘mountain bikers’ do?

The RSF can come across as being a tad reactionary when it comes towards the newer ‘fad’ of mountain biking (‘....from America’) but its members have every right to be. They’ve been out there in the hills for years; they just haven’t seen any point in making a big song and dance about it. For the RSF the sudden fashionable uptake of mountain biking must have been like that dreadful moment when your favourite underground band makes it to the mainstream causing you to whine; “But I was into them before they got famous”.

But as the ‘fad’ of  mountain biking  enters its third decade, and a lot of  Rough Stuffers are riding mountain bikes (rather than the traditional touring bike), the lines are blurring and the divisions are thawing, There is a debate within the RSF about their identity - what is the difference between ‘rough stuff’ and ‘mountain biking’ nowadays? I guess it’s a case of personal preference. If you want to call yourself  a ‘mountain biker’ - go ahead. If you want to align yourself with the RSF - fine. Let’s make it more about teams and less about sides.

The reason for riding

As Peter and I crested the top of the climb we saw Roger doing what can only be called ‘sessioning’ a bombhole. I headed on over to join in the playtime. After we’d ridden all the easier drops into the bombhole we begin to dicuss the viability of some of the sketchier looking lines. Roger complained that he’d give them a go if he was able to drop his seatpost. I offered him my multi-tool but his seat collar required two spanners to undo.

“Oh well” I said and headed off down a drop with 2ft drop halfway down it. I manage not kill myself  and smugly  pedaled out of the bombhole only to hear the familiar sound of  Roger’s rattling panniers behind me followed by brief  silence (of airtime) and then the loud ‘thunk’ of  panniers touching down on their racks as Roger landed and rode out. Blimey. He then explained  that ridding a unicycle had improved his bike handling a lot. He’d bought his first unicycle two weeks before.

The ride continued along some beautiful woodland glade  singletrack  and then down to a reservoir on a very fast, very rocky descent - none of which previously I had any idea was there despite riding in this area for years.

A  large part of people’s reaction to the RSF is down to incongruousness. If you’re riding off road you should be under 40, riding a new expensive mountain bike and hucking your way down technical singletrack. You shouldn’t be over 60, riding a touring bike and - Shock! Horror! - not being actually that bother about how challenging trail is under your tyres.

The ride finished and we all wished each other fond farewells. Although we didn’t ride that many miles and what we did ride was fairly tame, due to all the experiences and interactions, the day’s ride was still one of  the most memorable rides I’ve done this year. I shall make a conscious effort to inject a little bit of Rough Stuffing into all my riding from now on.

Ken explained that the reason he rides is “not for what’s here” - pointing at the ground in front of his wheel, “but for what’s there” - motioning with his open hand to surrounding expansive vista and riding companions. Hard to argue with that.

This article was first publish in Issue 32, December 2006 of Singletrack mountain bike magazine.

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