You might be forgiven for thinking that modern-day mountain biking is a relatively new sport or pastime. However, if you consider that the bicycle was invented in 1817 when there were very few paved roads, then you may realize that off-road cycling has been around since the dawn of cycling. Although it didn’t have a name or classification at this time.
While the American army was the first to be documented for modifying their bicycles to go off-road back in 1886, and the French were the first to hold an official off-road race in 1902 (which became so popular that it spawned the sport of cyclocross), it is the British who can claim to have started the very first off-road cycling club.
The Rough Stuff Fellowship
The Rough Stuff Fellowship was the first-ever off-road cycling club. It was formed back in 1955 by keen cyclist Bill Paul who placed an advert in The Bicycle magazine to appeal to like-minded cyclists: “I believe there is still a small select circle who love the rough and high ways amongst the mountains of Wales, the Lakes and Scotland,” he wrote, before inviting people to join him.
The first meeting was held a few months later at ‘The Black Swan’, a pub in Leominster, Herefordshire, which is a small English town near the Welsh border. There were about 40 members in attendance and Charlie Chadwick of Bolton took the chair after receiving majority support, and the Fellowship was born.
But What Is The ‘Rough Stuff Fellowship’ All About?
For most riders, the simple definition is that the rough stuff ‘begins where the tarmac ends’. The term covers everything from easy trail rides to gravel tracks, narrow footpaths, off-road scrambles and sometimes having to walk or even carry your bike.
In addition, the rough stuff is very unlike mountain biking or cyclocross where the goal is to ride fast and to tackle the most technical terrain. Rough-Stuffers are not afraid to get off and push their bikes. They’re not out to race or go faster, further or harder. The Rough Stuff Fellowship is more about enjoying nature with an emphasis on the love of the countryside while cycling, instead of competing.
The inspiration for the club came from articles written by Walter MacGregor Robinson, the so-called ‘Wayfarer’. He was a fearless rider and a pioneer of rough stuff cycling. Articles such as ‘Over the top. Crossing the Berwyn Mountains in March’ ( published in Cycling magazine, 8th May 1919), describes the conquest (in wintry conditions) of one of the most challenging and beautiful passes in mid-north Wales. This, together with other articles, made him an inspiration to many in the cycling world.
Today, the Rough Stuff Fellowship is still a very active club and has members scattered around the world, but most are still within the UK. They actively promote responsible access to the countryside, and other membership benefits include the following:
- Unlimited GPS co-ordinates for routes that you can download from the RSF site;
- Join club rides and be automatically updated on any changes;
- Receive a copy of the Bi-monthly RSF journal;
- Automatic access to the members' forum where you can arrange group rides;
- Add your own personal ride to the 'Rides' calendar for others to enjoy;
- Add links to your favourite pub, places to stay, or almost anything else you think is useful for other members.
Who Is Geoff Apps?
While the Rough Stuff Fellowship can claim to be the first off-road cycling club, how does Geoff Apps fit into the picture?
Over in the USA, D. Gwynn, a member of the Chemeketan Club in Ohio, built a rough terrain trail bicycle in 1966 and called it the ‘mountain bicycle’ which may be the first time this term was used. Meanwhile, back in England in 1968, Geoff Apps, a motorbike trials rider, began experimenting with off-road bicycle designs.
Geoff Apps grew up in the Chiltern Hills, an area of natural beauty less than forty miles northwest of London, England, and developed a love for being at one with nature whilst cycling in the woods. Whilst a keen motorbike rider, he was unhappy with the noise and the disturbance it caused and so he switched to cycling.
To develop an off-road bicycle Geoff started to combine different motorbike and bicycle components and even sourced snow tyres from Finland. By 1979, he had developed his first prototype, a lightweight bicycle that could be used offroad, especially in the muddy, local conditions of SW England. Geoff went on to form Cleland Cycles, who manufactured this prototype from 1982 to 1984.
The tyres that Geoff had sourced from Finland were in fact 29” tires which were bigger than the standard 26” tires that were more commonly used in cycling. These larger diameter tires gave the rider a more comfortable ride even on rough terrain. Geoff Apps read about the mountain bike movement happening in California and contacted Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly at the MountainBikes Company in Fairfax. He told them about his larger diameter tires and sent some over. The American guys loved these new tires, but due to supply constraints they never took off and mountain biking stuck to the smaller 26” wheels.
Coincidentally, 1984 saw the arrival of American-style mountain bikes onto the British market and Geoff Apps became one of the most energetic promoters of this fledgling sport. A few years earlier he became the local Area Secretary for the Rough-Stuff Fellowship before going on to form his own Cross-Country Cycling Club.
Nowadays, Geoff Apps lives in Scotland where he continues to develop and ride bicycles.
Cycling In The UK in the 50s-60s
In the 1950s and 60s, the UK had a vibrant cycling culture although mainly within the working classes. People rode bikes to work as most could not afford a car. In addition, bicycle racing, and in particular time-trialling was very much a working-class sport. Many riders had only one bike that they raced on, trained on, and this was also their transport to and from work.
Both the Rough Stuff Fellowship and Geoff Apps made huge strides in making people look at cycling as more than just a means to get to and from work.
Meet the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, the World's Oldest Off-Road Cycling Club