This series of interviews continues at pace, and not by design either. I just keep coming across interesting people, fortunately. This interview certainly continues the ‘Interesting’ thread. After previous interview mentions of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship (RSF), which is the oldest off-road cycling club in the world, I thought I would find out a bit more about the organisation, and duly joined it. My first welcoming contact was from the Membership Secretary, Mick Ely, and as it turns out, he’s very interesting, so here’s his story and views on some stuff.

Q: Who is Mick Ely?

A: Born in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, UK, which is a woollen mill town between Leeds and Bradford.  Spawned in 1946 in that massive post-war Love-Fest called ‘The Baby Boom’, and I saw the light of day in 1947.

I now live on the other side of Saddleworth Moor, in Lancashire in a small cotton town on the edge of the Pennines.  But I got there via time spent in London in the ’60s and ’70s. I retired from the Civil Service in 2005, forty years boy and man, having first worked as a cartograpgher (yes, have map, never get lost) then ended my career managing urban regeneration programmes for government agencies.

I have a wife and three children, all in their forties (wife’s not though) and six grandkids aged between seven and sixteen. My passions include Cycling, Bicycles, Cycling books, Photograpghy, Calligraphy, Playing the recorder, and growing cacti and geraniums.  This includes generally trying to dodge anything else that doesn’t involve that little lot.

Q: What is your current bike?

A: Ouch! That’s a bit below the belt.  I have several… and several more! All of them get ridden, some more than others, and all do a different job.  That’s been a massive plus for me in these days of lockdown, as it’s provided me with a lot of variety for my regular exercising. On the days when riding isn’t possible, I can pop into the garage and talk to them all and we have a right good laugh. It helps to keep me sane!  My best bike is a 1953 Viking ‘Tour of Britain’ an Eroica bike.  The frame is one that Ian Steel rode to victory in the first Tour of Britain back in 1951. It’s been re-finished and is a stunner. 

My ‘jump on and go’ bike is a 1993 Raleigh ATB, and built as a single speeder with North Road bars. It feels like it is made out of gas pipe tubes, by-jingo-heavy as those bottom-of-the-range bikes were, but it’s a really comfy ride and it makes me smile a lot.  Then there are the others, the inbetweenies, which are all loved and all ridden. No suspension on any of them though as I’ve had hardtail bikes in the past, and suspension never suited my style of riding.  If it’s rough, you’ve to feel it!  You don’t sit on a bike and expect to be pampered.  Come into the garage Guy, I’ll show you them, if you’ve got some time to spare.

One of Mick’s regular rides, and one that carries his recorder

Q: When did you start cycling and what was your first bike?  

A: It was a sunny day in 1961, and they were all sunny days in 1961.  My first bike was a Falcon ‘San Remo’. 531 plain gauge, 5-speed, Williams cottered chain set, Lycet ‘Swallow’ saddle, Simplex rear derailleur, but the colour! An irridescent kingfisher blue with chromed full forks. It really hurt your eyes. I still remember the thrill of riding it home from Bradford while my Dad, who’d bought the bike, waited for the bus.  I beat him home: my first “race”.  I used to ride everywhere hell for leather. I was ‘training’, although what for, I’d no idea, but it felt good.  Then came Cycling and Mopeds (The Comic) and that’s really when it all kicked off proper.  Me and my Falcon, club runs with the South Bradford RC (now defunct) and schoolboy racing.

Q: What is your biggest achievement on two wheels?

A: That’s a hard one. I’ve had minor personal glories at various stages of my cycling life, but the biggest achievement has to be still wanting to get out after all these years and turn the pedals some more. To be able to pedal the stiffness out of sore knees and to feel the thrill of speed putting a smile on your face.  Every ride a new adventure.

Balancing the need for speed and sore knees afterwards

Q: Favourite band, record and why are they your favourite?

A: Has to be the Beatles.  I sort of grew up with them in the ’60s. Love Me Do while I was still at school and Strawberry Fields Forever on the jukebox in a cafe on Earls Court Road, London, with my wife to be in 1967.  Strawberry Fields…“Living is easy with eyes closed…”timeless lyrics.  I saw The Beatles in 1964 at the Bradford Alhambra, although I couldn’t hear a word for all the girls screaming.  I remember Rolf Harris was on the bill singing Sun Arise tapping two little sticks. I saw Paul McCartney a few years ago at the Manchester Arena.  I think he was 72 and he did two hours-worth of great entertainment. Talk about fitness and stamina in old age! What a Pro’.  I’ve always regretted not being able to sing.  I think that’s why I like playing the recorder, as I can get a tune out of it. What squeezes past my vocal cords isn’t a nice sound. Let me play for you When I’m Sixty-four…if you’re not pressed for time.

Q: If you could have one bike that you previously owned/rode back again, which would it be?  

A: Just before I left home to go work in London I had a better racing bike than the Falcon. It was 531 double-butted, pencil-thin seat stays with Campagnolo bits on it. It was hand-built in Stafford by EA Boult and I time-trialled on it.  It was old when I got it.  How I wish I still had it as it would be nicher than niche now. I have a photograph somewhere of me sat on it and I’m wearing a cotton cap with the peak turned up. My dad had a clear out after I left home and the Falcon and the Boult were never to be seen again. I thought at the time that was a bit of a so-and-so’s trick, and I still think that. Time heals? Not when it involves my bikes it doesn’t.

Q: What are you good at?  

A: Not a lot really. Unless it’s hiding my light under a bushel. I’m good at mending punctured inner tubes. I can take a bike to bits and put it back together, and I’m fantastic in bed. I can sleep for England these days.

Q: What’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done on a bike?  

A: I once rode into a steel barrier across a road, and if you ask if I didn’t see it, you won’t be the first! The bike went under and I went over.  The helmet was compressed to a third of its thickness and I was taken to hospital for a brain scan. I hit it at a modest 10 mph.  If I’d have been on Strava, giving it full beans, I don’t think we’d be having much of an interview today, certainly not an interesting one.  Pretty stupid yes, but also pretty clever in a way. I wore a helmet that day and I’d scratched the Strava itch a long time before.

Q: How nutritious and cycling performance enhancing is a great British Fish & Chips meal in your experience? 

A: Oh yes, fish & chips. Yorkshire fish & chips, cooked in beef dripping and wrapped in newspaper. I can smell them now! The nation’s favourite take-away and has been since the 19th century. The perfect blend of protein, carbs’ and trace elements. Not that the starving poor would have given them that much thought as they wolfed them down. And as for fat, less than the Italians’ pizza.  In the 1930s Harry Ramsden’s at Guiseley, near Bradford, was the go-to destination (on my route into the Yorkshire Dales, incidentally) and Harry had his customers queueing round the block, so the story goes.

The last time I had fish & chips on a ride though was in the fishing port of Whitby, sat on the jetty, on one of the RSF’s annual Easter Meets. You have to be lucky to find a fish & chip shop on a ride as there aren’t many left in small villages these days; it’s in the towns where you’ll find them. If you are lucky enough to find one open when your tummy’s rumbling, stop! Cod and chips with salt and vinegar is the guaranteed anti-bonk recipe. Performance enhancing? I’ll say, you don’t get very far on a bike when you’re running on empty. So, when the man with the hammer comes a-knocking, forget the Mars bar fantasy, focus on the nation’s favourite, because just the thought of fish & chips will pull you through.

Cycling nutrition? Absolutely, in moderation though?

Q: If you could choose one companion to do a trip with, who would it be and why? 

A: Percy Stallard is the chap. A name straight out of the annals of cycle racing’s history book.  He is well known as a successful English racing cyclist of the 1930s and ’40s but not very well known at all for being a member of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship (RSF) in his later years. He was born in Wolverhampton in 1909 and achieved some fame representing Great Britain in the world cycling championships in an era when British cyclists never aspired to playing more than second fiddle to their continental counterparts.  He founded the British League of Racing Cyclists during the war years and fought many a battle with the cycling establishment before road racing was finally accepted on British roads.  In his later years he joined the RSF and toured Europe, storming the passes in the high Alps. Percy had a reputation of being an awkward sod, but he certainly knew how to get things done. He died in 2001 aged 92 years. A long life spent full of cycling and many stories to tell. Yes, I’d have loved to have spent a day out on the bikes with Percy.

Percy Stallard

Q: Where have you travelled in the world?  

A: I’m not very well travelled.  I’ve always taken the view that some far-flung exotic corner is only someone else’s back yard, and in some cases, not as sanitary as my own.  It’s saved me a lot of money, but I’ve done Northern Europe, and that’s about it really.  I spent a week cycling the battlefields of the Ypres Salient in Flanders with a few RSF chums a few years ago. That was a memorable holiday.  Belgium impressed me. It is a neat, tidy and well manicured place showing much national pride. I expect there are grotty parts, but I didn’t see any. I’d go again. Perhaps I’ll ride the cobbles next time, but you don’t have to travel far to find pleasure on a bike.

Q: Which country or countries would you like to ride in?  

A: I’m a bit of sucker for end-to-ends, diagonals, Coast to Coast rides etc.  Fill a little bottle with sea water from the west coast and tip it into the sea on the east coast.  A cheesy thing to do, I know, but that sort of thing appeals to me. The coast-to-coast that I’ve always fancied is crossing the USA, east to west. I know they run guided tours which is probably the sensible way to do it but, let’s face it, it ain’t gonna happen is it?  So, in my dreams I’m doing it solo, staying in cheap motels and I’m taking my 1995 Orange C-16R with a beat-up Carradice saddle bag hanging on the back.  I won’t be carrying much.  It’ll be Thelma and Louise on two wheels (but with a happier ending), and every hour a new adventure, new people to meet along the way, and riding into a sunset every day. Drinking beer on some good ol’ boy’s porch I met in bar.  By the time I get to Phoenix I’ve pedalled my way to peak fitness, then it’s up and over the southern tip of the Rockies and all downill to Los Angeles.  Flight home booked, got the T-shirt and smashed it!  Yes sir, that was my ride across America.

Q: Who in the world inspires you and why?  

A: That’s a difficult one. I cannot say I’m inspired by any one single person.  But what I do find inspirational are all those many thousands, probably millions, of unfortunate people who have suffered life-changing illnesses and injuries and have confronted them bravely and just got on with the recovery of their lives. Such courage beyond my imagination, humbling and yes, inspirational. And then there are those who fight bravely and don’t come through…

Q: What is the RSF?  It’s the Rough-Stuff Fellowship (don’t forget the hyphen).  A UK-based cycling club with international appeal for those who love exploring byways and tracks.  It was founded by 90 like-minded cyclists in 1955 and is the oldest off-road cycling club in the world. I’m honoured to be the latest in a long line of membership secretaries, and we have approaching 1,100 members. Membership plateaued at around 650 for many years, but over the last couple of years, interest in our heritage and a clamour for a more back-to-basics approach to off-road cycle touring has seen membership numbers rocket. With this new influx has come a significant reduction in the average age, which is to be welcomed. Our Website, Instagram photographic archive, and Facebook groups have all played a part in raising our profile amongst the cycling community as has much very valuable, and affectionate, media coverage.  Our printed Journal (the club magazine) is issued six times a year as part of the membership subscription, and helps to bind all members together.

Q: What is the greatest thing that anyone has done for you in the RSF community?  A: No one person in particular, but I’ve met some lovely people and made good friends with some of them. I’m really grateful for the opportunity the RSF has given me in exploring tracks I wouldn’t otherwise have visited, making new friendships and providing a sense of belonging to a club with much to offer in its heritage and its future. ‘Fellowship’, I suppose.  And if it’s done that for me, think about the number of other people the RSF has benefitted in that way!

Q: Has COVID increased interest and membership in the RSF?  

A: Possibly, it’s hard to tell. I suppose if COVID restrictions have meant more cyclists spending less time out and about on their bikes and more time scouring the Internet looking for bike-related stuff, they may well have bumped into us on the internet.  RSF group rides (we have groups dotted throughout the country) have been cancelled during the most severe lockdown periods, so it has been important to keep our on-line presence fresh and appealing.  I recently started a members-only Facebook group where members can chat to each other, share their solo experiences and look forward together to something more like normal.  Normal? My goodness, that’s been a long time coming.  What has sparked an increase in RSF awareness is the fortcoming publication of volume 2 of our Archive book and the media interest it has generated.  It seems to me, some might disagree, that our very recent spike in membership among the younger gravel biking and adventure biking communities comes from that hankering after nostalgia. It is as if they’ve just understood what hard men and women their parents and grandparents were. No carbon, little aluminium, but plenty in the adventure department and a true love for the touring bicycle.

Q: What are the challenges that the RSF face regarding their recruitment and continuity?

A: Balancing an aging membership versus a younger adventure biking community. Mixing e-bikes and non-e-bikes on group rides, and the same with full-suspension versus traditional tourers. The marriage of neo and retro, tradition versus modern.

Q: How would you describe the diversity of the RSF membership?

A: 16% or our global membership are female and we have 145 overseas members, which includes 90 members from USA. This is a big increase from 3 years ago when we only 13 overseas members and only 10 from the USA. Interestingly, there are twice as many RSF members in Kazakhstan as there are in the Irish Republic. 

The RSF is a club for every cyclist

Q: How do you make the RSF archive accessible to a global membership?

A: We are digitising all the old Journals and building a vibrant Membership on-line community.  The RSF is about having and sharing great cycling experiences. We need to consider how we increase inclusion by giving the global membership a stronger voice (If they want it), and with more engagement from the committee.

Q: What is your ultimate vision of success for the RSF?  

A: I think we’re almost there. We have a very strong brand. It would be good to see active groups of members in all areas of the UK and abroad, because at the moment, we are strong in some areas and weaker in others. It has started to happen, but needs to be sustained.  Our overseas membership has to feel a sense of belonging and not out on a limb, so we should perhaps encourage them to become missionaries and spread the RSF gospel. These things don’t happen overnight, but over the last couple of years we have made a promising start.

Q: What was the best single day you’ve ever had which is associated with cycling?  A: There have been so many that it’s difficult to pick the best. Let me give you two, from both ends of my cycling life……

The year is 1962. I’ve set off on my own, with just 1s 6d (7.5p) in my pocket from my home in Pudsey.  I’ve just climbed the 25% (1:4 gradient measurement back in the day) slopes of Park Rash out of Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales. I’m rolling along tops, a tailwind pushing me along and the mountain called Great Whernside over my right shoulder. It’s easy and it’s fast as I ride towards Middleham and start turning the corner, into the wind! I still remember the joy of that descent down Coverdale. I think that’s when the bug bit.

Fifty-seven years later, on 30th March 2019, a large group of cyclists from all over the country met at the West Arms at Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog in North Wales, before visiting the Wayfarer Memorial with friends at the top of Pen Bwlych pass, Llandrillo. They were celebrating the centenary of the epic crossing of the Welsh Berwyn mountains in the snow by cycling journalist WM Robinson (“Wayfarer”) on 30th March 1919. Some were riding vintage bicycles and others were on modern. It was very special to be a part of that memorable off-road celebration.

Q: What bike would you choose if you didn’t have to pay for it?  

A: I don’t do fantasy bikes. I have enough of my own to dream about, and besides, I could never do justice to the latest carbon confection with electronic shifting. I doubt also I could sleep for fear of it being stolen. I prefer my bikes to be theft-proof. However, a couple of years ago I was a hair’s breadth away from buying Bernard Heath’s Viking Severn Valley bike.  It was being sold by a bike shop in Glasgow and I was told that I could have it for £450. The frame was my size, but, on enquiring further, I learned that the seat post was seized as was the stem. Ugh! As ‘any old bike’ it was probably worth £150 tops. I passed it up as I wanted to ride it without chucking loads more money at it.  Who was Bernard Heath I hear you ask? Bernard, a fellow Yorkshireman, was one of a team of four RSF members who, in 1958, were the first to cross Iceland’s barren interior unassisted. I regret now not being more happy-go-lucky with my money.  I was amazed to see the bike at an RSF archive presentation and display in Manchester where I learned it had been bought by another member, so it’s in good hands, but sadly not mine. Yes, that’s the bike I’d choose now. Bernard Heath is still an RSF member, although he’s not in the best of health and now and lives in a care home in Scotland. I’m sure he’d be pleased to know his bike is being well looked after.

Q: what is the best bike component you have ever bought?  

A: Oh, my word!  I’ve bought so much. Probably more in the last 5 years on Ebay and the Internet than in the last 50 years put together.  Isn’t it so easy to buy stuff these days? I must admit to not supporting my LBS (local bike shop) as much as I should, but when you know what you want, where to get it, and how to fit it then it’s click-click, done the trick! Too easy. I don’t suppose I’m the only one doing this by a long way. 

Anyway, the best component? It has to be a part-worn Shimano STX RC square taper chainset from the mid-’90s.  People upgraded to XT or XTR long before their humble STX had worn out.  So good and so bomb-proof are they that I’ve got many laid down to future-proof my collection of 1990s MTBs. If I see one going for a good price, I’m onto it.  I do have a problem with STX RC chainsets. I love ’em, and the shinier the better. They have a use too, as I put them on old road bikes when lower gears are needed.  I fitted a 42/32/22 triple on my 1980s Audax bike last year. Just the job for old legs on the steep hills where I live in the South Pennine hills.  Hmmm, perhaps I should have kept that quiet as you’ll all be buying them now!

Q: What would your cycling events achievement wall have on it?

A: I have been an Audax UK member in the ’80s. I have ridden two Windsor-Chester-Windsor 600k rides.  I qualified for the Paris-Brest-Paris in ’87, but didn’t get to ride sadly. I have done some 12 hour time trials, which included a 218-mile personal best at age 39. I am the Author of a MTB guide book published by Sigma Leisure in 2010, and called ‘Exploring the North Peak and South Pennines’. I’ve done some MTB Cross-Country racing in my sixties with two claims to fame: I never finished last, and was lapped by top motorcycle racer, Guy Martin riding for the Hope Factory team. I also rode the 2015 L’Eroica Britannia on my ’53 Viking.  

Q: Who would you recognise for being great in your life?  

A: My life has been shared since 1967 with one person, the lady who became my wife 12 months later. We met in London, Jill was up from Cornwall and me down there from Pudsey. 1967, that Summer of Love. Free concerts in Hyde Park, mini-skirts and Scott Mackenzie’s San Francisco ringing out from bed-sits all over London SW5. There wasn’t much cycling done in 1967. We’ve grown old together and have been blessed in all departments, and you cannot hope for much more than that. A one-woman man, that’s been me, and just like Charlie Kelly told you he was. But, Jill will say that I’m too bone idle to be bothered casting a roving eye on another woman. To tell you the truth, after a day out on the bike, I’m just too bloody knackered.

Here’s the link to the RSF

Mick’s book ‘Exploring the North Peak and South Pennines’ is available at online book stores like Amazon here