“I have an interest in old shit,” says Mark Hudson, “as you can see.” Fittingly for the official archivist of the RSF, Hudson’s cozy flat on a tree-lined block of modest redbrick houses in Sheffield looks like a provincial cycling museum. There is a rack of obscure books (The Veteran Cycling Club History Series #2), old advertising placards for Reynolds tubing, badges for rides like Paris–Brest–Paris, boxes of vintage derailleurs and other “new old stock” bike parts, and tens of thousands of historical images going back as far as 1930s-era hand-tinted slides from the rough-stuff pioneer (and inaugural RSF chairman) Charlie Chadwick, a working-class adventurer who for decades toured off-road England, his camera in hand. “It’s a house of many hidden gems,” says Ben Brown, a friend of Hudson’s and a fellow RSF member, as we gawp at the room. Along with photographer Ben Read, we’ll soon be off to Scotland, some eight hours away by car, on a rough-stuff pilgrimage to a place called the Lairig Ghru, a high mountain pass in the Cairngorms known for its stark beauty and unpredictable weather.
Hudson, 48, is tall, with a handlebar mustache, piercing eyes, a tweed hat covering a shaved head, and a collared shirt open to reveal a faded tee of the Smiths. He has been around bicycles most of his life, ever since he and his dad, having gotten friendly with the fellows at the local dump, began rescuing classic bikes from the landfill. He joined the RSF about a decade ago, years after he’d spotted an ad about it in the magazine of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (now Cycling UK). Around 2017, he saw an advertisement in the RSF’s journal seeking an archivist. “I got it by default, because no one else wanted to do it,” he says with a laugh. “But I thought, well actually, it might be an interesting thing anyway, because I have a curiosity for
In search of photographs and other memorabilia, he started cold-calling the group’s 600 or so members, each of whom had been assigned a number; the lower it was, the longer the rider had been a member. Initially, he received some “crap from the seventies,” but then he stumbled on a 10,000-strong collection of photographic slides, carefully stored and arranged in wooden boxes, from a member named Bob Harrison. One by one, Hudson held the slides up to a bare lightbulb—he didn’t have a light box at the time—and was thunderstruck. “I had no idea,” Hudson says. “It felt like a genuine discovery, not just the amount but the quality.” When he began posting the images to Instagram, “things just snowballed.” More leads, even bigger image troves. One person who saw those first RSF images was Max Leonard, a London writer and cyclist and the founder of Isola Press, which in time would publish the two RSF books. More than just striking vintage images of people, bikes, and landscapes, Leonard considered the photographs
evidence of a vital overlooked social history—“like lifting a lid on a world you didn’t quite know existed.”
The RSF’s members, Leonard and Hudson readily admit, were hardly the first to take their bikes off the beaten track. There was, for instance, “Wayfarer,” the pen name of W. M. Robinson, a Liverpudlian insurance man and keen off-road adventurer, and a talismanic figure for the Fellowship. In one of his more memorable exploits, he crossed the snowbound Berwyn Mountains in northern Wales in March 1919. “Is this cycling?” he wrote in his popular column in Cycling. “Per se, possibly not. Some of the way over the mountains was ridden, but for the most part it was a walking expedition.” Lest this appear mere folly, he stressed that the expedition was only made possible with the bike—a 60-mile ride beforehand and 50 miles more afterward. (The RSF, for its part, placed a plaque along the route, and members retrace Wayfarer’s route every few years.)
In 1958, a few RSF members made what they thought was a pioneering ten-day expedition across Iceland’s high desert, the Sprengisandur. Upon returning, they published an account of the trip, only to discover that Horace Dall, a British telescope maker and an avid cyclist, had crossed the terrain on a three-speed Raleigh decades earlier. “They were totally shocked, and I think a bit gutted,” says Hudson.
But there seemed to be something in the air in the 1950s that coalesced this lonely pastime into the stirrings of a movement. As Hudson writes in the first RSF book, postwar Britain was marked by “men and women for whom bicycles were the sole means of transport and who thought nothing of riding large distances, whether to and from work or in pursuit of that relatively new idea, ‘leisure.’ ” More than previous generations, he argues, “they felt they had the right to enjoy the open land beyond the town’s end.” What’s more, the roads were increasingly filled with that new beacon of middle-class respectability, the automobile, which helped stoke larger fears that William Blake’s England, that “green and pleasant land,” was slowly disappearing. “That will be England gone,” eulogized poet Philip Larkin in “Going, Going,” published in 1972. “The shadows, the meadows, the lanes / The guildhalls, the carved choirs.” What will remain? “Concrete and tyres.”