Grass up the Middle is a group of guys from the United Kingdom who grew up with pro bike racing, both road and mountain bikes, but have become disillusioned with the fast pace of the competitive nature of the sport and its following.
What would/could be an alternative?
Green laning - or rough stuff, as cyclists from the 1950s used to call off-road cycling - is loosely based on the travels of a man called Charlie Chadwick, as well as the world’s oldest off-road cycling club named, “The Rough Stuff Fellowship.” Charlie cycled the lanes of Cheshire and explored areas all around the UK, recording his cycling trips over the years and compiling a collection of books written, photographed and illustrated by Charlie himself in the early days of The Rough Stuff Fellowship.
Rough stuff cycling and green laning isn’t confined to the flat roads and bridleways of the Cheshire lanes, but its quietly happening all around the UK. This is a short story about a bunch of guys in flannel shirts riding fat tires in search of the holy grail of “Grass up The Middle.”
I’m sitting here listening to the dulcet twangs of Ry Cooder, who was introduced to me by a friend a long time ago when I was young. His name was Paul Rance. The sounds of Ry Cooder are a perfect analogy for what “Grass up the Middle” is - slightly against the grain and slow paced in a feel-good way.
Paul Rance and Steve Makin set about this back in 2016. Both had backgrounds in bike racing and moving fast on pedal bikes: Steve had raced in his younger years and Paul was a bike messenger working at various times in Manchester, Leicester and San Francisco. Racing other people and riding in traffic is dangerous, exciting and very exhilarating but inevitably the time comes when it's no longer appealing - typically when you reach 40 years old and begin to wear flannel shirts.
Working in the industry and seeing the scene become saturated with Lycra-clad followers of fashion, these two ageing punks decided it wasn’t for them anymore - a new way of life (or cycling) was beckoning. A slowdown and a change of rhythm was in order - something more along the lines of Ry Cooder rather than Slayer. Additionally, recent events have made us all take a look at our lives, re-evaluate what is important and take stock of what is around us.
It became a story of simply two guys wanting to re-engage with riding their bikes again, and swapping track, road and mountain bikes for whatever it was they wanted to ride. Both Paul and Steve had the same idea when it came to what they would ride: ride whatever you like.
Inspired by the writings of Charlie Chadwick and the Rough Stuff Fellowship (of which Charlie was one of the founding members), Grass Up the Middle was born.
Paul says: “Born out of a conversation on one of our usual Sunday rides, the idea was simple. Get a group of like-minded friends together for a weekend of riding and wild camping on Anglesey. An introduction, for a few of us, to the strange world of bivvying and a great opportunity for my good friend Steve to share his knowledge and love for the island. He would, quite rightly, take up the role of Captain for this trip.”
A bike off the shelf would be out of the question – a special build had been on Paul’s mind and this was the time to get it done. He was thinking the ideal set-up would be a steel frame with room for a set of wide 700c x 38mm tires as well as a proper set of mudguards, a dynamo hub and enough mounts to carry supplies for an overnight ride on Anglesey.
Steve rides a singlespeed with flat bars and 650b’s with gumwall tires and a bag on the front.
Will, the club's first recruit, had been working away on his own frame for a while. It’s a light blue touring frame with drop bars, disc brakes and tan leather mud guard flaps.
The Rough Stuff Fellowship has their annual meeting each Easter and has done so since 1955 to this day. After some consideration, the Isle of Anglesey would be Grass up the Middle’s Easter meet up.
Grass Up the Middle regularly meets around the Chorlton area to head out into the Cheshire Lanes where Charlie Chadwick from Bolton would have cut his teeth before going on to write his collection of books and set up the oldest off-road cycling club in the UK.
An early start with no rush to get anywhere is how the club likes to take it. Ritual dictates a coffee break at the 20-mile mark - brewed at the side of the road or under a disused railway bridge, along with a piece of cake. Then it's back on the road to complete the 40-mile round trip “in search of the Holy Grail.”
This ethos is the club's motto, the Holy Grail being the grass growing up the middle of a country lane which is rarely used, allowing it to grow un-hindered, hence “grass up the middle”.
Four years on and Grass Up the Middle has an extensive blog of miles covered, stories told and brews shared.
Words by Paul Davy. Photos courtesy of Grass Up the Middle.