In 1925 Balham Cycling Club organised a club run with a twist – off-road, in modern parlance it was a cyclo-cross event. A year later the Balham Rough Stuff Open was born. By the early 1930s it had became not only the traditional season opener but also one of the most prestigious races on the national calendar, attracting some of the biggest names in cycling.
For 35 years The Balham Rough Stuff (sometimes known as the Balham Hard Riders or Rough Riders) was an annual 25 mile race* over some of the most unforgiving North Downs terrain.
Cycling was just one of the activities competitors needed to master as the 4 March 1932 edition of Cycling Magazine put it, the race usually involved “skidding, walking, running, pottering and occasionally nasty, violent crashing down precipitous, rutty tracks”
Keeping warm and repairing punctures were also key skills required of the Rough Stuff Rider.
In its pomp the first challenge for a clubman was to get a place on the start line. The Rough Stuff was limited to 100 riders and often oversubscribed. In 1938 for example, ‘The Balham’ received over 200 applications.
Riders that did get to the race start were in some fine company. The 2 March 1928 Cycling Magazine race report recorded that, “Several interesting names figured among the 100 on the starting card notably those of FL Cleeve (last year’s winner), JE Holdsworth, WW Perkins, Len Cave, EH Thompson, HEG Ferris and T Chambers, the Douglas Rider, who had made the trip from Scotland especially for the race – his second in southern England.”
In 1938, the entry list included two Olympians from 1936, the 4000m Team Pursuit bronze medalist Harry Hill and road racer Alick Bevan; and 1932 Olympian Stan Butler. Norwood Paragon rider Butler won the Rough Stuff six times in seven years between 1932 and 1939 (winning in 1932, 34, 35, 36, 38, 39). One of the biggest names, double Olympian (1928 and 1932) Frank Southall was runner-up in 1931. Records show that he raced in the event at least three times (1931, 32 and 33).
Of the 100 entrants not all would reach the finish line. In fact some wouldn’t make the start line. Ridden in February, one of its big challenges was some of the toughest British weather that could be thrown at a cyclist.
Rain and ice featured a lot and the biting cold was almost guaranteed. Snow is recorded on at least two occasions, in 1937 and 1948. An overnight deluge of rain in 1939 left the narrow lanes awash with mud and loose stones and 1946 was a treacherous trial of skill and handling with rain falling all the previous day.
The 1947 event was cancelled altogether, the victim of one of the coldest winters in England for many years that made the down land course unrideable. And then there was the wind…
An imaginative sports journo at Cycling Magazine describes the race conditions in the 2 March 1932 edition. “It howled and it blew; it shrieked through telegraph wires and trees and the closely cropped Surrey hedgerows like furies unleashed. In frolicsome mood it scattered clouds of dust and dead, dank leaves went billowing up the lanes; mischievously it turned white knees into red knees and red knees into blue knees, froze water that last year was mud upon the course, and froze competitors and riders alike”
The number of starters and finishers would reduce significantly in the most challenging years. As Cycling stated, “Conditions would be too hard for those inexperienced in such conditions or they just run out of inner tubes.”
Of the 100 riders entered in 1927 only 33 finished and the 1937 race saw only 57 of those entered make it to the finish line. In 1938, 85 of the 100 started and only 68 finished.
It wasn’t just the weather that would put pay to podium dreams. Conditions were tricky at the best of times as highlighted in a Cycling race report from 1928, “[After] a prolonged spell of dry weather which preceded the race…the lanes were much more easily negotiated than was the case after last year’s downpour. Naturally there were a few tumbles on the sharper corners of the course, but these were due rather to too much self-confidence on the part of the riders than to the condition of the surface, which was, however, very rough and bumpy.”
A description of the race route drawn from the same article gives a flavour of some of the challenges.
“The first check was taken at Farleigh Common, after competitors had covered about four miles of fairly mixed country. The start took place at the top of one of the long hills neighbouring the London end of the main Eastbourne Road and within a few hundred yards it was necessary for the competitors to stand very hard on their pedals in order to surmount a fierce stretch of 1-in-5 gradient….from this point the course led into an intricate tangle of lanes, emerging finally by way of Bedlested Hill on the main Warlingham-Westerham road…then to the top of Titsey Hill…and the 1 in 6 slopes…a sharp turn they often overshoot halfway down…then soon afterwards Westerham Hill provided the prelude to what was undoubtedly the most strenuous section of the course, including as it did, the terrifying descents at Tatsfield, Saltbox and Biggin Hill…then the steady drop to Addington…Finally finishing up a slope of 1-in-10.”
In 1935 top rider Fred Willett fell off three times and was then held up by a flock of sheep (he would win it in 1937).
The course was hard to navigate and it was easy to get lost. They frequently did, with around 25 cyclists going off course on the 1957 ride alone. The race required a lot of marshaling – a 1945 route map shows 41 marshalling points – and this was to play a part in its demise.
The last Balham Rough Stuff was in 1960. The Norwood Paragon archive reveals it was taken over by the Croydon and District Cycling Association in 1961 as marshalling duties became too onerous for the Balham club.
It was during this time another Butler got his name on the trophy. Stan’s son Keith Butler won the Balham Rough Stuff at his first attempt in 1957 and would win the newly monikered Croydon Rough Stuff 25 (then Hard Riders) in the early 60s.
Have you or any family members got any photos or club memorabilia from the Balham Rough Stuff ? Did you ride in it? Email me at email@example.com or drop me a line in the comments box. I would love to hear from you.
Race reports from Cycling Weekly
The club histories of Norwood Paragon, Vegetarian C&AC & De Laune CC
Medals from the writer’s own collection
Ken Smith photo courtesy of his daughter Cheryl Button
Photo of the riders in the snow courtesy of Joan Brown
Newspaper report from FindMyPast Newspaper archives