Navigational specialist that I am, I have been meticulously looking over Ordnance and other geographical oddities on The Route. I have done this primarily out of late-night curiosity, when I should be tucked up reading Treasure Island or other Victorian literature. Prior to most rides, especially rides in new places, I will use the glorious sixth-sense that is Google streetview to know what new junctions and turns look like. I see myself as one of those chaps in rally cars (obviously when rally cars were Mark I Ford Escorts), those guys in the passenger seats who shout how the driver ought to take the corner. Whatever those guys do, it must be at least as important as the space and weight they occupy in the general cut and thrust of the rally world. Their understanding of the course is at least as important as the time it takes to take the course.
Anyhow, just lately, when daydreaming of the LEJOG, I have found my thoughts linger on the middle part. Once we have breached North Wales, and that odd Staffordy bit, we shall see the mighty Winter Hill come into view, and then I shall know that we are almost at my house in Lancashire, where we can eat tinned rice pudding and drink my Dad’s low-calorie lager. (Blood pressure. His, not ours.) But there’s roads past there, the Mother Road itself: the A6. Ever since I started gunning out uber-miles as a teenager, the A6 has lodged in my consciousness. It is a classic road; long, smooth and quite brilliant at taking you North. I know it all the way to Lancaster, but I’ve never gone past on a bike. There’s a village about fifteen miles past Kendal, and it goes by the wonderful name of Shap. It’s a small thing, clinging onto windy peaks and looking enviously at the Lake District some twenty miles west. Shap. It sounds like it gave up trying to sound romantic. I already streetviewed it. It looks like Shap. Shap is the right name for it.
Shap sits about 500m higher than sea level, which doesn’t sound like much. Indeed, I have been to the Pyrenees on my bike, and can testify that 2115m above sea feels like every centimetre cost a nutrient, a blood cell, a part of a limp, a tiny twist of a knee. But English Hills, they are special indeed. They lull you. English Hills are everything that French mountains are not. They are short, sharp and dangerous. You don’t work with them, you fight them every inch (because, being English, they are measured in imperial inches and feet, my friend). You don’t approach them, seeing them come into view, romanticising the zigs and zags, the smoothness of their tarmac. You hit them, you grind at the bottom, grind at the top (should you reach it) and you have nothing other than grind in between. Shap isn’t steep, so they say. But it is positioned just so; it is fed by constant headwinds, it is straight-as-an-arrow, it is the Roman sense of humour, their historic grit. It tells you what you already knew - that going North was to leave everything behind that was gentle.
Shap, then, is where you learn that awful truth. That everything is going to be beautiful as hell afterwards, but you’ll start paying a premium for any kind of enjoyment. I have some Kendal Mint Cake that my girlfriend’s mum gave me, and I have been saving it. And I will save it for Shap. We will wash it down with good coffee, or whatever constitutes good coffee in Shap (probably diesel mixed with some slurry or what-not).
And then we will gun it down the other side.