The idea of lugging an orange sofa up a mountain in the Swiss Alps and riding it back down is a strange one even to me – and I have ridden a bed down Third Avenue in Salt Lake City, its tiny caster wheels burning hot by the end of it. I was helping a friend move into the duplex we would share, and using the bed to carry us sounded more sensible than doing it the other way around, traffic and baffled residents notwithstanding.
On Friday, in a feeble attempt to recreate the race Flucha and I had done a few years back, I drove from Zurich to Montreux to meet my former flat mate Sean who was on the train from Grenoble. More closely matching the drama of a genuine Top Gear challenge this time, I parked the rented Renault only minutes before my friend stepped off the train, just early enough to be the first on the platform.
Montreux is surely nice, even when the jazz doesn't play. The town sits by Lake Geneva and oozes French charm, despite being Swiss. Away from the water, mountains towered thousands of feet above it, their tops dissolving into the haze of fall. It must be a fine place to spend time away from work, linger in cafés all afternoon or amble along the lakeshore promenade. Lots of people probably did exactly that. We chucked Sean's enormous Europe-in-a-week bag into the car and drove off without much looking left or right. We had set our sights elsewhere.
It was the first time we've seen each other in more than six years. The previous time we had met in Lake Placid, for memories as much as for convenience. Sean lived in Massachusetts back then and I was on a conference-sponsored road trip in Canada. Lake Placid minimized driving for both of us. We camped by a lake, excavated stories and rode mountain bikes through the woods. This time, the plan was much the same, except that we traded the canvas cabin of six years ago for a hotel on the south-facing slope of the upper Rhone valley, just below the mountain resort of Crans Montana.
Checking out the town upon our arrival, we happened upon a bike shop full of serious kit. The owner, friendly, talkative and, it turned out later, full of hot air, filled us in on the place. Crans is more hard core than anything you've ridden before, he warned. This is where the first mountain bike world cup was held, and the trails live to tell the tale. Suitably impressed, we went for a Marmotte, the local beer, at the Bar au Lac, to catch up and gather our wits.
The next morning, at breakfast, I was still debating the sense of renting downhill bikes. Why not go for an easy cross-country ride, a bit of climbing, a bit of descending, lots of single track with great views and assured survival at the end? Sean had other ideas, and shortly thereafter we stood at the base of the Cry d'Er lift. We had rented enduro bikes, bought day passes for the lift and proceeded to go up the mountain and hurl ourselves back down repeatedly, the bikes inserted between us and the ground. It was madness.
I'm not one for downhills. Back in Utah, Sean and I could climb for hours, he always slightly behind me but never letting go. Every ten minutes or so I would test the waters with a little show of force. The breathing in my neck got a bit harder but stayed close. The clanking and creaking of his aching bike were the soundtrack to endless suffering. Up on the hill, the tables turned. Now Sean was leading, but I could never keep up. I would chicken out quickly and roll down without much drive. I lost a few races this way.
This time was different because this time, there was the sofa. Bright orange, with more travel than a national sales rep and so plush that I failed to register discomfort even after 13,000 feet of descending, it was entirely different from anything I've ever ridden. The tires stuck to the ground no matter how loose, the yardstick of a handlebar made steering a snap, and huge disk brakes brought the wildest madness to a quick stop if necessary. The result: I was having an absolute blast. Four red runs later, we went for black.
Deep into the afternoon, my body was trembling from exhaustion and anticipation. Wrong mindset! I walked the first hairy section, but then recovered confidence and got back on. Halfway down, I had found my groove and was reminiscing of how my Fuel back in Utah compared (full suspension but not a sofa) when the trail suddenly got worse, with sharp rocks sticking out, narrow and not exactly straight. I did the first part all right but lost focus. My mind wandered back to when Sean and I explored Moab on steel hard tails and how I cleared nosedive hill when preriding the 24 Hours of Moab and then failing to do so three times during the race. I was in similar territory now, though on a very different bike.
Awash in memories, I didn't realized that the trail had got even steeper, with more of a turn and bigger rocks. This was now way beyond my abilities, but I was too deep in thought to react. Fear tried to catch my attention but failed. By the time reality reconnected, I had made it through most of it. Adrenalin then got me through the rest before I could formulate an escape strategy. Another corner, and Sean was waiting by the side of the trail, looking at me with incredulity. Instead of limping out bloodied and broken, the bike in pieces and my clothes in shreds, I blasted out with a grin on my face. Hysteric laughter precluded his question of whether I'd ridden this.
Shortly before five, we had to return the sofas. Sean's got similar kit in his garage, but for me it was a sad farewell. I would have happily taken the Kona Process 153 home with me. There was room in the Renault but they had kept my ID. I might buy my own for next summer, not necessarily orange but plush, comfy and hilarious.