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Geneva challenge

2:55 – I save the manuscript I've been struggling with all week, close the computer, grab my backpack and leave the desk.  The race is on.  At the same time, Flucha turns the lights off in her windowless basement office and heads for the glare of another brilliant Provençal afternoon.  The heat is stifling; there is no mistral.  She heads for the hospital parking lot, grabs Fangio and is on her way.

Flucha and I are going to Lenk, a small town in a quiet valley in the Swiss Alps that has been spared the excesses of progress and tourism.  Friends of ours have been spending their Augusts there for more than a decade and have been inviting us insistently for at least five years.  For three of those years, I've made solemn promises to come, only months before inevitably breaking them.  This year is the first time we're joining them, if only for a few days.

Getting to Lenk is a complex affair, especially if you're not in possession of a small plane that can land on St. Stephan airport, a leisurely operation with bike paths crossing the tarmac just five kilometers downriver from town.  Easyjet doesn't fly there.  They'll only take me as far as Geneva.  There, Flucha will pick me up, switching drivers after five hours of solitary work to do the last two-and-a-half hours together.

Flucha is coming up from Marseille; I'm coming from London.  We travel separately but our destination is the same.  With ingredients like these, hours and hours of prime-time TV have been filled with entertainment full of hilarity and suspense.  Remembering my own nights in front of the box, I wondered how hard it could be.  How much does it take to pull off a chase that plays in the same league as a Top Gear challenge?

Top Gear, for those living in the darkness, is a motoring show aired on the BBC whose rise to fame was in part owed to preposterous pursuits, oftentimes in dilapidated vehicles acquired for cheap by the presenters, mostly for sentimental reasons.  Usually, the three presenters struggle together, even if they compete against each other, but sometimes they go head to head, as in the legendary North Pole special.  That's not where I wanted to go, though.

I had in mind something alike the race across Japan where May and Hammond take the bullet train to try to whip Clarkson in a Nissan GT-R, something along the lines of public transport vs. the indomitable motorcar.  I would be on trains and an airplane; Flucha would be driving her trusty Xsara.  Whoever gets to parking 2 just outside arrivals at Geneva airport first wins.  In true Olympic spirit, the prize for the winner would be glory, sweet but intangible.  And so, at precisely five to three in the afternoon, the race began.

2:59 – As I needed an emergency pit stop before even leaving the building, I'm behind schedule already.  I'm racing down Exhibition Road towards South Kensington station.  To my great fortune, the street festival that brought multitudes to the area ended last weekend.  There's open water swimming at Hyde Park just up the road, but the crowds are not worse than on any other day, and with the years of practice I weave through the ambling slalom posts with ease.

3:07 – The tube is hot and crowded.  There are no free seats but lots of sour smells to sample.  Sweaty after the run from College, I add to the aroma.  Next to me, a father and his son, both members of a volleyball team by their stature, are baffled by the underground.  "We're not down there", the son complains. "I can see the sky."

I could go on about the two radically different approaches to underground construction in London – cut and cover, which sometimes did away with the covering, and tunneling – but I don't have time.  It's only two stops to Victoria and I have to get off before I've even properly caught my breath.

3:10 – Victoria station is one of the busiest in London, but this afternoon it's eerily quiet.  Where is the Olympic chaos everyone dreaded?  It's quieter than on a regular workday, and it's Friday afternoon, prime commuting time.  I don't contemplate these issues too seriously because I still have tickets to print.

3:12 – I find a ticket machine, but it rejects my card.  I try again and again and get the same reaction.  The machine spits the card out again and again, repeating, unapologetically, "Your card cannot be read.  Please try another card." How to retrieve my reservation?  The neighboring machine is broken.  I get slightly nervous.  My train leaves in six minutes.  There is no time to queue at the ticket window.

I spot a third kind of machine.  It takes my card and prints three tickets, for one journey.  "Please be advised that the train doors may close 30 seconds prior to departure", a sign warns me with an exaggerated sense of urgency as I hasten through the ticket gate.  I make it to the train with the doors still open and wonder where Flucha is.  Aix, maybe.

3:21 – The train is full, but not madly so.  I stand, mostly because I don't want to squeeze in next to someone smelling worse than me.  I update my notes in a hand shaken by the rattling of the train and text my progress down to France.  As I roll into Gatwick, on time and according to schedule, I wonder how I could not win this challenge.  If I don't miss my flight – and I'm not going to – I'm sorted.  Flucha has traffic to content with and toll booths and tiredness.  I hope I won't have to wait too long.

Designing a proper challenge is not easy.  Excitement can only build if the result is in doubt throughout and close at the end.  Top Gear understands this better than most.  The crossing of Japan would have been a no brainer, had the race started and ended at a station.  No car could keep up with trains on a direct journey.  But the race started on a beach and with a 25-minute walk for those not driving and ended on a hill beyond Tokyo that requires a ferry and a cable car unless you drive.

May and Hammond had to find the station, negotiate tickets in Japanese, catch their first train, make all the connections, and navigate the transport network of Tokyo to make it onto the hill.  How could they possibly win, one wondered as Clarkson struggled with motorway food and indecipherable street signs.  When he accidentally sets his satnav to Japanese, he seems completely lost.  After much back and forth, after disasters and hopes, they arrive within minutes from each other, the viewers hooked all along.

I have no ups and downs to report, but I hope that the race will be close in the end.  Via Michelin estimated five hours for the drive.  I'll touch down at 7:30.  It might come down to how fast I'll make it through immigration and out of the airport.  How easy will it be to find the right parking lot?  I have only carry-on luggage and am hopeful.

3:55 – Gatwick is deserted.  Either everyone is watching the Games or they are still stuck at immigration at Heathrow.  With my success all but assured, I get cocky and walk into the North Terminal without thinking.  The pre-security barrier refuses the bar code on my ticket.  "Seek assistance", it insists, without detailing the problem.  A text arrives from Flucha:  "Hurry up, I'm almost there."  Surely that's a joke?!

Slowly it dawns on me that my flight is from the South Terminal, the neglected half of the airport set aside for budget airlines and flights into crisis zones.  The inter-terminal robotrain takes me there quickly enough not to worry.  Security passes without a hitch.  I'm in the departure lounge with 40 minutes to spare.  The gate of my flight hasn't even been announced yet.

4:24 – The Telegraph has contracted WH Smith for a special offer.  Purchasing the newspaper gets you a free bottle of water.  People are thirsty but can't bother to read.  Fresh papers are scattered everywhere.  This is not a good sign for the newspaper industry.  I'm one of the last holdouts from a forgotten era, sitting down as I grab abandoned print.  Everyone is supposed to be enthralled by the Olympics and not much else.  Somewhere far away, a dictator kills people by the hundreds, but that doesn't make it to better than page 4.

4:35 – Gate 111 flashes up on the screen.  It's one of the cheap outfield gates, quite a hike away and connected to the main terminal building by a skywalk towering tall above the tarmac.  The bridge provides the best views at Gatwick, planes in orange and blue-red-white taxiing, docking and taking of in the distance, but I have no time to linger and enjoy.  I must secure a seat towards the front of the plane, lest I lose precious minutes during disembarkation.

Easyjet doesn't have numbered seats.  It's first come, first serve, and like everything budget, boarding is chaotic.  Bellicose travelers turn it into a medieval melee.  They take advantage of every gap opening in a slowly disintegrating queue to get ahead by a spot or two.  Had they lances, they would joust their opponents out of the way.  There's nothing British about it.

I usually sit apart and read the New Yorker, content in the knowledge that I'll get on the plane eventually, with a minimal amount of standing and without bruises.  On a short flight, I don't care where I sit, but this time is different.  To make sure I sit close to the exit I join the brawl, trying to hold my position near the gate against frenzied foes.

4:50 – It's dangerously close to the scheduled departure time when I board the plane.  There's a middle seat for me in row 5, between travelers of moderate heft.  Perfect.  I squeeze in and buckle up, ready to take off, but the plane is only half full and there's no end in sight to the commotion by the door.  To reassure myself more than anything else, I text "We're off.  See you in a bit." to Flucha.

5:13 – When the plane pulls off the gate, officially late but at least it's moving, Thomas the cabin manager announces in a French interpretation of English that he and the crew are here for our safety and comfort.  He doesn't say anything about on-time arrivals.  Then my phone rings.  Flucha took a wrong turn in Sisteron and is now heading for Gap.  How much time is that going to cost?

6:44 – We're touching down.  That was fast.  Did we travel through a warp hole or make an emergency landing the reason for which I missed?  Thomas resolves my confusion with the cheerful announcement that we're now in Geneva "où l'heure locale est huit heures moins le quart".  The step from British Summer Time to Central European Summer Time cost me an hour in the blink of an eye.  And while Flucha was in Grenoble a minute ago at 6:44, she is now, at 7:45, rapidly approaching Switzerland.  With the airport within sight of the border, the race is tight again.

It would of course have been a nicer challenge, had we started simultaneously instead of at the same local time.  But while I can effortlessly fly to Geneva in four hours, driving from Marseille requires five – if nothing goes wrong.  In a film, it wouldn't have mattered.  Synchronicity is easily achieved by the right cuts.  Even in writing, a sense of competition can be conveyed.  But out there on the course, it never felt as if we were going head to head.  Not until now.

We're both on the same time and we're both in touching distance of the finish line.  Fucha is picking up the vignette that's required for driving on Swiss motorways; I'm queuing at passport control.  The line is long but moves fast.  The race is too close to call.

8:00 – Geneva is an amazing airport for arrivals.  Even being picked up by a bus at a hardstand way out there, almost in France, I make it through and out in less than 15 minutes.  I'm a bit out of breath and slightly disoriented as I bounce among parking lots that all look the same and don't have a number.  I'm reluctant to announce my victory quite yet.  Maybe I'm in the wrong place.  This wouldn't happen in Top Gear where a dude with a camera and maybe refreshments would be waiting at the finish line.  Then I see the 2 and am first, but before I can send a gloating text, the dark blue body of Fangio sparkles into view.  We could almost call it a draw.

19 Aug 2012