Driving the Tour de France: Country roads in my Renault

James Raia

ST. FLOUR, France — The Tour de France Road Book, distributed to the media at the start of the race, features the history of each starting and finish city, extensive maps how to get from the start to the finish each day and a wealth of other details about the race.

It’s difficult to maneuver around France during the race with the book, and I suspect nearly impossible to do without the book.

Direct and indirect route options are provided for each stage, with the direct option usually the route of course. It’s sometimes longer but quicker. But the off-course route is often the proper choice, if seeing the course isn’t necessary. It avoids the race course, massive crowds, and a few dozen slow-moving publicity vehicles.

I wanted to take the much shorter indirect, off-course route for stage 9 on July 10, and it would have taken me to the finish in about two hours. Instead, I followed my Garmin navigation system and ended up in the French countryside for about two hours. I then intersected the course for much of its seemingly never-ending undulations, narrow roads and technical climbs and descents.

Driving the Tour de France: Country roads in my Renault 1
Straw People along a French country road. All images © James Raia

It was raining and there was fog. And when overcast skies cleared, temperatures warmed and steam came off the road, often hiding the rutted roads.

I drove no more than five miles per hour in some stretches in my rented Renault Clio. It’s not a particularly powerful car, but there’s a reason the Clio has been European Car of the Year twice. It’s the Little Clio The That Could and did.

The total drive took about four hours, and despite the long trip, I’m glad I drove most of stage 9. Repeatedly during the drive, I thought the course was too dangerous.

As it turned out, there were several crashes during the stage. So far, the 98th edition of the Tour de France has been the  Tour of Crashes, and it was again. Several additional riders abandoned the race following crashes.

The next day, July 11, was a rest day for the race and I again chose the small-road-route driving to De Saint Julien Aux Bois from Allegre. I drove through the forests and the rolling open terrain of the French countryside replete with the best France has to offer — wildflowers to wild horses.

Driving the Tour de France: Country roads in my Renault 2
The omnipresent wildflowers of the French countryside.

During one narrow mountain pass an oncoming truck, I’m assuming via the driving etiquette of France, had the right of way. He waited patiently while I drown the Clio That Can in reverse for about 30 meters and hugged the side of the mountain so the truck driver could pass.

The Tour de France resumes July 12, and hopefully more countryside roads and no mountains are on the horizon — at least for the day.

Article Last Updated: July 11, 2011.

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