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Driving the Tour de France, July 1: Me and my Renault

NANTES, France — A Mercedes-Benz more than a decade ago to several Renault models. A Citroen C4 sedan to a BMW 320i a few years back with a navigation system an 18-year guy from Australia showed me how to use.

It all adds up to more than a decade of driving the Tour de France route start to finish in a variety of rental cars.

This year, with the race beginning Saturday in Passage du Gois, I was looking forward what was supposed to be a 3 1/2-hour drive Friday (July 1) from Charles DeGaulle Airport outside of Paris to the media center in Les Herbiers. From there, on paper at least, it’s supposed to be 45 minutes to the locale of my first three nights of accommodations.

Hertz, however, made a mistake, The Volkswagen Golf GTI (diesel), part of what the rental company calls its Green Fleet, wasn’t available. Instead, I’m driving (at least for now) a Renault Clio (diesel).

Driving the Tour de France, July 1: Me and my Renault 1
Renault Clio, Charles De Gaulle Airport, July /1/2011. Images © James Raia

The Clio, which debuted in 1990, is the French manufacturer’s super minicar and has twice been named European Car of the Year, in 1991 and in 2006.

And the 3 1/2 hour drive via Yahoo Maps? Make that about 5 1/2 hours, thanks the infamous Friday afternoon traffic in Paris . . . and two accidents. I also waited a combined one hour in line for an agent at Hertz and for the Renault to be cleaned (lots of other customers waited, too).

All of which meant my anticipation of getting to the media center came to a sudden halt. In fact, I never made it to the media center, opting instead for a journey of 415 kilometers (257 miles) to Nantes.

Although there was a maintenance vehicle flashing a neon Accident sign, I never drove past any signs of the second accident, which backlogged traffic for several miles.

But I saw more than I wanted to see of the first accident, which appeared to involve four or five cars, a motorcycle and metal median barrier. I drove past the scene just as someone was bracing the neck and head of a young man (the motorcycle driver) who was lying on the ground in a fetal position and obviously in trouble.

Beyond the delays, one the A-11 opened up for clear driving, I averaged about 85 mph most of the way. The Renault isn’t the swiftest mini-car around, but nor is it the slowest.

Its five-speed manual transmission responds well in lane change accelerations and is sturdy on the road. Most important, the diesel engine is efficient. The gas tank still appears to be three-quarters full, and with 4,000 miles or so ahead in the 98th edition of the Tour de France, that’s a big plus for a such a little car.

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