This regal city on the Loire River has long been associated with power. Kings of France made it their home. It's the birthplace of Denis Papin, who dreamed up the concept for the steam engine. The city's name comes from the Celtic word "bleiz," which means wolf.
Tuesday, Blois was the site of a demonstration of raw strength by an alpha athlete who is still baring his teeth, aided by his accompanying pack. Lance Armstrong took the lead in the Tour de France, courtesy of his Discovery Channel team's victory in the precise and demanding team time trial.
While some might have considered that result inevitable, Armstrong said he never took it for granted, especially considering his shaky spring season. He said the only time he has ever entered a Tour supremely confident was 2003, the year he came closest to losing.
"Every other year I've been nervous and insecure, and I think that's a good thing for a sportsman, because there's always somebody who wants your place, somebody coming up younger and hungrier," Armstrong said. "It works better for me to be nervous and hungry."
The Discovery team bus literally shook with thumping and shouting when the riders inside saw Team CSC come across the finish line two seconds slower. Armstrong held up three fingers during the podium ceremony, indicating three wins in the technically challenging stage, and appeared to choke up slightly.
"It's a passionate event, a hard event," he said later. "I know what it's like to be second."
The obvious question now is whether Armstrong and Discovery will try to keep the lead all the way to Paris. Although several people close to Armstrong have said that is his preference, it could be a difficult tactical feat to pull off.
The stages between now and the first set of mountain stages in the Alps feature flat or rolling terrain and do not have uphill finishes, thus lending themselves to breakaways and/or sprint finishes. Discovery likely would have to expend a tremendous amount of effort to make sure no contenders cut into Armstrong's lead, and burning that energy could backfire in the high mountains.
"We're going to think about it tonight," Discovery team director Johan Bruyneel said, before Armstrong interjected, "I'm going to put a little pressure on."
"We're trying to win the Tour de France and we'll try to figure out the best strategy to do that," Bruyneel continued. "We'll know in the next few days. I repeat, our goal is to win in Paris. If that means in a certain situation another guy takes the jersey or another team, that's the way it's going to be."
If Armstrong keeps the lead through the rest of the race, it would be the longest he has ever held it. In previous Tours, there were strategic reasons to give up the yellow jersey purposely or put off trying to get it.
Bruyneel hinted that the team could opt to put another Discovery rider in the yellow jersey. Armstrong's longtime comrade, George Hincapie, is in second place, 55 seconds behind him, and three other Discovery riders are in the top 10.
Rivals lurking closest in the standings include T-Mobile's Alexander Vinokourov, 1 minute 21 seconds off the pace; CSC's Ivan Basso, 1:26 back; and Jan Ullrich of T-Mobile, 1:36 behind.
Discovery might have had to settle for second place and Armstrong, who started the day two seconds behind CSC's Dave Zabriskie, might not be in the lead if Zabriskie hadn't crashed in the last mile as the team accelerated out of a turn.
It was not immediately clear why Zabriskie, who was fifth in the team's single file at that point, went down. He fell heavily on his left side, flipped onto his back and skidded into the metal barriers lining the course.
Zabriskie was able to finish on the same bike almost a minute and a half after the first five riders on the team and walked to the team car with his skinsuit shredded and bloodied, holding his left arm gingerly in front of him. He went straight to medical treatment and did not speak to reporters.
"I'm not sure if his chain had slipped or if his foot slipped from the pedal . . . it just threw him off balance a little bit and he just went over the handlebars," said Zabriskie's Australian teammate, Luke Roberts, who was riding directly behind him.
The crash split the team and Roberts, towing the rest of his teammates, had to bridge the 30- or 40-yard gap so five riders would finish together. The time of the fifth rider across the finish line is recorded as the official time.
"The guys in front knew there was a gap and they hesitated a little bit and had to wait and regroup inside the last kilometer," Roberts said. "For sure that cost us a couple seconds. I'm pretty confident we could have taken the stage, but that's bike racing, I guess."
Armstrong complimented CSC's effort, saying, "It took all we had to catch them." Of Zabriskie, a former teammate, he added, "He's a great young rider who I suspect will be in yellow in the future."