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Sally Jenkins: Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong adjusts his jersey during 11th stage of the Tour de France last week.
Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong adjusts his jersey during 11th stage of the Tour de France last week. (Bas Czerwinski - AP)

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Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Sports Columnist
Monday, July 20, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post Sports Columnist and Lance Armstrong biographer Sally Jenkins will be online Monday, July 20 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about Armstrong, his return to cycling and the current Tour de France.

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Read all of Jenkins'srecent columns for The Post.

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Boston: With Lance saying he can't win the Tour de France can I stop watching now?

Sally Jenkins: Ha! Hi all. Welcome. That's the big question for a lot of viewers now that Armstrong seems to have conceeded that Alberto Contador is stronger. But there are some fireworks Alp stages still to come. I wouldn't turn it off yet. Armstrong is still capable of winning a stage. And the race to see whether he can endure and claim some sort of spot on the podium at almost 38 should be interesting. Also, if you turn it off you'll miss seeing the coming of age of the guy who is clearly the sport's next great, Contador.

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Dallas: Sally,

I know Lance wants to be around his old team manager, but why pick a team so loaded, especially with Contador, Kloden and Levi - all capable of a victory?

Could we be treated next year to a team with George Hincapie and others riding for Lance, where he is the clear team leader?

I for one would love it. I want the drama to be on the bikes and not on the team bus!

Sally Jenkins: I've said for years I wouldn't be surprised to see Armstrong launch his own team some day. I've also said it wouldn't surprise me to see him ride as a domestique, that's how much he loves the race. As skilled as he is on the bike, he's every bit as skilled as an organizer and executive off the bike, he enjoys the backstage planning, the strategy and building of a racing team. He digs the detail work, from sweet talking sponsors to finding the fastest wheels. He's always been fascinated by the complex team aspect of the race -- it's no accident that the team he is on is invariably the strongest overall in the race...As for why Astana, I believe he took a spot on the team because he couldn't see riding for anyone but his old friend Johann Bruyneel, and he knew it was the place to be if you wanted to try for the podium. He knew with Johann and him on board, it would be the best organized team on the road.

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Washington, D.C.: I caught the slightest hint of doping while watching Contador's performance yesterday. Acceleration is one thing, but he looked inhuman.

Have there been any more whispers about Contador following the suspicion, re: Operation Puerto?

Sally Jenkins: Why? Because he was so strong? If you've been reading any of Armstrong's twitters, you know that the Astana guys have been drug tested daily. In the morning before breakfast, in the evening before dinner, etc.. Contador and Armstrong especially. So unless the drug tests are utterly ineffectual, or they are using an undetectable new substance, there's a pretty good suggestion that they are racing cleanly. Also, it seems from the past few years that the guys using EPO have been nailed. You run the risk of sounding stupidly naive when you say something like this, but it seems like it would be pretty hard to cheat this year, in their position.

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New York, N.Y.: Lance Armstrong is three things:

1) American 2) Champion, and 3) Insufferable jerk.

Why do the media take advantage of the first two items and cover up the last one?

Sally Jenkins: Well, look. All champions have an insufferable jerk in them. The qualities that enable him to descend a mountainside at 75 mph, or to climb Alps on a bike that car transmissions have a hard time pulling up, are not the qualities that are always great at the dinner table. Champions are curt, focused, self-absorbed, and single-minded. If you encounter Armstrong in the midst of the Tour, he's not the warmest guy in the world. But if you meet him in September when he is wearing flip flops and drinking a beer, he's utterly charming. He's become a good friend of mine as well as co-author, so I am obviously biased. But I've had a decade to decide whether he's a jerk underneath it all, and, to me, he isn't. He's does more work than any athlete I've ever known for other people. His work for cancer patients is a hundred percent genuine, and the leading motivator of his life.

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Washington, D.C.: Yesterday during an interview Lance came to terms with the fact that despite his best efforts he is not the best man in the race. Although in second place, hearing him say these words betrays his legacy. Do you think Lance is heading toward a post-retirement flare out joining the likes of Michael Jordan?

Sally Jenkins: Nope. He's racing again next year. It's interesting: we assume that if a race can't be won, it's not worth even trying. Actually, athletes at Armstrong's age decide the exact opposite, the trying becomes as important as the possibility of victory. Should we have told Tom Watson not to play the British Open again, because he "can't" win it? I don't know if Armstrong is genuinely capable of ever winning the race again as an individual. But I know that he loves the team aspect of the race, playing ZZ Top on the team bus, kidding around with guys he likes in the race. All that stuff he missed when he was retired. And the training is peaceful too -- he always said that training for the race was the one time of year when peripheral stuff didnt crowd in and exhaust him. I think he find the focus of training sort of restful. I also think his children are old enough now to see him ride and remember it, and that's important to him as well.

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Washington, D.C: Lance Armstrong won't win the Tour de France at age 59. Tim Lincecum won't win baseball games at age 59. Peyton Manning won't throw touchdowns at age 59. But golf is a different game--anyone who plays knows that once you learn how to swing, "it's a game of a lifetime". So...why the huge deal over Tom Watson? I just don't get it. Do you?

Sally Jenkins: Oh man, I sure do. Watching Watson make a run at it is the most fun I've had in years. First of all, it's one of the great mental feats I've ever seen. It required enormous concentration to play that course so strategically well, find the right side in the wind, etc. Second, every single day Watson had to convince himself that he could win it, when history and the odds said it was absurd. Third, any time someone stretches our conception of what's possible, it's important. Fourth, you underestimate how taxing golf is on the body, played at his level. The number it does on the back, the legs, the neck, the shoulders.

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Rockville, Md.: If Lance's motivation for returning to cycling is to launch a global fight on cancer then wouldn't he do better to just travel the world and do charity rides? He would draw huge crowds and raise big money. Is this more about fighting cancer or more about Lance getting the bug for competition again?

Sally Jenkins: It's both. He did the charity rides, and seems to have enjoyed it, but I think that he had probably plateau-ed to some extent when it came to fundraising. A comeback was one way to jump start that again. I also think he was looking for a way to lure some global ant-cancer sponsors, and being a factor in the Tour gives him huge visibility for that. But the real question is, would Armstrong have ridden this tour without cancer as a motivator? And I think the answer is yes. My take is that retirement wasn't so satisfying for him, he doesn't like slacking or drifting, he needs a lot of intense physical exercise and a focus.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Do you think Lance regrets being photographed hugging George W. Bush?

Sally Jenkins: No, I think Armstrong genuinely likes him personally. A lot of people do. As he's always said in answer to questions like that, "The great thing about being an American is that you can disagree with your friends."

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Richmond, Va.: While I appreciate Armstrong's ability to return to the sport at a high level, it is clear he can no longer dominate the best riders in the world. He might now be the best domestique in the peloton (although he clearly need Kloden's help yesteday), he is no longer capable of winning a grand tour given that there is new generation of champions, Contador being foremost among them. I think Armstrong will be lucky to finish on the podium this year. I think it will be Contador, Wiggins and A. Schleck in that order.

Sally Jenkins: A lot of people feel the same. I'm not one of them. There is a pretty interesting time trial coming up, in which Armstrong has an opportunity to show something. And Astana seems to be pretty interested in putting more than one rider on the podium.

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Alexandria: Ms. Jenkins:

In his post-race comments yesterday, it seemed that Lance bascically ceded the Tour, as well as the leadership of Astana, over to Contador following his impressive stage 15 win.

You know him better than practically any journalist. Was Lance simply being coy? Or does truly accept that he doesn't have the legs he needs to win, and is now focused on working to bring Astana the yellow jersey in Paris?

Thank you for taking the question.

Sally Jenkins: I swapped a very brief email with him and he said the same to me that he's said publicly: "Contador was strong. Very strong." He seems at peace with that. Look, he's 37, two months ago he broke his collarbone in four places, and three weeks ago he had a new baby. He didn't have near the training for this race that he has for past Tours, which is surely one reason he wants to try again next year. The fact that he's even in this thing is fairly stunning, and I think he's enjoyed taking a crack at it. I don't believe he'll attack Contador -- unless he's decided to fool me along with everyone else -- but he still seems very viable for a place on the podium. He's extremely savvy about strategy and he's said all along you better have something left for the time trial, and Mont Ventoux. He's not done in the race.

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Washington, D.C.: Which of these scenarios is more likely?

Lance wins Stage 20 to Ventoux (with Astana and Contador's blessing/help)

Lance forms is own team next year and rides as domestique and co-director.

Sally Jenkins: I dont know that those scenarios are mutually exclusive. Either one could happen, or both. He's had some frustrating experiences on Ventoux, and I bet if you stabbed him with sodium penathol and asked him what stage he'd most like to win, it would be Ventoux. He gave away a victory to Marco Pantani a few years ago, as a gift, and I think regretted it. He's said "I have unfinished business there." But that doesn't mean that his 37 year old legs will let him settle the score.

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reston: "Do you think Lance is heading toward a post-retirement flare out"

Why are fans so concerned about the legacy of their favorite athlete, when it seems to be completely unwarranted? Brett Favre is getting that too. When a career is over and done with, people remember the hey day and little else.

Who thinks of Joe Montana as a Chief. If Armstrong loses this year, in 20 years people will have forgotten it. But they will remember the seven he won.

Sally Jenkins: Thanks for the observation.

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Washington, D.C.: I'll preface this by saying I really like and enjoy your stuff. But in a recent column you wrote

"Take nothing away from Padraig Harrington, but the British Open he won last year came with an asterisk, because Woods was home in bed."

I disagree with this opinion, but, regardless, you did take something away from Harrington. I'm curious to your thought process, as a writer, here. It's almost like you think there is an asterisk, but a small one. Am I nuts, or am I missing something here.

Keep up the good work.

Sally Jenkins: Point taken. You do have to take a little something away from Harrington. He's still a worthy major champion. Thanks for the correction.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of yesterday's espn.com home page headline with a picture of Stewart Cink: "Victory for a Villain?". That is absolutely the lowest trash I have ever read anywhere in sports "journalism." They take a class act like Cink and run that just to attract some attention. Makes me sick.

washingtonpost.com: How is Stewart Cink the Villian? (Yahoo! Answers, July 19)

Sally Jenkins: I think it was written by some kid in an office who was frustrated Cink ruined the greatest golf story of the century. I don't think he or she meant to insult Cink. Didn't you feel just a twinge of a wish that Cink would bust a couple of drives into the long grass, so Watson could win? I mean, how unlucky did Watson get on 18? He hit two near perfect shots, that approach was one foot from being magnificent.

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"Flare-outs": I'd argue that if Lance doesn't win, even making the top 10 would be proof that he's still in darn fine form even after several years away. How long was Favre retired for again?

Sally Jenkins: Thanks for the comment!

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Chicago, Ill.: Sally,

If you can get one thing out of Lance please let it be that he try to win the race and attack Contador. It sounded as if he were throwing in the towel yesterday. Not trying would be a terrible way to end his career.

Sally Jenkins: Armstrong will do what the team asks. It would be a violation of team ethics for him to attack Contador if the team has decided as a group he's the strongest. That said, if Contador falters, if he spends too much energy and cracks, or if Armstrong were to make up significant seconds in the time trial, I'd say all bets are off on Ventoux. The Annecy time trial could be very interesting. And on Ventoux, you can lose an awful lot of time. In 1989 there was a similar situation between Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon, which made the final stage into Paris a matter of just eight seconds. So the race is far from over.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Am I overly optimistic and unrealistic? I think Armstrong will win this thing. But the key will be the mountains. He's always been a machine in the mountains - and anytime he's been remotely close to first going into the mountain stages, he's blown the rest away. Contador was strong for one stage, but can he stay that strong?

Sally Jenkins: That's the whole ball game. I will say this, Contador is ferocious. He's a beast on climbs.

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Houston: When other riders give interviews they typically speak in terms of "it was a good day", "the team worked hard" and other cliche remarks. I have noticed that in his interviews Lance often provides quantitative and technical analysis of what individuals and teams are doing (splits at strategic points, team strategies discussions, etc). Does Lance think about this stuff more than your average rider and what type of competitive advantage does this give him?

Thank you.

Sally Jenkins: Armstrong is a strategy wonk, and a math wonk. He reduced the race to a series of performance equations. It's why the French were never wild about him, they thought he was too mechanical and too "professional" in his approach to a race that should be a trial of the soul. But the French are now warming to him. It's funny, Armstrong always said he believed the French audience preferrred a romantic runnerup to a great champion. Now he's in that role, they seem to be a little kinder to him.

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Washington, D.C.: Was your dad at the British Open? I have a feeling he would have enjoyed watching Watson make his run.

washingtonpost.com: Thomas Boswell: There's Poetry In This Near Miss (Washington Post, July 20)

Sally Jenkins: Dan Jenkins was indeed at Turnberry, and you can read his story in Golf Digest. Or for more immediate feedback you can go to Twitter.com and read his marvelous tweets at Danjenkinsgd. And for a larger historical perspective you can buy his new book, Jenkins At The Majors.

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Houston: Do you have any insight as to if and how George Hincapie's obvious angst about the results of Saturday's stage will affect he and Lance's relationship?

Thank you.

Sally Jenkins: Not offhand, but what I know is how Armstrong feels about Hincapie, which is like a brother.

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Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: It seems like Lance is making peace these days and "finding center". Things are good with Kik, Anna and new little Max, causual attitude in the Giro, seeming comfortable with his age and ability and its limits. He's even friendly with Andreau. Is he happy? Has he found a good place in life?

Sally Jenkins: Nice observation, and all true. Kik is at the race with the kids, and a source of real peace and comfort to him.

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St. Paul, Minn.: What is the lingua franca on Team Astana? From what I've seen of Alberto Contador, it doesn't seem that he speaks English. How do he and Lance communicate on the road?

Sally Jenkins: Armstrong speaks enough Spanish to communicate. He lived in Girona for several years and loves the country -- it's his favorite in Europe, I believe -- and he's had some great Spanish teammates over the years. If they have trouble communicating it's not a language deal, it's a generational issue. I sense that neither feels they get the proper respect from the other. Which is probably natural.

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Caracas, Venezuela: Le Tour is about the team getting the team leader across the line to claim the Maillot Jaune. Particularly after Cantador's performance, is it possible that Lance was never in the running and that he is being kept close to sell advertising in the U.S.?

Sally Jenkins: I don't believe that's the case. If he doesn't have the legs, we'll it see in the coming stages. But I don't see how up to this point anyone "kept" Armstrong in the race, he finished in the top 10 of the opening time trial, and was in the top 10 again in the Verbier stage, and has done an awful lot of strong work to be where he is. You can't fake this stuff for advertising. It's just too hard of a race.

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Richardson, Tex.: Since Lance Armstrong took off for four years do you think his fitness level to compete in the Tour de France may have suffered? Riding charity events and promoting cancer awareness, as noble as they are, can be a distraction to the serious training required to be competitive in the Tour. If he focuses on next year's Tour and trains accordingly do you think he could win it? The other possibility is he is too old and physically spent to win the tour again. The oldest rider to win the Tour is 36-year-old Firmin Lambot in 1922. Lance is now 37. I hope this is not the case.

Sally Jenkins: Yes. Armstrong has been solid in this Tour that you forget he was away fro three and a half years, and his training was pretty well disrupted by busting his shoulder. And don't forget the birth of his son, Max. His fitness was probably better in other years.

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Edgewood, Md.: Do you think you can report objectively on Lance Armstrong when you so have spent so much time around him and, naturally, becoming close to him?

Sally Jenkins: No, and I certainly don't pretend to be objective about him. We started as co-authors on two books, and we've become good friends, and I have a great deal of affection for him. He has his detractors and his skeptics for all the obvious reasons, ranging from his confrontational style to the doping suspicions. What you get from me is Armstrong's side of the story, and hopefully a little insight into his personality, which can be pretty reserved. Anyone who reads me on the subject of Armstrong needs to understand that I am not impartial. I'm very partial to him.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Sally,

Do you really believe Hincapie believes Armstrong was trying to prevent him from earning the yellow jersey? After all of their years together as teammates, George would be the first to read Armstrong and his intentions. The fact that George insists Astana was trying to rob him of a change in yellow implicates Armstrong. I've seen videos of them together and they seem to be quite friendly, I've read articles of their comments about each other - I believe Lance when he said they were pacing it so George would end up on top. What do you think?

Sally Jenkins: My take is that Armstrong genuinely wanted to see Hincapie in yellow, and it didn't work out, and Hincapie wonders who was at fault. Astana claims they were forced to ride harder than they wanted to because of the other team's tactics, and that it was unfortunate.

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Bombay, India: How long is 1:37 ... with six stages to go, and Mt. Ventoux still to come? Viva La Lance!

Sally Jenkins: That's why you don't want to say the race is over. Ninety seconds on Ventoux is a healthy lead, but not if you make mistakes.

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Washington, D.C.: I'd think that Armstrong might be the favorite next year. He could easily be out in front had he not broken his collarbone and had more time to train instead of having a child. Sure, he'll be older, but just by one year. What do you think?

Sally Jenkins: I think Armstrong will be almost 39, and that Contador is the next great, he's got all the earmarks, talent plus hunger plus the requisite arrogance. He's just a superb rider. But I also think that if Contador gets lazy in the offseason, he should watch out. With Armstrong in the race, no one will be able to take shortcuts.

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Anonymous: Is Armstrong giving it his all?

Sally Jenkins: Good question. The implication of your question is that it's possible Armstrong is laying back a little, and holding out for the latter stages, the time trial and Ventoux. He's suckering Contador into riding these stages too hard. I suppose there is a chance of that. But it's not the impression I've gotten in my very brief exchanges with him. Not that he would tell me, if that's what he was doing.

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Boston: On many of the mountain stages, in the run up to the top, the crowds seem to be pressing dangerously close. Yesterday I saw Contador lashing out at a few race fans who were running beside his bike. Has there been talk about controlling this ... or can it be controlled? It seems awfully dangerous.

Sally Jenkins: It's awful to watch, isn't it? But it's part of the culture of the Tour. That roadside intimacy is one of the things that makes it unique -- and dangerous. It's not designed to be an especially safe race, physically or psychically. Bad luck and human nature are supposed to be a part of it all.

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Washington, D.C.: Did you see the Rick Relly video essay thanking Tom Watson for his heroic run at The Open Championship? Rick said that golf was a "gentleman's sport, a fact which some people have forgotten," and they cut to Tiger throwing his clubs around.

Was the jab deserved?

Sally Jenkins: Good question. I think it was deserved. I admire the heck out of Tiger Woods' golf game, and I wouldn't ever call him ungentlemanly. But I do think that he sometimes gets a "why is this happening to me?" attitude on the course that doesn't serve him real well and can look sort of pouty. He's a club jammer, that's a fact. When he doesn't like a shot he wings the club around pretty good. It's part of who he is. If he wants to be seen differently, then he shouldn't do it. Watson and Nicklaus and those guys didn't do it, they were raised not to show their emotions on the course, no matter what. They burned differently.

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Anonymous: I'm not a devoted race fan, so this may be completely out of line. But it seems to me that Lance said he'll be a team-first guy only when he realized he can't beat his competition. I'm open to your interpretation.

Sally Jenkins: Yep, that's true. That's the nature of the race. The team rides for the man who is strongest, and Armstrong was going to make Contador prove it. The same situation occured with Greg Lemond and Benard Hinault several years ago, when Lemond was the comer and Hinault was the five time champion. Hinault finally have way, but he made Lemond prove it every step of the way.

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Normandy, France: Does Lance just love the tour de France ... or is he trying to prove something to himself ...or or does he just just want to show that someone in their late thirties who is a cancer survivor can race with the best of them. (It's true, he does inspire ... keep going Lance whatever your motivation.)

Sally Jenkins: Great question. Probably all of that is at work. But to me another factor is this: great champions are in the business of exhausting all of their capabilities. They really aren't content, and have trouble living with themselves, as long as they feel there is something in the tank. They feel like they're wasting something, and to them that's a sin against nature. As spectators we want them to remain ideals, but their every instinct tells them to use themselves up. I think we have to let them be true to their natures. Okay folks, got to run and finish another story. Enjoyed chatting.

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Alexandria, Va.: So are you taking Lance's statement that he's now only riding in support of Contador at face value, or do you think he still thinks he'll win it at the time trial?

Sally Jenkins: I take it at face value, because I believe he wanted to make a stronger statement on the climb to Verbier than he did. We swapped emails the day before, and he didn't make any predictions, because I think he's been genuinely uncertain about his form, and really didn't know how the legs would respond. But I got the sense he had hope. When the time came, Contador was just too strong. That said, there is a lot of racing left, and crazy things can happen on the Alps. I don't believe Contador will falter, unless something absolutely nuts happens, but there are a lot of prizes Armstrong can still win, such as individual stages, or a place on the podium.

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Goshen, N.Y.: I thoroughly enjoyed reading your books about Lance ... will we be seeing another anytime soon?Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Every Second Counts (Amazon.com)

Sally Jenkins: We've talked about it here and there, but no firm plans. To write a third book we'd have to be awfully sure he has something new to say...Meantime, if you're starved for the literary stylings of Sally Jenkins, you could read my new book The State of Jones, true story about Mississippi in the Civil War, co-written with my friend and historian extraordinaire John Stauffer.

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Armstrong in the Alps: Do you think Armstrong will be able to maintain a strong performance in the overall standings now that he seems to be accepting a support role? It's been a long time since he had to work for someone else, and it might be difficult for him to give 100 percent effort if the ultimate prize is a win for Contador.

Sally Jenkins: I wouldn't ever question Armstrong's work ethic. That's the one thing you can be sure of. He will have no problem riding hard for the team. He's not capable of slacking.

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Damascus, Md.: Is Lance still riding for a podium spot in Paris or will he be a supporting cast member for his teammate even at the expense of taking 2nd or 3rd place?

Sally Jenkins: That's a really good question. Armstrong will do what's best for the team, because quite apart from the ethics of the situation and doing justice to Contador, anything else would hurt Johann Bruyneel. He'd never disrespect Bruyneel by breaking the plan. He has too much professional respect for him. And he'd nevre disrespect the race in general. Okay, now I really am signing off. Onward through the Alps...

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