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Sunday, July 26, 2009
Grading top riders from 2009 Tour

By Bobby Julich
Special to ESPN.com

Before the Tour field made its way into Paris on Sunday, I got another chance to ride along the Champs-Élysées in the morning. It was so cool.

While there was a ton of security around the roads and hotels, once we got going, it was worth it. Riding with Saxo Bank executives, you realize how uphill the road climbs up to the Arc de Triomphe. It was the perfect day; low winds, decent temps and the sun was out.

Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong
Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong ... it was the most impressive Tour podium Bobby Julich has ever seen.

After our ride, we had prime seats next to the finish line. While watching the first 100 kilometers of the race on big TVs, I remembered the atmosphere of the peloton on the Tour's final day. You're at war for three weeks, and then you have riders say nice things to you and you say nice things to them. Sometimes, you don't know how genuine it is. But you all have a sense of accomplishment.

As the peloton rode past us, I didn't feel any overwhelming excitement or anxiousness. I was happy to see them ride by as a cycling fan. It was confirmation that I've made my transition to the other side of the barriers. I am not a pro cyclist anymore.

But I still know what it's like to ride in a Tour. With another one behind us, let's grade the top riders:

Alberto Contador

What can you say? He won the race! He did everything he needed to do, from placing second in the opening time trial to attacking during important mountain stages. Every time he attacked, he made a difference. Plus, winning the last individual time trial while wearing the yellow jersey was the crown jewel. It all shows the class of rider he is. Grade: A-plus

Andy Schleck

The Saxo Bank rider worked hard to limit the losses he sustained in the Tour's time trials. He made the key move of the Tour to secure second overall during Stage 17 and was supported by an A-plus team even after a few key riders abandoned the race. I spoke to Andy after Sunday's final stage in Paris, gave him a hug and told him if he wants to take that next step (the hardest one to make), he needs to start planning for next year now. I think he realizes it's time to get more serious. Remember, he won't be in the white jersey competition next year for best young rider. Grade: A

Lance Armstrong

Going into the Tour, Contador was a big favorite to win the race. Given Armstrong's past experience, he was a major favorite to be among the overall contenders. And he reached the podium for third overall because of his experience. Whether it was breaking away on the third day to gain more time or sprinting to the front pack to gain four ticks at the end of Stage 19 or riding Mont Ventoux to perfection, Lance knew when to strike. I think he surprised a lot of people; you knew he'd be strong, but some thought he'd have at least one bad day after being out of the sport for more than three years. And his one "bad" day was the last time trial, where he still moved back into third overall. Seeing him alongside Schleck and Contador on Sunday, it was the most impressive Tour podium I've ever seen. Grade: A-plus

Bradley Wiggins

No one expected the Garmin-Slipstream rider to be anywhere close to where he finished (fourth overall). He rode a perfect race and was always in front. He was the revelation of the Tour and has a bright future ahead of him. Grade: A-plus

Christian Vande Velde
Christian Vande Velde rebounded from a serious Giro d'Italia crash to finish eighth overall in the Tour de France.

Frank Schleck

Frank again showed he's one of the strongest climbers in the world. He can still work on improving his experience with staying in the front and not missing splits and his time trialing. He's already shown improvement in the time trials from 2008 to this year. But losing those 40 seconds in the last TT hurt -- those precious seconds are the difference between fifth overall and third. I am happy to see his progression, though. There's more work to be done and he has plenty of time to do it. I hope I can help him continue that upward progression. He certainly has the team to help him do what he needs to do to reach the podium. Grade: B-plus

Andreas Kloden

He is such a strong worker, but he lost a little bit of an edge in the last couple of stages. Being dropped by Contador during Stage 17 was a huge turning point in the race. Combine that with his time-trial performance, and it showed Andy Schleck and Armstrong deserved to be above him in the overall standings. If he was a leader of a team and riding for himself, he'd be able to show more of his talents; he's one of the most gifted riders the peloton has seen in the past eight years. He's never made that decision, to become a leader of a team. He's way too talented to limit himself. Grade: B-plus

Christian Vande Velde

The Garmin rider came back from a serious injury (he crashed out of the Giro d'Italia with broken ribs and fractured vertebrae) and still finished eighth overall in the Tour. That's confirmation for him. But he also showed his class. He was the leader of the team heading into the race, but once he realized he wasn't the strongest man for Garmin, he became the best ally for Wiggins. Vande Velde started out his career as a strong domestique and started becoming a leader during his last season with Team CSC. Since he's jumped to Garmin, he's a different person in how he rides and how he presents himself. Grade: A-plus for effort; B-plus for race

George Hincapie

The only other rider to be a part of all seven Armstrong Tour wins has been able to change and adapt over the years. He can be one of the last guys in the mountains or one of the last guys in sprints. It shows a versatility in the twilight of his career. He also showed a lot of guts during this year's Tour, considering he has a badly injured collarbone. If it wasn't for some tactics not falling in his favor, he would have had the yellow jersey for a day or two. But he put that behind him and showed what he could do in helping Columbia-HTC teammate Mark Cavendish win six Tour stages. Grade: A-plus for effort; B-plus for execution

Mark Cavendish
Sprint specialist Mark Cavendish won six Tour stages, including Sunday's finale in Paris.

Carlos Sastre

He is the leader of his Cervelo TestTeam squad and had a lot of power on that team heading into the Tour. I still think they made a mistake by not adding Simon Gerrans to the Tour squad, but ...

Cervelo went in with a two-pronged attack, which is difficult to do when you have one rider who is the defending Tour champ and another (Thor Hushovd) who is contending (and won) the green jersey for best sprinter. Sastre looked uncomfortable from the beginning and never found his rhythm from the opening time trial. Maybe it was the pressure that comes with defending a Tour crown, but there was a negativity to him in this year's race that I hadn't seen before. It was a little disappointing. Grade: C

Tyler Farrar

He had many top-three finishes this year and it shows he's knocking on the door. He's hungry. The sprint specialist was going up against a well-oiled machine from Columbia and fell short to Cavendish. In the future, maybe he and his Garmin team will have a few more lead-out riders who can help him. He was one of the top three (if not No. 2) sprinters in this year's Tour. Future is bright. Grade: A-minus

Mark Cavendish

This kid blows me away. When he came into the sport a few years back, I made a point to go up to him and introduce myself because I knew he was something special. Every time I see him, I shake his hand. You have to bow down to him. He's untouchable right now -- he won six stages in this year's Tour. Amazing!

Some people say he's cocky and they don't like his personality. I haven't personally seen that, but what sprinter isn't cocky? You have to believe you're the best out there and Mark has delivered the goods every time. He has a good team around him at Columbia and he listens and learns. It was also big of him to apologize to Hushovd after a misunderstanding over comments Cavendish reportedly made to the press. He will be winning multiple stages for years to come. Grade: A-plus

Bobby Julich provided analysis for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. He retired from pro cycling in 2008 and is currently the technical director for Team Saxo Bank. The American finished third overall in the 1998 Tour and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.