Final three riders deserved to be on podium in Paris

MUNICH -- As my teammates and I traveled back from the Sachsen Tour International, we watched the end of the Tour de France over a beer at the airport here in Munich.

The one good thing about the Sachsen race was that it has taken my mind off of missing the Tour de France. I have too many memories of what it's like to race in it. So, that's why I couldn't watch the traditional "lap of honor," when each team takes a lap around the Champs-Elysées after the race. I just couldn't watch it.

And as for me ...

I hadn't let air out of my tires during a race since my amateur days. And while I saw other riders doing it Sunday in the pouring rain during our last stage at the Sachsen Tour International, I still didn't let the air out.

That ... was a mistake. I crashed three times during the stage (don't worry, I am OK!) before finishing second overall. Thank goodness for those rain clothes. I escaped with just a little skin off at the hip.

So what happens next? Since I am feeling like a racer again, I'll continue with CSC through the end of the season. If this is my last season, so be it. I want to enjoy the last months of free hotels, prebooked flights and free laundry service while I can before real life sets in!

I just want to get every last ounce of competitiveness out on the road so I don't have anything lingering inside me when I stop. That's a big problem in athletics -- people become bitter for the rest of their lives if they are forced to retire or call it quits before they're ready. I don't want to become one of those people.

I am so appreciative of the career I've had and I want to pass that knowledge down to the next generation.

-- Bobby Julich

But even though I wasn't in the race this year, I know one of the great things about the Tour is the stories. Every rider has one. Just look at the top three finishers: Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer.

Contador overcame a massive blood clot in his brain a few years ago, but he came back from the career-threatening episode and now represents the future of cycling with his win in Paris.

Evans was on the Telekom team with me back in 2003 and they ruined his morale and ruined him as a rider. He had no support. Back then, that's how things were if you weren't Jan Ullrich or Eric Zabel. But, much like myself, Cadel found his way out and built himself back up again.

Leipheimer was ignored by the U.S. national team early in his career. Like Evans, he switched teams and landed with Discovery before this season. The moves turned out to be golden for both riders.

From the beginning of the race, Leipheimer had the potential to do this. I sent him a text message Saturday night, telling him to "enjoy the view," thinking about my own third-place finish at the Tour in 1998. Being up there on the podium and seeing his teammate there as the race winner had to be a great feeling. The extra prize money can't hurt either!

I know there will be some who question whether those three riders should have been on the podium since Michael Rasmussen was pulled from the race earlier this week while leading the Tour. Well, the riders who weren't up there, weren't up there for a reason. We can't look at it that way. Contador, Evans and Leipheimer were all in the mix for most of the Tour and they all had great races. We saw Leipheimer only get stronger and stronger as the Tour went on -- we saw that in the time trial.

Barring a situation like we had last year (Floyd Landis' Tour later being challenged by allegations), I think we saw the right riders on the podium. Contador is part of the sport's future. To be honest, I am more comfortable seeing Contador up there at age 24 than Rasmussen up there at 34. As for Cadel and Levi? This might be their last chance at the podium. As you get older, it's harder to reach that kind of success.

Despite all of the news and allegations, I think we saw a real turning point in cycling at this year's Tour. We've had dark days, but this has to be where the wheel turns in our favor in making cycling better. I knew things had to get worse before they got better, especially after how the Puerto scandal was mishandled. Now? Riders have to know that if they try to do anything, they are going to get caught. Let's show the world that we did clean up our act. Other sports will have to look at the same issues and deal with them the way we have. We're doing this for the new generation.

It's been almost 10 years since the Festina scandal in 1998. Maybe that dark time was the best thing to happen to cycling. Maybe it saved my generation of riders. We could have looked like gorillas on bikes now if that didn't happen! Because of Festina, maybe we saved some lives. I know our sport has changed in some ways; in others, it's changed little.

What will the next 10 years be like? If we don't have to ride out there wearing gas masks because of the growing pollution ... I hope we have a popular sport, a sport everyone can believe in, a sport people can be sure is valid. We will still see fantastic performances and we'll see records broken. Competition brings out those things and I think that's what fans love most about sports.

I am always going to be a fan of cycling. It's one of the most popular sports in the world, but one of the least popular in the United States. Over the next 10 years, I will continue to promote the sport in a positive way to help change that.

I won't still have a number on my back, but I'll ride my bike until the day I die. It's like air to me. I'll be watching my two daughters grow up and maybe I'll take them out for a ride.

Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.