HOCKENHEIM, Germany -- Williams BMW driver Mark Webber experienced firsthand the agony Tour de France cyclists endure when he rode part of one stage recently.
"When I did those climbs, it reminded me what guts these guys have in taking on these mountains," Webber told ESPN.com. "You can see what is ahead of you, the next hour of pain. You can see the switchbacks scarred into the mountains, and the caravans and all the people waiting for you. It is an incredible atmosphere in such an amazing location."
Webber took a couple of days off between the Grand Prix races in Britain
and Germany to catch up with his friend Lance Armstrong, who appears to be headed for a record seventh victory in the Tour de France.
"It is a great sporting event," Webber said. "Lance is just an
incredible individual. He has the team around him, and he just delivers
day in and day out."
Webber, a keen athlete himself, had always admired Armstrong. Last year, a mutual friend got them together during the Tour de France, but they didn't have much time to chat.
"He obviously had his [race] head on," Webber recalled. "He was totally
focused, and they'd just come out to warm up, which was fine. I tried to imagine what he was going through."
In October, Webber went to Texas, where he spent a couple of days with Armstrong. They trained together and compared their sporting disciplines.
"He is incredibly strong," Webber said. "It was good to talk to him about
the technicalities of it all and learn how to ride my bike a little bit
better. It is a very technical sport. It looks basic, but it is not. He's
the best cyclist in the world in terms of how to get the best out of the
bikes and himself, so it was good to be with him."
"We did some cycling and hung out for few days," Webber added. "It was a really good experience. He is a really good guy. We mixed a lot of pain with pleasure, did some good cycling and had fun.
"As everyone knows, Lance is a phenomenally fit guy, and it was amazing to be cycling alongside him and chatting, although my breaths soon got shorter and shorter, as did my answers to his questions."
Armstrong took Webber swimming at a local lake, where the fastest way in is by jumping off a cliff.
"It was a very long way down," Webber recalled, "but when Lance did it, I had to do it, of course!"
The two met up again this year on July 11, which was a rest day for the
Tour riders. The next morning, while the roads were still open, Webber and some of Armstrong's friends rode partway down the mountain on the Courchevel stage, a mountain that peaks at 6,577 feet. Then they rode back up.
"You can do it for a few hours because the road is still open for three or
four hours before the race," Webber said, "which is amazing because you
have all these people [spectators]. It is just a chaos three hours before
the race, and then it is all cleared and the riders come up."
Webber rode with some of Armstrong's friends, and they wore Team Discovery Channel gear. Some of the crowd mistook them for actual teammates of Armstrong, and there were cheers and jeers.
"They were saying [Jan] Ullrich that, Armstrong this! Armstrong that!"
"I was with some of Lance's friends and people, and we had a very good
time," Webber said. "I watched everyone else at night doing all the
drinking. A lot of drinking going on. A good atmosphere. But I was
always fresh the next day, which was good for me because they suffered
heavily on the bikes."
Webber says the Tour de France riders who complete more than 2,000 miles in 21 days are some of the best athletes in the world.
"I can't get my head around it," he said. "I've cycled with some pretty
hard cyclists, and done some big mileage -- and the next day they can't do the mileage these guys do. So they're on another level. I was talking to one of the riders, and he said some of the worst memories of his life
involved the Tour de France."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.