Vuelta a España is
the third Grand Tour on the cycling calendar, with 2003's edition
running from September 6-28, and though it tends to attract less
attention than the Tour de France, it has
consistently been a very exciting race. In fact, from a cycling fan's
point of view, the organizers of the Vuelta have exactly the right
goals: to make the race exciting to watch from the first stage to the
very last. The 2003 Vuelta is a perfect example of an outstanding
race design, with the result being a hotly contested race in which
the overall winner wasn't determined until the last moment.
If we ask the question, "What makes a stage race exciting?"
the answer will likely be this: mountain-top finishes and individual
time trials. What did the organizers of the 2003 Vuelta do? They put
in lots of each! The route includes nine mountain stages (including
six uphill finishes), one team time trial, two individual time
trials, and, to finish off with a real bang, an uphill individual
time trial on the next-to-last stage. The mountain stages feature
eleven first-category climbs and five "special category"
climbs, including the famous Col d'Aubisque during the Vuelta's
venture into France. Furthermore, the eight flat stages are varied,
not all of them pancake-flat... which means that sometimes the finish
ends up as a bunch sprint, sometimes a breakaway succeeds, and
sometimes a breakaway is caught within scant meters of the finish
line. The result? Individual stages that are lots of fun to watch
even when the general classification isn't in question.
how was the 2003 Vuelta? In a word, fantastic: certainly equaling
Tour de France and exceeding the 2003
Giro d'Italia in the level of drama and excitement to be had from
beginning to end.
2003 Vuelta recalls the "old style" of bicycle racing, in
its most positive sense. It's a race that rewards aggressive riding
and taking chances, rather than playing things conservatively. Team
ONCE starts out with a tight grip on the race lead after the first
stage, a team time trial; but while Igor González
de Galdeano is their favorite, it's super-domestique Isidro Nozal who
ends up holding the leader's golden jersey for the team as they enter
the mountains. At that point, Nozal and his ONCE teammates are under
attack from a variety of contenders for the overall lead: US Postal's
Roberto Heras, a former winner of the Vuelta, Heras' teammate Manuel
Beltran, up-and-coming young rider Alejandro Valverde of Kelme, and
last year's winner, Fassa Bortolo's Aitor González.
The race route turned out to be extremely well balanced: while pure
climbers like Heras and Felix Cardenas took off in the mountains,
Isidro Nozal turned on the power in the time trials and doggedly held
on to his advantage as the roads grew steeper.
the marks of a great race is when riders can (and do) come from
behind to challenge the leader. At one point in the middle of the
race, Nozal has a five-minute time advantage over some of the major
threats... and while in the Tour de France such a time gap might seem
insurmountable, here in the Vuelta the riders were willing to be
aggressive and fight to regain lost time, a minute here, a few
seconds there, with the result that the insurmountable five-minute
barrier was whittled down bit by bit to make it possible for the
leader's jersey to change hands at the very last minute.
Vuelta has a lot to offer even beyond the battle for the general
classification. Fassa Bortolo's top sprinter Alessandro Petacchi is
in fine form and looking to add to his list of victories; Telekom's
wily veteran Erik Zabel, however, is eager to put a wrench in the
works and steal away stage victories as well as take the lead in the
points competition. Cofidis' David Millar is also anxious to prove
himself in the time trials, with an eye to preparing for the World
Championship title in the individual time trial later in the season
(which he won).
race, then, is great stuff. However, WCP's coverage is surprisingly
uneven. In fact, I'm baffled at how the same folks who brought us the
utterly perfect DVD coverage of the 2003 Giro d'Italia could have
made the poor decisions that we get for the Vuelta coverage. The most
important part of a cycle racing program is the racing, which seems
to have been forgotten in the production of the Vuelta DVD. We get
too much "fluff": too many commentators (and I'll have a
few choice words on that in a moment), too much time spent
summarizing the stage results and general classification, too many
music-video-style clips sandwiched in between stages.
begin with, the race coverage itself is uneven. Throughout the race,
some stages are given excellent coverage that captures all the key
moves, while on other stages, we are taken into the action after the
most interesting moves have already taken place, and only given a
quick verbal summary of events that we really would have wanted to
see first-hand. Fortunately, the coverage is long enough (at four and
a half hours in total) that even with some omissions of interesting
material, we do get to see the real heart and soul of the race.
for some reason, the excellent commentary team of Phil Liggett and
Paul Sherwen is joined here by a third commentator, Bob Roll. Having
three race commentators is a bit awkward to begin with; Liggett and
Sherwen switch back and forth naturally and easily converse about the
race, but Roll is a "third wheel" whose contributions never
seem well timed. Unfortunately, that's not the only problem. Liggett
and Sherwen have class; Roll doesn't. His comments are awkward, he
constantly repeats himself, his enthusiasm seems forced, and his
observations are often completely irrelevant to what's going on. The
problem is not simple inexperience, it's that both content and
presentation are poor; in contrast, Paul Sherwen had interesting and
relevant things to say right from the start. In a nutshell, Roll is a
lousy commentator and I really hope that he isn't being considered as
a regular part of the team.
the production values are lower than usual as well. The Vuelta
coverage has been partially "localized," with the Spanish
on-screen announcements and listings of the results replaced in some
instances by English ones... not a bad idea, except for the spelling
mistakes (like Espana for España and Jiminez for Jiménez)
and an obsession with presenting irrelevant facts (like how many
riders are left in the race). On the second disc, there's also an
instance in which the image "freezes up" and remains static
for about a minute, while the audio continues as normal.
bright side, for production values, the overall map of the race is
used quite effectively, and we are shown profiles before each
mountain stage. Ideally I'd have liked to see profiles for every
stage, as well as an indication during the race coverage of which
climb the riders are on, but this is handled reasonably well here.
comes down to is this: Is the 2003 Vuelta a España a great race? Absolutely. Is WCP's coverage of it equally
great? Unfortunately not. WCP's
uncharacteristically flawed coverage is what holds the DVD of the
2003 Vuelta back from the full five stars that it could otherwise
have earned; nonetheless, the race itself is simply outstanding, and
the DVD is certainly worth getting in order to see an extremely
exciting and dramatic race.
2003 Vuelta a España
is a three-DVD set, packaged in an attractive double-wide keepcase.
The DVDs are usefully labeled with which
stages appear on which disc.
The 2003 Vuelta is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio,
preserving the image as originally shown in television broadcasts.
The image quality of the 2003 Vuelta is acceptable; it's not as good
as some of the other races that have come out on DVD the same year,
but it's better than others, like the Tour
of Romandie. On the whole, colors are good, looking bright and
natural, although sometimes there's a bit of fluctuation in the
colors. Detail is reasonable; I'd have liked to have seen a sharper
picture, but overall the clarity of the image is satisfactory.
Certainly there's no noise or dirt in the image, and the picture is
free of color bleeding. There's some picture break-up at various
times during the race, especially in the mountains, but this is
entirely an issue with the source material and not the fault of the
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack for the Vuelta ends up providing a
satisfactory overall listening experience, but it's more uneven than
in most of the other WCP productions. Especially in the early stages
of the race, the balance of the commentators' voices with the
background sound of the race is badly handled, so that the "race
noise" is overly loud and even drowns out the commentary at
times. Fortunately, this problem clears up partway through the race,
and the sound is clear and understandable for the remainder of the
There are no special features here. The menus are easy to navigate,
with each disc having chapters for individual stages.
you enjoy the three-week Grand Tours, then the 2003 Vuelta a España
is one race that you won't want to miss. It's a race full of action,
one in which the outcome is never certain until the very end. It's a
race with talented riders striving to win, but no "superstars"
who simply take over: we can identify with and admire Isidro Nozal's
dogged defense of his surprise golden jersey, as well as Roberto
Heras' equal determination as day in and day out he whittles away at
the time gap between him and victory. It's a shame that WCP dropped
the ball to a certain extent in the production of the DVD; the
presentation of the race, as well as its video and audio quality,
isn't up to the high standards that we've seen in races like the Giro
d'Italia or the Spring Classics, and that's why the race gets
four rather than five stars. What matters in the end, though, is the
race, and the 2003 Vuelta a España
is one of the best in years. It's highly recommended.