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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » 2003 Vuelta a España: Heras, the Soft-Spoken Hero
2003 Vuelta a España: Heras, the Soft-Spoken Hero
World Cycling Productions // Unrated // January 1, 2004 // Region 0
List Price: $44.95 [Buy now and save at Worldcycling]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted January 28, 2004 | E-mail the Author
C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The program

The 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.

So how was the 2003 Vuelta? In a word, fantastic: certainly equaling the 2003 Tour de France and exceeding the 2003 Giro d'Italia in the level of drama and excitement to be had from beginning to end.

The 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.

One of 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.

The 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).

The 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.

To 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.

Then, 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.

Some of 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.

On the 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.

What it 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.

The DVD

The 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.

Video

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 transfer.

Audio

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 coverage.

Extras

There are no special features here. The menus are easy to navigate, with each disc having chapters for individual stages.

Final thoughts

If 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.

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