The 1998 Tour de France was the zenith of Marco Pantani's career: the little Italian climber had just won the Giro d'Italia in grand style, and to win "the double," the Giro-Tour combination, was an amazing feat. Pantani's career had already followed a rocky road, with both severe injury (a crash had left him uncertain whether he'd even walk again, let alone ride professionally) and a suspension from the sport behind him. 1998 was the year in which all those things fell to the sidelines, as "Il Pirata," sporting his trademark piratical bandanna, soared on the mountain climbs of the Pyrenees and the Alps to take victory in front of the adoring tifosi (cycling fans).
Sadly, there was to be no higher point than this. After more problems on and off the bike, Pantani seemed on the way up again, with a respectable showing in the 2003 Giro d'Italia, but in fact he soon fell victim to deep depression, and died untimely in 2004. It's a tragic finish for a great champion, a man with a lot of heart and a great passion for cycling. The best memorial to "The Pirate" is that in the 1998 Tour de France, we can see him in his finest hour.
The 1998 Tour de France is a showcase for a style of riding that's been sadly eclipsed in the past few years: aggressive riding by the stars of the race. Thanks to early attacks and general assertiveness, the stages are interesting, with dramatic action and time gaps opening and closing, rather than the minor time gaps that happen with conservative riding in the pack, surrounded by teammates.
As the Tour prologue opens in Ireland (as part of the Tour's tradition of starting every other year's Tour outside France), Marco Pantani seems an outside candidate. He is flush with his Giro victory, but the double is a tough nut to crack; it seemed most likely that he'd just go for stage wins. No, the overall favorite is clearly last year's returning champion, Jan Ullrich. The Telekom rider looks lean and ready to go, backed up by a strong team that included past Tour winner Bjarne Riis.
The first week of the Tour offers some interesting action on the flat stages and the early climbs, with the leader's yellow jersey changing hands several times. The U.S. rider in the spotlight is Bobby Julich, hovering near the top of the general classification: he turns in a solid performance overall. With an eye to the future, viewers are also advised to watch out for Tyler Hamilton in the first individual time trial. The main news of note, however, is scandal rather than race results: early on, doping-related arrests, searches, and seizures take on headline importance, and on several occasions it's uncertain whether the Tour will even be able to continue. Several informative segments interspersed with the race stages help to fill in all the details for viewers.
As the race heads into the mountains, the action heats up. Stage 10, with its climbs of the famous Col d'Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aspin, and Col de Peyresourde, is the first to see some major changes in the general classification. But if the action started with the Pyrenees, it really got moving in the Alps, with the single most important move of the race taking place on Stage 15, the climb up to Les Deux Alps, as Pantani makes an early break on the Galibier, making mincemeat of the now-popular idea that early attacks never work. But on the following stage, Ullrich shows the mark of a fellow champion: despite major time losses, he makes a stunning counter-attack on the road up the Col de la Madeleine.
The coverage of the 1998 Tour is excellent, with the major moves being shown; only a few times did I feel that some good material was left out (like coverage of Fernando Escartin's solid performance in the mountains). I was delighted to see several interviews with key riders, including Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani, and even more delighted to see that the riders are speaking their native language, with English subtitles provided in an easy-to-read on-screen text. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen do their usual great job in providing interesting and lively commentary for the entire race.
The 1998 Tour de France is a three-DVD set, packaged in a stylish double-wide case. The Tour itself runs approximately 200 minutes, on two DVDs. The third DVD contains the special feature, "10 Years at the Tour de France," approximately 60 minutes. The DVDs are Region 0 (all region) and in the NTSC format.
I had the occasion to pop in the VHS version of this race after watching it on DVD, and it was a great reminder of what "remastered on DVD" really means. Yes, if you own this race on VHS, you will definitely want to replace your tapes with the new DVD copy: it's vastly superior. The image is clean and generally very attractive; it's a bit soft at times, but there's no noise or print flaws, and edge enhancement is minimal. Colors look excellent throughout the race, with skin tones looking natural and the colorful jerseys of the riders looking bright and vibrant.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack ends up being satisfactory overall. I say "ends up" because the first DVD has a distinct oddity with the sound balance: Phil Liggett's commentary is restricted to the left front speaker, while the "race ambiance" is presented in the center and right front speaker; the interview material is balanced normally. It's a bit disconcerting, although it's possible to get used to it since otherwise the sound quality is fine. Fortunately, in the second DVD, the sound balance is corrected and everything sounds fine. Liggett and Sherwen's voices are clear and easy to understand throughout the race; some background music appears occasionally during the race, but is always kept to an appropriate level.
The third DVD in the set contains a one-hour special feature, "10 Years at the Tour de France," in honor of the fact that the 1998 Tour marked the tenth year of World Cycling Productions coverage of the race. This feature is a collection of "best of" moments from the 1989 through 1997 Tours: we get a text screen for each year giving an overview of the race, followed by key clips from that Tour with commentary from Phil Liggett. (The initial copies of the DVD have a section that's missing the soundtrack, but World Cycling Productions has announced that it is correcting the error for the main run of the DVD. If you find a "silent spot" in the "10 Years" program on your DVD, just give WCP a call.) This feature will probably be of most interest to viewers who are relative newcomers to cycle racing, as it gives an overview of the champions of the late 1980s through the 1990s. On hardcore cycling fans, it will have the effect of creating a great desire to see more of these fantastic Tours on DVD! (The 1989 Tour and the 1990 Tour are currently available; I'm sure I'm not the only one who's eager to see 1991 (and earlier!) through 1997!)
The overall DVD design is excellent, with chapter breaks for each stage, and an easy-to-navigate (and spoiler-free) menu. The separation of the "10 Years" special feature onto the third DVD is an excellent choice as well, allowing sufficient space for the race footage on the first two discs.
The 1998 Tour de France is an example of a great stage race, with high drama and a tense battle between the major contenders, Marco Pantani (fresh off his victory in the 1998 Giro) and returning champion Jan Ullrich. World Cycling Productions has given cycling fans a lovely remastered DVD version of this exciting race; despite a small audio glitch, the transfer overall is far superior to the VHS version, and certainly merits an upgrade. Both die-hard cycling fans and viewers who are just getting into the sport will enjoy watching as "Pantani Joins the Greats": this DVD is highly recommended.