Taking place as it does early in March, Paris-Nice is the first really important race on the professional cycling calendar. This week-long stage race has been the showcase for many champions in the past, with its list of winners including the Irish legend Sean Kelly (with a mind-boggling seven consecutive victories), Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain (with two wins), and popular favorite Laurent Jalabert (with three wins). Known as "The Race to the Sun," Paris-Nice starts out in chilly northern France and wends its way through mountain passes that often threaten the riders with snow (and in fact 2004's Stage 4 ends up being canceled due to inclement weather), finishing up on the sunny Mediterranean coast of Nice. It's a prestigious race in its own right, but it's also a great snapshot of the state of the pro peloton at the beginning of the season.
As always, commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen have all the details about the riders and what they've been up to over the winter training and trading season, and offer some interesting and informed thoughts on what we might see in the days ahead. Most notable among the riders who switched teams is Tyler Hamilton, who shifted from CSC to Phonak; cycling's eternal "bad boy," the talented but very flaky Frank Vandenbrooke, also returns to ride for Fassa Bortolo in what's undoubtedly his very last chance to make good on his potential.
Two-time winner Alexandre Vinokourov is the clear favorite going into the 2004 edition of Paris-Nice, but he's not the only one with victory on his mind. Phonak has Tyler Hamilton as well as Alex Zulle, who may be in the tail end of his career but who still has the ability to pull off some nice moves. US Postal fields Floyd Landis in the leader's spot, along with George Hincapie as a possible contender, while Gerolsteiner's Davide Rebellin is a man to watch as well. But it's CSC who turns up with the strongest challengers, with a team that includes Ivan Basso, Michele Bartoli, Jens Voight, Bobby Julich (looking better than he has in quite a while), and Jorg Jaksche.
In any race that runs more than one day, there are always two challenges on every stage: the race for the leader's jersey, and the race for the stage win. The closer the two challenges coincide, the more interesting the race will be overall, since what really turns up the heat is seeing the top contenders battle it out day after day. Since Paris-Nice runs only one week, the action is a lot more intense than in a more drawn-out stage race like the Tour de France. Take the same stage in the Tour de France, and you'd likely see a small group of riders from far down in the overall standings take off, leaving the big names to cruise along in the peloton merely eyeing each other and conserving their energies for another day. In a shorter race, though, there aren't very many "other days," meaning that each stage is sure to see some good action. That's certainly the case here.
In the end, Jaksche's CSC team (directed by experienced Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis) keeps a tight rein on the overall leadership of the race, which of course was great news for CSC but makes for a less exciting viewing experience for fans. Even so, the fact that the time gaps are in seconds, not minutes,means that Jaksche had to be constantly on the alert for any challenges to his lead, since even a short breakaway could make the yellow jersey switch to the shoulders of a challenger like Davide Rebellin or Alexandre Vinokourov.
Fortunately, the individual stages of Paris-Nice are prime showcases for exciting riding. Here, the major teams and top stars of the race don't pull their punches: we get plenty of attacks, counter-attacks, and daring, aggressive moves as riders fight for stage wins as well as better spots in the overall classification. Stage 7 is the unexpected highlight of the race: all by itself, it's as exciting as a Classic, with great moves by Euskatel-Euskadi's Sammy Sanchez and T-Mobile's Alexandre Vinokourov, with a brilliant downhill chase and a nail-biting finish.
World Cycling Productions provides three and a half hours of coverage of Paris-Nice. It's nicely divided between the two DVDs, with the break conveniently placed between stages rather than in the middle of a stage. Overall, it's a good amount of coverage for the week-long race, but that amount of time is rather badly distributed among the stages. Nearly an hour is spent on Stage 6, for instance, with a considerable amount of "dead time" included, while several of the earlier stages would have benefited from having more time devoted to them. Apart from that, though, the coverage is handled well, with all the major breaks being given proper attention. I was particularly pleased that we're shown a profile of each stage, letting us know what the course is going to be like and what major climbs the riders will face. And of course Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen provide their usual interesting commentary for all the action.
WCP continues to improve its overall packaging each year, with this two-disc set appearing in a sleek clear plastic keepcase, with attractive disc art and an overall stylish design. The DVDs are Region 0 (all region) in NTSC format.
The 2004 Paris-Nice race looks quite respectable here on DVD. As with any DVD of a live sports event, there are some flaws in the picture such as interference or the occasional increase in graininess, but these come from the source material rather than the transfer. Overall, the image quality is quite solid, with few instances of picture break-up considering that some of the recording circumstances were far from ideal, as the stages often finished late in the afternoon with reduced light levels (the team cars even had to put their headlights on). Colors are perhaps very slightly muted in some shots, but on the whole they look natural and bright, especially the eye-popping orange Euskatel-Euskadi jerseys. All in all, it's a solid transfer. The race appears in its original television broadcast ratio of 1.33:1.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack provides a clean and clear listening experience for the entire race. The volume levels are handled well, with the ambient race noises balanced well with Liggett and Sherwen's commentary. They're always completely understandable, and overall the DVD provides an enjoyable soundtrack that makes you feel like you're watching the race live.
WCP has made good use of its switch to clear plastic cases: printed on the inside of the cover is a full start list for the 2004, with each team and all its riders listed. I'd have been more interested in a list of the race stages and profiles, but the start list is still quite handy, and it's very nice to see some supplemental information like this being included with the DVD.
The DVD menus are nicely user-friendly and easy to navigate. Each stage is its own chapter, and I'm pleased to see that the chapter menu lists the stages by number and route without including any spoilers about who won.
On the second disc of the set, we get two minor special features. One is a four-minute clip promoting Cycle Sport Magazine, with short interviews from Cycle Sport reporters. There's also a section listing other 2004 Spring Classics on DVD: there are no trailers, but it's a handy reminder that there are more great races to pick up.
I'm delighted to find the 2004 Paris-Nice race on DVD, as this is the first time that the great "Race to the Sun" has been available for cycling enthusiasts to add to their collection. While the race for the overall win isn't as exciting as we could have wished for, the individual stages are extremely compelling, with several stages as hard-fought and aggressively ridden as a Classic race. Overall, I'll give the 2004 Paris-Nice a strong "recommended": cycling fans will certainly want to pick this one up.