I love the Tour of Flanders. This one-day Classic race, the second in the prestigious World Cup series, always attracts some of the biggest names in racing, and the challenging course with its cobbled climbs always tests the riders to the limit. As with the other Classics, the Tour of Flanders follows almost exactly the same course each year, which means that we can look forward to the roster of melodious-sounding hills: the Koppenberg, the Bosberg, the Molenberg, the Tenbosse, the Muur de Grammond...
2004's edition promises a showdown of titans, as the "Lion of Flanders," three-time winner Johann Museeuw, attempts to add an unprecedented fourth win to his palmares. It's Museeuw's very last chance, as the celebrated rider is set to retire at the end of this season. Last year's winner, Peter Van Petegem, is also eager to snatch a record-equaling third win, and it's safe to say that the Tour of Flanders is prime Van Petegem territory. However, the Tour of Flanders is a difficult and chancy race that offers many chances for other riders to come to the fore, and 2004's field includes many stars who'd love to stand on the top step of the Tour of Flanders podium: Italian champion Paulo Bettini, who is a teammate of Museeuw but more than capable of coming to the fore if the Lion falters; U.S. Postal's George Hincapie, coming off a win in the Three Days of De Panne; World Champion Igor Astarloa; veteran T-Mobile rider Steffen Wesemann; and many others.
The two-disc, four-hour coverage of the 2004 Tour of Flanders starts with a nice introductory segment, about ten minutes long, in which co-commentator Paul Sherwen interviews some of the riders prior to the race start. It's a great reminder of who's in the race and who hopes to do well; it's also nice to get a glimpse of the riders up close and get a sense of what they're like off the bike as well as on it.
Unfortunately, the race gets off to a bit of a slow start in terms of action. A 26-man break gets off the front early on, and stays put, just out of reach of a not-very-ambitious peloton, for quite a long while. In fact, the first hour and a half (or even the first two hours) of the race is uneventful; even Sherwen and Liggett end up repeating things along the lines of "Well, the action will really get started when the riders reach the Oude Kwaremont..." Realistically speaking, unless you are a total hardcore cycling fan, you might as well pop in the first DVD for the pre-race interviews and then hop straight to the second DVD, which puts the riders at about 70 km from the finish with events just starting to look interesting. (I'm a pretty devoted fan myself, but even I found the first two hours to be fairly dull.)
Fortunately, once we hit the halfway point, things rapidly shape up into a very interesting race. We get a leading group who manage to stay away much longer than anticipated, a chasing group with some solid names in it, and a peloton that seems at times to be too busy shadowboxing, with the big names eyeing each other, to pay attention to what could turn out to be a race-winning set of breaks. While the race kept a more or less steady state for the first half of the race, at this point the climbs start coming thick and fast, and as the riders are more tired at this point, we start seeing some dramatic effects. Weaker riders drop off the back, stronger riders maneuver to the front, and previously solid groups of riders splinter into fragmented groups who chase to merge with others and work together in the strong wind that prevails on this day.
The final hour in particular is very exciting. On the one hand, we have a race of attrition, as the leading riders fall back one by one; but on the other hand, we also have repeated chase groups forming and re-forming as riders give it all they've got to break away from the peloton's infighting and make it to the front. Tactics also play a critical role in what happens here: when and how a rider makes his move is just as important as his strength and speed.
Watching the 2004 Tour of Flanders, I'm reminded of why I love the Classics. It's all about the race: there's no holding back here, no saving one's strength for another day, because the winner is the first man over the finish line, period. The Flanders course is perfectly suited to give us an exciting finish: the frequent short, steep climbs offer many chances for important moves, and even on the flat sections there are plenty of opportunities for important action to occur. The payoff is that the racing is both serious and exciting, giving us things like the smart tactical maneuvers of QuickStep, or the full-out attacking strength of Ludo Dierckxsens, who puts in such an amazing turn in the race that you'll be desperately cheering him on.
The 2004 Tour of Flanders is a two-disc set, attractively packaged in a slim plastic keepcase. It's in the Region 0, NTSC format.
The image here is definitely not as sharp and clear as in other recent WCP releases. That's to say that it's about what I'd expect from a television broadcast... but I've gotten used to seeing a better-quality image on these DVDs. The print is clean, but fairly blurry; while close-up shots look fine, whenever the camera pulls away, the picture gets quite soft, so that it's hard to see individual faces of the riders in the group, or spot the team jerseys from the overhead shots. Overall, I'll say that it's satisfactory (and still certainly better than VHS) but viewers will likely wish for the crisp image we got in earlier editions.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is nicely handled here, with the commentary of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen always completely clear, crisp, and understandable. The sound balance between the commentary and the "race ambiance" noise, such as the whirring bikes, shouting crowds, and beeping cars, is handled very well, so that we get a definite sense of being present at the race without any interference with the commentary.
The menus are clear and easy to navigate, with the chapter breaks logically arranged to coincide with major climbs (and labeled accordingly). In a nice touch, the DVD case is clear, displaying the start list, with all the teams and their riders, on the back of the cover. I'd rather have had the course route and profiles of the climbs (maybe in future editions?) but in any case it's a useful reference. There are no other special features.
While the first half of the race is uneventful, if you're a fan of cycle racing it's definitely worth picking up the 2004 Tour of Flanders for the exciting two hours of racing in the second half of this great Classic race. The Tour of Flanders is one of my favorite Classics, and the 2004 edition gets a solid "recommended" rating, and belongs in the collection of any fan of the Classics. If you've never seen the Tour of Flanders before, it's a great race for viewers who are new to cycle racing, but I'll suggest starting with the phenomenal 2002 and 2003 editions before you pick up the 2004 edition. Recommended.