Paris-Roubaix is probably the best-known of all the one-day Classic races, and for good reason: the "Hell of the North" takes riders over 26 brutally difficult sections of pavé, or cobbles, along its 260-kilometer (161-mile) route. The cyclists themselves typically either love it or hate it: Tour de France legend Bernard Hinault famously hated it so much that he avoided it like the plague, only to finally give in and race it a single time – and win, thereby giving him the pleasure of saying he'd faced down Paris-Roubaix and come off the victor. For today's elite Classics riders, though, the predominant attitude toward Paris-Roubaix is one of reverence and anticipation. It's in many ways the hardest race on the spring calendar, one that always has some nasty surprises in store, and it's one that riders come back to year in and year out, eager to get that prestigious win.
2004's edition of Paris-Roubaix looks special right from the start. The field is chock-full of high-class contenders, making it hard to pick a pre-race favorite. The "sentimental favorite" is of course three-time winner Johann Museeuw, who at age 39 is finally finishing out his last season as a pro rider. Don't be fooled by his age or impending retirement, though: the "Lion of Flanders" still has plenty of roar left. Also riding on Museeuw's QuickStep team is young Tom Boonen, winner of Ghent-Wevelgem and a force to be reckoned with. Last year's winner Peter Van Petegem is eager to pull a repeat victory, but he's not the only challenger to the QuickStep blue machine: Steffen Wesemann is coming off his recent Tour of Flanders victory with an excellent show of form. Then there's US Postal's George Hincapie, who with two fourth-place finishes is gunning for the first-ever US win of this Classic. And that's not even mentioning the many other contenders for the victory... in Paris-Roubaix, anything can happen, and usually does.
After an interesting ten minutes or so of pre-race interviews from Paul Sherwen, the race gets off to a slam-bang start with lots of attacking action right from the very beginning. World Cycling Productions' four-hour coverage of the race is spot-on for this edition, as it's full of interesting action from start to finish. Several early attacks keep the peloton on its toes, but uncharacteristically, a fairly large group manages to stay together, with all the major candidates in play. The famous Forest of Arenberg section is where the key moves usually happen, and it's indeed significant here, except that this year things don't quite turn out as expected, and the attacks and counter-attacks continue and even heat up more as the race travels closer and closer to the finish in Roubaix.
Paris-Roubaix has really grown on me over the years. The cobbled sections do a lot to mix things up, but more than that, the race seems to encourage and reward aggressive riding as well as persistence. We get to see both, in spades, in the 2004 edition of the race. A late breakaway group consisting of George Hincapie, Tristan Hoffman, Fabian Cancellara, Johann Museuuw, Roger Hammond, and Magnus Backstedt showcases brilliant hard riding, and Museeuw's unfortunately timed flat tire emphasizes the vagaries of fortune in this race. But along with Peter Van Petegem and Steffen Wesemann, Museeuw makes a final determined bid to catch up with the escapees. In the end, we're treated to a tense battle to the Roubaix velodrome followed by a thrilling sprint finish. The 2004 Paris-Roubaix is certainly one of the most exciting and satisfying editions of this great race.
The 2004 Paris-Roubaix race appears on two DVDs, neatly packaged in an attractive single-wide plastic keepcase.
The image quality for the 2004 Paris-Roubaix race is excellent, despite all the challenges inherent in getting decent footage of a race that speeds over winding, dusty roads. The image, which is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1, is clean and free of any noise or print flaws. Some picture breakup is present, but this comes unavoidably from the source material, and actually there are very few instances of interference. Colors are bright and natural-looking throughout the race footage, and the picture is generally quite sharp and detailed.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack for the race offers a clean and satisfactory listening experience. The overall sound is clear, with the environmental sounds like shouting fans or beeping cars balanced well with the commentary track. The only fault that I'd find in the soundtrack is that partway through the second disc, the volume of Paul Sherwen's comments dips considerably, although Phil Liggett's stay at a normal volume. It's still possible to hear Sherwen, fortunately, but I was glad when, a bit later, his voice returned to its regular level. All in all, it's a quite satisfactory soundtrack.
Little by little, World Cycling Productions is starting to put more special features on at least some of its discs, which is a nice direction for it to be going in. As with the other DVDs of the 2004 Classics, the cover insert for the Paris-Roubaix race has the complete start list for the race printed on the inside, visible through the clear plastic case. It's a handy reference for viewers.
On Disc 1, selecting the "Extra Stuff" link starts up a four-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. It's an odd assemblage of footage that includes some glimpses of the scene at the race start on the day before the race, some amusing outtakes of Paul Sherwen fooling around (unaware that the camera was running) and Phil Liggett flubbing his introductory lines, miscellaneous footage of the streets of what is probably Roubaix, and some random shots from the race finish that didn't make it into the final cut.
On both Disc 1 and Disc 2, we also get some promotional information on Paris-Roubaix and Tour de France merchandise offered by WCP, a static image of the other 2004 Classics DVDs (at least reminding viewers that there are other races available), and a four-minute promotional clip for Cycle Sport Magazine, hosted by Paul Sherwen. It's the same segment that has appeared on other DVDs, but it's cute if you haven't seen it before.
The overall menu and chapter design is excellent. The cover art for the discs features interesting images that aren't terrible spoilers, and the menus are simple and easy to navigate. The chapter menu is very usefully broken down by individual sections of pavé (one sector per chapter): even more helpful is the descriptive title for each chapter, which lists the number of kilometers left to race, the location name for that sector, and the length in meters of the pavé sector.
The difficult course of Paris-Roubaix, taking the riders over 26 separate cobbled sections along the back roads of France and Belgium, usually makes for an interesting race. In the 2004 edition of "The Hell of the North," we're treated to an especially exciting race, with the riders constantly attacking and counter-attacking as they strive to take home this prestigious victory. This DVD is a must-buy for any serious fan of the Classics, and what's more, it's an excellent starting point for any viewer who's intrigued by the pro bicycle racing scene. Highly recommended for both current fans and new viewers.