Pro cycling's spring Classics season wraps up with two of these one-day races just a few days apart, both taking place on the winding roads of Belgium: the Fleche Wallonne on April 21 and Liege-Bastogne-Liege on April 25. Liege-Bastogne-Liege, known as the "Queen of the Classics" and widely regarded as the most prestigious of them all, gets first billing on this DVD, but it's more enjoyable to watch the races in chronological order, so viewers will want to check out Fleche Wallonne first.
Before I talk about the individual races, I'll start off with some general comments that hold true for both. Each race is given approximately an hour and 45 minutes of coverage, and in both cases, we jump immediately into the race footage, with no introductory material. Since the action in both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege tends to be concentrated in the latter part of the race, it makes sense that the coverage here is a lot shorter than in a race like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.
I'm usually delighted with the commentary supplied by WCP's team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, so I was quite surprised to find that their commentary for both these races is lackluster. It's highly repetitive, rehashing the same few facts about the riders and their recent results, and until we get to the closing kilometers of each race, it's really not that focused on the racing action. Ordinarily, any little bit of action gets immediately pointed out to the viewer with comments about its significance, but here, it's almost like Phil and Paul are not paying much attention to the race. Similarly, until we get to the last part of the race, even their overall tone is different, more subdued and less excited about the race, which in turn makes the race less exciting for viewers.
I believe that these commentaries were done for the Outdoor Life Network, and that's where I'd lay most of the blame for the uncharacteristically weak commentary. For instance, the frequent repetitions of the same information match up with the cuts where commercial breaks were evidently inserted. If the intention was to water down the commentary in order to woo clueless channel-surfing US viewers who've never seen a bike race before, I doubt it succeeded, and it's certainly not up to standard for WCP's devoted viewers. Give me Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen in their normal form, being excited about the race (and paying attention to it!) and conveying that excitement to viewers. Give me, in short, the kind of commentary we get in the outstanding 2004 Paris-Roubaix. (And please, let's not get OLN involved any more!)
With that off my chest, let's take a look at the races themselves.
The Fleche Wallonne has a lot in common with Ghent-Wevelgem. Not in the course itself, but in the fact that it's in an uncomfortable position in the calendar relative to a more prestigious race, in this case Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The field has plenty of stars... but many of them are hesitant to put a full effort into winning the race, preferring instead to save their legs for the more important Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Fleche Wallonne is fairly bland for much of the race, with the riders unwilling to commit themselves to an all-out attack, and equally unwilling to push the pace to fragment the peloton. Fortunately for viewers, the last half hour or so sharpens up considerably, as we get a number of attacks, breakaways, and some worthwhile chasing. The final steep uphill finish in Fleche Wallonne has been the site of many impressive victories in the past, and in truth 2004's finish is worthwhile.
All in all, Fleche Wallonne has never been one of my favorite races, as it tends to be fairly low-key, and the 2004 edition is about average in that respect. I did appreciate seeing the post-race interview with Davide Rebellin; the interview is in French with Paul Sherwen providing a translation. It's really nice to hear from important riders even if they don't speak English!
Like Fleche Wallonne, the "Queen of the Classics" boasts an impressive start list, and in this race we can be sure all the riders are looking to win. Last year's winner Tyler Hamilton is here, riding for Phonak instead of CSC, while CSC fields an impressive bunch of riders including Italian champion Michele Bartoli and Ivan Basso. Peter Van Petegem is here, along with T-Mobile's Steffen Wesemann, both having demonstrated great form in the earlier spring Classics. The marked man of the race is of course Gerolsteiner's Davide Rebellin, the winner of Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne. No rider has ever won those races and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the same year; the question on everyone's lips was whether Rebellin would be able to pull off such a coup.
Some years Liege-Bastogne-Liege is very interesting, like in 2003 .. and some years it's not. 2004 turns out to fall in the "not interesting" category for nearly the entire race, with all of the big names hiding in the peloton, unwilling to risk an attack. The field remains quite large even after going over several climbs, and it's really only in the last 15 kilometers or so that we see any action happening at all, as finally some of the teams send riders out on tentative attacks. Viewers' patience will eventually be rewarded by a very exciting final 5 kilometers, with a three-man breakaway featuring stars Davide Rebellin, Michael Boogerd, and Alexandre Vinokourov. We also get a short post-race interview with Rebellin, which is a nice bonus.
The 2004 Liege-Bastogne-Liege & Fleche Wallonne DVD is a two-disc set, with one race per DVD. Even though Fleche Wallonne is the second disc in the set, it falls before Liege-Bastogne-Liege chronologically, so I highly recommend watching it first.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the better-looking of the two races, with a high-quality transfer. Colors are bright and vibrant, and there's a respectable amount of detail in the image. Fleche Wallonne looks disappointing, however, as the image is quite blurry and chunky, making it hard to distinguish the riders from each other. I'd say that Liege-Bastogne-Liege would merit three and a half stars, and Fleche Wallonne two and a half, which gives me an average for this review of three stars.
In both races, the sound quality is quite good in technical terms, with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen always being clear and easy to understand. Rather oddly, though, in Liege-Bastogne-Liege there's no ambient race sound for most of the coverage: instead, we get just a silent image of the race with the commentary overlaid. It's disconcerting and definitely not as enjoyable as when the "race ambiance" is included, as it's lacking that exciting "you are there live" feeling. Fleche Wallonne, fortunately, has a more natural sound that includes the race itself, so I'll go ahead and give an average of three stars for audio quality of the two races considered together.
WCP's overall DVD and menu designs for the 2004 races continue to be excellent. The back of the DVD insert is quite usefully printed with the start lists of each race, which are visible inside the clear case. The menus are straightforward and easy to navigate, and the chapter stops, which break the race into segments based quite sensibly on the various climbs in the race, are very useful.
Each disc has the same two bonus features: a display of the other 2004 races available on DVD, and a short promotional featurette (4 minutes) for Cycle Sport Magazine.
The 2002 and 2003 editions of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege & Fleche Wallonne really show what these races have to offer at their best. In contrast, 2004's edition of both these races ends up providing an exciting finish, but only after a considerable amount of rather bland racing. The surprisingly lackluster commentary from the normally excellent Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen is another factor in the overall low score I've given to this DVD set. I've given it a "rent it" recommendation to indicate that, while it's worth watching for cycling fans, it's certainly at the bottom of the priority list when it comes to picking up 2004's releases: Ghent-Wevelgem, Paris-Nice, and especially the Tour of Flanders and the outstanding Paris-Roubaix should come first.