If you're a fan of professional bicycle racing, you can always count on the Giro d'Italia to serve up a generous helping of great racing excitement. While the Tour de France is often dominated by a single strong team or rider, making it somewhat of a one-horse race, somehow the Giro always has a more competitive feel. Many years have seen fantastic duels between evenly-matched rivals, like Tonkov and Gotti, but even when there's a strong favorite, the challenging yet interestingly varied course of the three-week-long race always seems to bring some fresh contenders to the fore. Such is the case in 2004's Giro: last year's winner Gilberto Simoni may be looking for a repeat win, but it turns out to be anything but smooth sailing for him... or anyone else who dares to challenge for the "maglia rosa," the pink leader's jersey.
The 2004 Giro is what every bike race should be: a challenging race with a number of riders seriously fighting it out for the win. The maglia rosa changes hands several times between the main contenders over the course of the race, and none of the riders is willing to give up and settle for second place. Even when it looks like one rider has a secure lead, there's always another rider willing to take risks and attack in order to switch the balance over to his favor. This all works to the benefit of the viewer, as the race overall is full of excitement, and all the stages have the potential to change the overall classification.
Saeco comes into the race with Gilberto Simoni as the leader, wearing number 1 as last year's winner of the Giro. He's backed up by the super-talented but also very young Damiano Cunego: that's a name to remember, as it becomes clear that he has the potential to overshadow his erstwhile team leader. (Viewers who've seen Simoni in other races will recall that Simoni is, shall we say, not one to lightly allow one of his support riders to shine in his place.) But Saeco isn't the only team with strong contenders. Watch out for Vini Calderola's Stefano Garzelli, backed up by his teammate and former Giro winner, the veteran Pavel Tonkov, as well as Landbouwkrediet's Yaroslav Popovych, for instance... and that's just a select few of the great riders who are ready to challenge each other here.
The Giro always offers an exciting slate of sprint finishes as well, and several teams have their "fast men" ready to take up the challenge. Former US. national champion Freddy Rodriguez, riding for Acqua & Sapone, puts in quite a respectable performance here, even in a crowd of riders like Robbie McEwen and Mario Cipollini. But the rider who will really amaze you in this year's Giro sprints is the incredible Alessandro Petacchi, who has a great team in Fassa Bortolo but can also manage to pull his own weight and win like it's a walk in the park. Petacchi isn't just a rising star any more; he's a complete star, but one who fortunately shines so brightly through his race performances rather than through publicity stunts or egotistical behavior.
In terms of coverage, the DVD of the 2004 Giro d'Italia offers a solid but not perfect experience. For some reason, although we're shown the stage routes, we never get to see any stage profiles, which is a glaring omission: it's essential to know what mountains the riders will face, and how tough they are. We also don't get any post-race interviews, unfortunately. Other than that, however, the race information is presented reasonably well, with the results of the stage and the overall standings shown after each stage, so we can always keep tabs on who's on top, and who's within striking distance of the maglia rosa.
Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen do their usual excellent job of providing interesting moment-by-moment commentary on the race, informing viewers not just about what's going on at that moment on the road, but also filling in some details about how the riders have performed so far that season or previously in their career.
In terms of editing, viewers will probably find the beginning of the race footage to be too abrupt: not only do we not get any pre-race commentary or an introduction of the favorites, but the coverage of the prologue time trial is so short that if you blink, you'll miss it. Once that moment is past, though, the editing settles down into a form that's almost perfect. Except for the last mountain stage, which would have benefited from a bit more footage, each stage is shown in exactly the amount of detail that it needs. Mountain stages or the important individual time trial have a generous but not excessive amount of time devoted to them, so we can see the important moves and find out what's happening to the favorites.
The sprint stages, which are always an exciting element of the Giro, are handled with absolute perfection: the coverage picks up with a generous distance left to go to the finish, such as four or five kilometers or so. That gives us enough time to see which of the sprinters has managed to get his team up to the front, and what's even better, we get to see the tactical maneuvering as the different teams fight for the all-important front places, trying to get their top sprinter in the perfect position behind his lead-out men while not allowing the other teams to mess up their plan. This is great material, which we'd miss if the coverage only gave us the final 100 meters to the line. One result of this solid sprint coverage is that we get a better sense of who the main sprint contenders are and what their tactics are... and Petacchi's achievement is even more mind-blowing.
All in all, the 2004 Giro d'Italia is an excellent race that offers excitement from start to finish.
The 2004 Giro d'Italia is a three-DVD set, packaged in an attractive wide keepcase. The total running time of the race footage is about five hours: two hours each on the first two discs, and about an hour on the final disc.
World Cycling Productions' DVD of the 2004 Giro d'Italia presents the race in a transfer that, while it's not perfect, offers an attractive viewing experience. The footage appears in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and looks as good as can be expected, considering that it's taken from live television footage.
Like many other race DVDs from the past year or so, the image quality of the 2004 Giro doesn't look as good as some of the earlier race DVDs. However, I think that's due to the nature of the source material rather than the DVD transfer. Television signals are increasingly being broadcast in digital, rather than analog, format. Digital flaws, such as compression artifacts, are much more evident to the human eye than analog problems, and so when we view the footage, it looks worse. (Even if it was analog to begin with, it's often digitally compressed en route.)
But in any case, the 2004 Giro is more than watchable. Colors, for instance, are consistently handled very well, looking bright and vibrant while still appearing natural. This goes a long way toward helping the overall image look good. Close-up shots tend to look very nice, with a good level of detail as well.
The sound quality for the 2004 Giro is satisfactory overall, in that it's clean and crisp, with Liggett and Sherwen's commentary always easy to understand. However, there's an annoying flaw in the soundtrack of the second disc: while the background sound is presented normally, the commentators' voices are restricted to the left front channel, which sounds quite odd. In the first and third discs, the sound balance is normal.
There are no special features included on the discs, but there's a complete start list printed on the inside of the cover insert, visible through the clear case. This lists all the teams and their roster of riders. The discs are set up well, with easy-to-navigate menus, chapter stops usefully placed at the start of each stage, and no spoiler images in the chapter titles of the stages.
If you've enjoyed any other Grand Tours, the 2004 Giro d'Italia is sure to please. It's not the ideal race to start with if you've never watched any bike racing before, since it jumps right into the action without any introduction, but if you're already a fan, there's no doubt that this is an essential addition to your collection. Although the presentation isn't quite as perfect as the 2003 Giro (due to the lack of stage profiles), the race itself is much more hotly contested and both the overall race and the sprints are very exciting. Highly recommended.