For a perfect bicycle racing DVD, you need two ingredients: a top-notch, exciting race, and equally top-notch coverage of the event. That's exactly what we get in the 2004 Vuelta a España: from start to finish, this Vuelta delivers a powerful package of racing excitement.
Let's start with the race itself. One of the three Grand Tours in the cycling calendar, the Vuelta a España is traditionally a nail-biter of a race, somehow managing to produce tight finishes year in and year out. As a result, it's always a very exciting race for viewers, since it ends up being a very aggressive race with a delightfully uncertain outcome until, literally, the very last day of the race. What makes the Vuelta such a great race? Chalk it up to the good sense of the race organizers. They asked themselves "what are the most exciting parts of a Tour?" The answer: individual time trials and mountain-top finishes. So what do they do? They load the Vuelta with exactly those exciting types of stages. In the 2004 Vuelta, then, we get no fewer than three individual time trials (one of them uphill), one team time trial, and eleven mountain stages, six of which have uphill finishes. The sprinters haven't been entirely forgotten, as six flat stages are tossed into the mix, but the focus on mountains and time trials certainly makes for a gripping race over all three weeks.
What's more, the Vuelta starts and ends with a bang: the first stage is the team time trial, which leads to some interesting effects in the overall classification, and the final stage is an individual time trial. There's no relaxing cruise into Madrid for these riders: the final ownership of the winner's golden jersey is up for grabs until the very last minute.
The quality of the peloton is another factor in the strength of the 2004 Vuelta. Smarting after a disappointing Tour de France performance, two-time Vuelta winner Roberto Heras comes to the starting line with a keen eye to repeat his 2003 win. This time his Liberty Seguros team includes Heras' chief rival from 2003, Isidro Nozal, as well. But despite his talent, determination, and the aid of his super-domestique, Heras is not unbreakable here... and no one is going to let him take the victory without a fight. Kelme's talented Alejandro Valverde is a hot contender for an overall win, and Phonak has a powerful duo in Oscar Sevilla and Tyler Hamilton (keep a sharp eye on Santiago Pérez as well). T-Mobile fields Alexandre Vinokourov as their challenger for the golden jersey, while Erik Zabel will face off against the other sprinters, most notably Fassa Bortolo's golden boy Alessandro Petacchi, for stage wins and a repeat victory in the points competition. We also shouldn't forget Iles Balears-Banesto's Francisco Mancebo, who's always on the verge of a great performance, and Vini Calderola's Stefano Garzelli. In fact, just looking over the start list means spotting half a dozen more riders who could take command of the race. U.S. viewers will also be captivated by the performance of U.S. Postal here: without Lance Armstrong, other riders on the squad have a chance to shine, and Floyd Landis turns in an excellent performance.
Maybe it's the challenging course, or maybe it's the fact that the Vuelta is the last chance in the season for a Grand Tour win, but the riders in the 2004 Vuelta are consistently very aggressive. There's none of the boring "sit back and wait passively in the peloton" behavior that's all too common in the Tour de France; these riders are willing to push hard to get time on each other and fight their way to the top of the classification. What's more, the nature of the course is such that no single day determines the winner. All the stages in the 2004 Vuelta are very important, and if one rider gets an advantage on one day, the other riders don't roll over: instead, they work hard on later days to take back that time and get ahead in turn. For viewers, this makes for a very entertaining and exciting race, as the overall classification is never set in stone. Any race that's still up in the air at the start of the final time trial, as this one is, is a great one.
The exciting content is only half the battle: the other half is an equally outstanding presentation, and here WCP has hit all the notes perfectly. To begin with, I am delighted to report that this Vuelta is commentated on by the team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen... there's no Bob Roll, who detracted from the 2003 Vuelta with his poor commentary skills. Three cheers for Phil and Paul! When you're going to be listening to a race for five hours, it's essential to have really good commentary, and the 2004 Vuelta delivers nicely.
Everything else falls into place as well. For each stage, we get a route map and a nicely drawn profile, indicating the major climbs and what category they fall into. The profile is extremely important, as it has huge implications on the tactics of the race, and its inclusion on every stage here is perfect. The editing is also outstanding. Not only does the five-hour length seem to be the "sweet spot" for a Grand Tour like the Vuelta, the time devoted to each stage is extremely well thought out. The sprints are given ample time to see the action unfold, usually starting two or five kilometers from the finish (and sometimes further out, if the action warrants). The time trials give us a clear picture of how all the important riders are doing – not just the leader, but all the major riders – with the time checks presented in a clear manner so we always know who's ahead and by how much (and what that means in the big picture). Last but certainly not least, the mountain stages are given ample time to capture all the action, but it's always very sensibly presented: we don't get more footage of the mountain stages just for their own sake. If nothing exciting happens on the first few climbs, we cut past them and focus on the real action on the final climb. As a result, there's little "dead time" in the footage, and a maximum of interesting moments throughout the race.
We're also treated to a perfect handling of the informational updates about the riders' standings. After each stage, we see the results list for that stage, and then an updated list of the general classification. In a race as hotly contested as the Vuelta, it's essential to see not just the relative position of the riders, but also the time gaps between them, and we get that perfectly here. The coverage here also does a great job of presenting the race for the King of the Mountains jersey and the points jersey, letting us know who the main challengers are for each, and what their point standings are. Since the points competition in particular is quite exciting here, it's great to get those updates. Another nice touch is that at the end of the race, we get to see all three podium finishers, not just the winner, as well as the winners of the King of the Mountain and points competitions. That's something that's often left out of race coverage, but it adds a nice, complete touch to the race to see these results at the end.
The 2004 Vuelta a España is a three-DVD set, with five hours of race coverage in total. It's packaged in an attractively designed wide plastic keepcase
The image quality for the 2004 Vuelta, though watchable, is several notches below the usual standard for WCP's DVDs. Colors are significantly washed-out in most of the footage, to the point that in the overhead camera shots, it's difficult to pick out the different team jerseys below. The image also has various digital artifacts, probably due to the compression of the original television broadcast. Close-up shots look the best, with a reasonable amount of detail. I'd say that most of the problem comes from the original television broadcast material, as last year's Vuelta had similar issues (though not as pronounced), while the Giro and Tour consistently look good. The race is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
For the most part, the Dolby 2.0 soundtrack for the 2004 does a solid job of conveying the audio experience of the race. The commentators' voices are always clear, crisp, and easy to understand, volume levels are handled perfectly, and the "race ambiance" noise from the sidelines is included just enough to give a nice flavor to the viewing experience. There's only one, admittedly rather peculiar, flaw in the soundtrack: on the second of the three discs, the commentators' voices are restricted to the left front channel instead of being properly spread across the channels. It's a decidedly odd effect. Fortunately, the soundtrack in the first and third discs is completely normal. Considering that this exact same technical glitch appears in the 2004 Giro, I really hope that WCP takes a hard look at what's going on in their quality control department.
There are no special features on the DVDs themselves, but a complete start list is printed on the back of the cover insert. (It would be really nice to get an insert with the race route and stage profiles as well... maybe we can hope for that in future DVDs.) The overall design of the set is handled very well. Each stage has its own chapter, and the breaks between discs are timed so that they fall between stages, not in the middle of them. The menus are clear and spoiler-free, and are easy to navigate.
If you enjoy pro cycle racing, you'll want to add the 2004 Vuelta a España to your collection right away. It's a top-notch race in terms of content, and WCP's presentation of it is perfect, allowing viewers to enjoy every minute of this race. It's so well presented that it's likely to be quite accessible for viewers who haven't seen many bike races before, as well. The image quality is a bit lackluster, but that's unfortunately something that can happen when the content of the program comes from live television broadcast footage. In any case, it's not something that should deter you from picking up this DVD. Highly recommended.