The Tour of Flanders (the Ronde van Vlaanderen) is a prestigious race, with victory coveted by professional cyclists: in addition to its own merit as an important Classic race, it is the second round in the World Cup, with the top finishers earning points in the World Cup competition. The race itself is challenging; over the course of a single day's racing, two hundred cyclists from 25 teams will ride 264 km (164 miles) over narrow Belgian roads, facing sixteen short but steep climbs, each of which is paved with cobblestones, making the ride even more challenging. Winning the Tour of Flanders requires top-notch form as well as smart tactical maneuvering, the ability to seize opportunities when they arise, and a healthy dose of sheer determination.
As with all the Classics, the Tour of Flanders has a traditional spot in the calendar at the start of April, and runs over nearly the same course every year; there are sometimes slight changes to the route, it maintains its overall integrity and its characteristic flavor from year to year. The names of the hills roll off the tongue, each one with its own personality: the Molenberg, the Koppenberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Bosberg, the Muur. That's one of the things that makes it fun to watch the Classics: in the Tour of Flanders, we know that these hills will break up the peloton and bring the best riders to the forefront while the weaker riders fall back; we also know that certain climbs like the Bosberg are traditionally good spots for strong riders to launch an attack.
The 2002 edition of the Tour of Flanders has to fall into the category of "one of the best ever." After an early breakaway that earned a huge time gap on the chasing peloton, the attacks, counter-attacks, and regroupings just kept on coming. Major challengers would have difficulties and fall back, seemingly hopelessly out of the race, only to come back into contention. On several occasions, it seemed like the winning breakaway had formed, only to have determined chasing and counterattacking from the group behind turn things upside down.
The U.S. Postal team plays an important part in the race, with Lance Armstrong backing up their team leader in this event, George Hincapie (while Hincapie works for Armstrong in stage races like the Tour de France, when it comes to the Tour of Flanders, the tables are turned). The powerhouse of Mapei has a strong team that includes Andrea Tafi, while the experienced and wily tactician Johan Museeuw, riding for Domo-Farm Frites, tries to take a record fourth victory in the Tour of Flanders. Another former winner, Peter van Petegem from the Lotto team, is also keen to add the 2002 edition to his list of victories. Even sprinter Mario Cippolini is eager to stay in the action; as the current leader in the World Cup competition, he's looking for a high finish that will earn him more points and allow him to stay on top. All in all, the 2002 Tour of Flanders is a great balance of team tactics and individual initiative, making for a very exciting race.
The constant action of the race keeps co-commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen busy describing the tactics and actions of the riders, but even during moments of relative quiet in the peloton, the commentators keep up an interesting dialogue that provides background information on the riders: how they performed in early season training and races, what they've won over the course of their career, comparisons to other riders, plans for the future, and so on. The result is an interesting commentary with no "dead time" at all. We get several interesting pre-race and post-race interviews with riders as well, including George Hincapie. Both Liggett and Sherwen are in good form here and seem to be enjoying the race, as always.
The coverage of the Tour of Flanders on this DVD is perfect: not too much, and not too little. We get approximately three and a half hours of racing coverage, starting with an interesting introduction to the major contenders while they sign in at the start of the race, and then skipping over the first 130 kilometers of racing to pick up with the peloton chasing a four-man breakaway, with almost continual coverage from that point until the end. This is an excellent editing choice, as we bypass the relatively uneventful opening section of the race, and we get to see all of the climbs as well as all the attacking, blocking, and counterattacking that goes on over these tactically as well as physically challenging hills. This is a race that more than deserves the excellent two-disc coverage that it has received.
The 2002 Tour of Flanders is a Region 0 DVD, playable on any NTSC-compatible DVD player and TV. In fact, all of World Cycling Productions' DVDs are Region 0, which is very appropriate given the international scope of the sport of cycling.
The 2002 Tour of Flanders is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, since all the footage included here is from television broadcasts. Considering that the DVD uses broadcast television footage, the image quality is excellent, and certainly much better than on videotape. The image is bright and clean, and the colors are clear without any bleeding, which is especially important given the bright colors of the riders' team jerseys. Occasional glitches such as momentary picture breakup occur, but are rare, and in fact happen much less than in the coverage of older races that I've seen. The detail offered by the DVD presentation is excellent, so that even in the long-distance helicopter shots, it's possible to identify the teams colors of individual riders, and often even to identify specific riders.
I was very pleased with the audio quality offered in the Tour of Flanders DVD, which has a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack. It's a clean, simple soundtrack with only commentary overlaid, no music: this is actually a big improvement over coverage with music in the background, as the overall sound experience is much cleaner, clearer, and more immersive: it feels like you're watching it live.
Co-commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are always crystal clear and understandable throughout the race, providing a continuing stream of interesting and informative thoughts on the events of the race. Additionally, the soundtrack does a nice job of capturing the ambient sounds of the race: the whirring of wheels when the motorcycle camera moves close to the group, the shouts of the crowd lining the road, and so on.
The Tour of Flanders is a two-disc set, nicely packaged in a slim single-wide keepcase, with attractive packaging. The race coverage has been split into chapters, making for easy navigation of the lengthy race.
The "bonus footage" promised on the DVD case turns out to be nothing less than coverage of an entire race: the Three Days of De Panne. This interesting race, included on the second disc of the set, takes place just a few days before the Tour of Flanders, and in fact is referred to several times during the Flanders coverage on this DVD. Since the 25 minutes of coverage here is too short to merit its own release, I applaud WCP's decision to include it with the Tour of Flanders and make it available to viewers.
Since the Three Days of De Panne is in many ways a "test run" for the favorites in the Tour of Flanders, I recommend watching the coverage of this race before watching the main feature. It may seem odd to watch the bonus material (which is even on the second disc of the set) before the main feature, but in this case, it provides an excellent introduction to the major contenders in the Tour of Flanders.
The one fault that I have with the packaging and the menus is that it shows the winner of the race. Personally, I like to watch the race coverage without a reminder of who wins, as it makes the experience more exciting. In this case, it was a bit difficult to handle the DVD without looking too closely at either the cover, the disc art, or even the menu screen. If I could wish for just one thing to be different, it would be to have the "spoilers" relegated to the back of the DVD case, which is easy to avoid looking at if you want a surprise.
World Cycling Productions' edition of the 2002 Tour of Flanders gives this great one-day Classic the treatment it deserves, with three and a half hours of great footage covering a race that's exciting from start to finish, and that features many of the big names in cycling, from U.S. Postal's George Hincapie and Lance Armstrong to Mapei's Andrea Tafi and Domo's Johan Museeuw. With an excellent video and audio transfer as well as outstanding content, the 2002 Tour of Flanders is highly recommended.