The Paris-Roubaix race has a peculiar mystique among both professional cyclists and racing fans. Known as the "Hell of the North," and immortalized in the great documentary A Sunday in Hell, Paris-Roubaix it is famous for its 28 separate sections of brutally difficult cobblestones, as well as for the difficult racing conditions: in dry weather, the roads are choked with dust, and when it rains, Paris-Roubaix turns into a muddy, slippery, downright treacherous race. Luck as well as strength is essential to win, as one mishap on the slippery cobblestones can mean a punctured tire or even a nasty fall.
Also known as the "Queen of the Classics," Paris-Roubaix runs 273 kilometers (170 miles) over narrow roads in rural France from its starting point in Paris to its finish in the Belgian town of Roubaix. The 2002 edition is noteworthy for several reasons: it is the 100th running of the race, and it has several great contenders for victory.
The Belgian superstar Johan Museeuw, known as the "Lion of Flanders," has two victories in Paris-Roubaix under his belt; if he can take a third victory, he will join the ranks of such great riders as Francesco Moser. With the strong Domo team backing him up, including the U.S. national champion Freddy Rodriguez and last year's Paris-Roubaix winner (Servais Knaven), Museeuw is clearly a man to watch. Another hot contender for victory is U.S. Postal's George Hincapie, backed up by the talented young rider Tom Boonen. Hincapie has been stuck with the nickname "Mr. Fourth Place" after two fourth places in past editions of Paris-Roubaix, and he's eager to prove that he has what it takes to come in first. However, there are plenty of other riders who will be looking for any opportunity to make the winning move, including Lars Michaelsen from team Coast, Steffen Wesemann from Telekom, and Hans DeClerq from the Lotto squad.
Taking place on April 14, only four days after the Ghent-Wevelgem race, the 100th running of the race also provides an unexpected twist for the riders in terms of the weather. After weeks of bright, sunny weather, and in fact after a sunny morning start in Paris, the heavens opened and rain cascaded down on the riders as they made their way toward Roubaix, perhaps causing some changes in planned tactics under the new, much more dangerous conditions. Repeated tire punctures and crashes cause various contenders to drop behind, only to pull back into the front again for another shot at making the leading break. The section of cobblestones (known as the "pavé") at the Forest of Arenberg, with 97 kilometers to go, is frequently where the large peloton finally shatters into smaller groups, one of which will contain the eventual winner. However, in this edition, the peloton breaks up into attacking and pursuing groups earlier on, and many of the major tactical moves happen after the Forest.
I'll admit to being a bit of a heretic and say that I don't find Paris-Roubaix to be quite as exciting as some of the other Classics like the Tour of Flanders or Liege-Bastogne-Liege, probably because Paris-Roubaix is mostly flat and relies on the roughness of its cobbled sections, rather than on hills, to break up the race. Luck also comes more into play in Paris-Roubaix than in other races, again because of the treacherous pavé; this can make the race more or less exciting, depending on how you view it. The first third or so of the race is relatively uneventful, but as the race proceeds and some definite moves are made, the intensity increases, and the second half of the coverage is very interesting; the great ending of the race definitely lifts up the overall excitement level.
Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen commentate, as usual, and Sherwen provides an excellent set of interviews with the riders before the race starts, as well as some post-race interviews.
The 2002 Paris-Roubaix 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 race was a muddy, sloppy, rainy affair, and in addition to the jiggling of the cameras over the rough cobblestones, we get plenty of mud and rain splashed onto the camera lenses. Some of the cameras handled the conditions better than others, in large part due to their location: the camera riding in front of the cyclists obviously got less splashed mud and water than the one that followed alongside the pack (though I kept wanting to yell at the camera operator "Wipe the lens off! Wipe the lens off!") There's also a larger than usual amount of picture breakup, again due to the harsh conditions as the weather interfered with the microwave transmissions of the images. Fortunately, the rain tapers off after a while, and the footage on the second disc is cleaner.
Apart from the technical difficulties imposed by the race conditions, the image looks very good. The transfer is clean (OK, we're no longer talking about the mud here!) with no noise or print flaws apparent, and the detail is good. Colors are natural-looking and bright, which is even more important here, with the coating of mud and grime obscuring most of the riders: we need all the color and detail we can get.
The image is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The sound quality on this DVD is excellent, with the Dolby 2.0 track providing a clear, clean foundation for Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen's voices. The soundtrack mostly focuses on the commentary, but we do also get some of the background ambient sound of the race, like the shouts of the spectators as the riders pass by. I was pleased to note that there is no music incorporated into the track; it's easy to forget that this is a recording, and get into the spirit of watching it as if it were live.
The 2002 Paris-Roubaix race coverage is spread across two DVDs, which are nicely packaged in a single keepcase. The cover of the case and the DVD art shows the winner of the race, but at least the menu picture doesn't give away the finale.
The menu on both discs is exactly the same, oddly enough; if you try to access the later chapters or the bonus materials in the Disc 1 menu, it simply tells you to access Disc 2. Peculiar, but at least we get chapter stops.
About fifteen minutes of bonus material is included on the second disc. The most interesting part is a five-minute piece on the Navigators cycling team, a small, mostly U.S.-based team that travels to Europe for part of its season. After that, we get a short and very cheesy promotional piece on Cycle Sport magazine (the same as on the 2002 Ghent-Wevelgem/Het Volk DVD); fortunately, the magazine is a lot better than the advertisement for it. After that, it gets a little...weirder, as if Phil, Paul, and the cameraman had sampled a few too many Belgian beers before deciding to do some impromptu cultural bonus footage. Sections on Belgian chocolate, Belgian beer, and Belgian "frites" (French fries) involve assorted silliness, quasi-serious interviews with people on the street, and a first-hand glimpse inside a local pub. Well, it looks like a good time was had by all, in any case.
Paris-Roubaix is a race with a distinct, and famous, personality. Known both as the "Queen of the Classics" and the "Hell of the North," Paris-Roubaix offers an extremely difficult course with many famous cobbled sections. Its split personality can be seen in the fact that many riders simply hate riding it, while others are motivated to make this race the highlight of their season. The 2002 edition isn't quite as exciting as some of the other classics on the 2002 calendar, but it turns out to be a very worthwhile viewing experience, and worth adding to the collection of cycling fans.