The Tour of Flanders is one of the hotly contested "spring Classics" on the professional bicycle racing calendar: every April this race takes the competing teams through the Belgian countryside, facing steep, tough climbs up cobbled hills interspersed with flatter sections on smooth roads. It's a one-day race, so the riders have to give it all they've got if they want to cross the finish line first: there's no holding back for the next day.
While the basic route remains the same as in the 2002 edition, the 2003 Tour of Flanders is a bit tougher than previous years, with three additional climbs having been added to make a total of 19 hills for the riders to face. The starting field is star-studded, with quite a few pre-race favorites having the potential to take the win: the "Lion of Flanders" Johan Museuuw; current World Cup holder Paulo Bettini; current World Champion Mario Cipollini (though on a hilly course like Flanders, he doesn't stand much of a chance, being a pure sprinter); and the Belgian "home favorite" Peter Van Petegem. But luck, and initiative, always play an important role in races like the Tour of Flanders, and many other riders could play a starring role if they get in the right break, including Museuuw's young teammate Tom Boonen (recently signed over from U.S. Postal), U.S. Postal's Vladislav Ekimov, who has free reign since neither of his team leaders are in the race, and Frank Vandenbrooke, returning after a wild series of ups, downs, and suspensions in his career.
The Tour of Flanders coverage opens with a nicely substantial segment (about 15 minutes) at the sign-in portion of the race, with co-commentator Paul Sherwen interviewing various riders from different teams to get a sense of their form and plans for the race. While I wish we didn't just hear from English-speaking riders (if WCP were willing to use subtitles, we could hear from a lot more riders, and since Sherwen does speak French, there's really no excuse) we do get some great pre-race thoughts from a lot of riders. Of course, we're interested in what the race favorites and team leaders are thinking, but it's also nice that Sherwen talks with the domestiques as well: the riders whose only job in the race is to take care of their leader, chase down threats, and knock themselves out in service of their team's best rider. It gives a good sense of how bicycle racing is definitely a team sport, with supporting players as well as stars. This pre-race segment also serves as an update on the various riders and their teams: we find out who's particularly "on form" as their early-season results would indicate.
All in all, the 2003 edition of the Tour of Flanders turns out to be a very exciting race, with constant action throughout the entire running time of the DVD coverage. And, of course, commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen provide a constantly interesting stream of description, analysis, and information about the racing action that's taking place. In particular, the commentary is always very clear as to which breakaway group is doing what, making it easy for the viewer to follow the action.
After an early breakaway (with the presence of long-breakaway specialist Jacky Durand making it a threat), the peloton reforms, but it doesn't stay together for long. Constant attacks and counter-attacks split away from the main group, including several with important race favorites. The 19 climbs along the route offer ideal launching places for important breaks, and certainly we're all waiting for the "Lion of Flanders," Johan Museuuw, to choose which climb will be the right one to make his final move for the race. What makes it more interesting is that Museuuw's tactics turn out to be a little different from what we might have expected... and Peter Van Petegem rises to the challenge, along with the talented Frank Vandenbrooke, who certainly has a lot to prove. When the final, winning break is established, it's only with a slim margin at first, so there's a lot of excitement in the chase; the sprint finale also turns out to be a great example of cat-and-mouse tactics between the two challengers.
The two-disc DVD coverage of the Tour of Flanders runs about three hours and 10 minutes, allowing viewers to see all of the exciting action as it happens; it's exactly the right amount of coverage for this marvelous Classic race.
The Tour of Flanders is a two-disc set, with the discs securely held in a slim single-wide keepcase. It's a Region 0, NTSC DVD.
The Tour of Flanders looks great here on DVD, keeping in mind that this is live television material that wasn't filmed under ideal conditions, of course. Colors look impressively bright, vibrant, and accurate: this is particularly important, since it allows for easy recognition of the various riders in their colored team jerseys. The image is sparklingly clean, with absolutely no noise or print flaws at all. The live camera footage has very few instances of picture break-up (the few bits of interference that we see are from the original material and have nothing to do with the transfer). Particularly since the material has to undergo a PAL to NTSC transfer along the way, it's quite pleasing to see that the Tour of Flanders looks as good as it does.
The sound for the Tour of Flanders is a solid Dolby 2.0 track, and it gets the job done nicely. Co-commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are always completely understandable, and we get a nice but not overwhelming touch of "race ambiance" as well, with the sounds of the cheering spectators and the whirring bicycles. In the second DVD, I noticed a slight amount of distortion in the commentary, but it's fairly minor and didn't detract from the overall clarity of the voiceover.
Music is provided in the opening credits of the DVD, but fortunately once the race starts, the music stops and we have a "clean" track with just the race and its commentary. This really helps provide a feeling that you're watching the race live.
About 15 minutes of bonus material is included, divided among three interesting mini-featurettes, each hosted by co-commentator Paul Sherwen. Sherwen talks about the tough Koppenberg climb; leads viewers through the Tour of Flanders museum, which is (as its name implies) a museum entirely dedicated to the fascinating history of the race; and takes viewers to Eddy Merckx's home and factory, where the bikes that bear the racing legend's name are made. In this last segment, we get a short clip showcasing Merckx's amazing career, and then we get a chance to meet him as he talks to Sherwen about his line of racing bicycles.
The overall design of the DVD is excellent. The spine on the DVD case doesn't reveal who wins (the cover image does, but that's easy to avoid looking at if you don't want it spoiled for you), and the menu screens are likewise spoiler-free: they're nice, dramatic shots of the race that give the right flavor without giving anything away. Chapter design has also improved since the earlier WCP DVDs I've reviewed: the chapters are divided according to which climb the riders are on, which is a very logical way of organizing the material. Additionally, each chapter has a thumbnail image with the name of the climb and its profile, which is very useful.
The Tour of Flanders is always one of my favorite Classics, and the 2003 edition doesn't disappoint: it's full of exciting action from start to finish, with clear and insightful commentary provided along every step of the way. Especially considering the very nice DVD transfer, the 2003 Tour of Flanders is highly recommended.