Known not-so-affectionately as "The Hell of the North," the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race is one of the most famous on the spring racing calendar. The route to victory takes the riders over 260 kilometers (161 miles) of narrow, twisting roads in northern France, including 26 separate sections of cobbled roads (the pavé). The route is bone-jarring at the best of times, requiring not just pure strength and endurance from the riders to push their bicycles over the pavé, but also intense focus as the riders try to find the best path to avoid crashing or puncturing a tire on the tricky course.
The 2003 edition of Paris-Roubaix takes place on a sunny, dry spring day, so the riders have choking dust to contend with rather than sticky mud over the pavé. Most of the riders prefer these conditions rather than the brutal mudfest that we've had in other years, and viewers also get the bonus of being able to actually see the riders in their team colors unobscured by splashed mud. Even better, the dry conditions make for an extremely fast and active race, with many attacks and counter-attacks giving rise to an interesting tactical race.
World Cycling Productions' two-disc, four-hour coverage of the 2003 Paris-Roubaix begins with a 25-minute introduction in which Paul Sherwen interviews a number of the riders during the team presentation the day before the actual race. While this means that we don't get to see the riders dressed in their team jerseys, as we would right before the race, this does give the opportunity for longer, less hurried interviews. In addition to hearing from a number of the riders, Sherwen also speaks with team directors Sean Yates (of team CSC) and Dirk De Mol (of team U.S. Postal), both of whom won Paris-Roubaix in their own professional careers. It's a bit annoying, though, that we only see interviews with English-speaking riders... Sherwen does speak French, so why don't we hear from some of the French-speaking riders, with subtitles? But in any case, this nicely substantial introduction sets the stage well by showing us who are the main contenders, who are the outsiders with a good chance, and what some of the different riders and teams have in mind for the race.
The race itself turns out to be one of the most interesting editions of Paris-Roubaix that I've seen. Taking place on April 13, just a few days after Ghent-Wevelgem, the race features a number of serious contenders for victory: in fact, the peloton includes four previous winners and eight podium finishers in total. Foremost is last year's winner, 37-year-old Johan Museeuw, the "Lion of Flanders," in a bid for his fourth win, but equally threatening are 2003 Tour of Flanders winner and World Cup leader Peter Van Petegem, as well as Andrea Tafi, who won the race in 1999. Some of the notable "outsiders" with chances for victory include team Telekom's Erik Zabel, Alessio's Fabio Baldato, and Cofidis' Nico Mattan. While U.S. Postal couldn't field its Classic leader George Hincapie, teammates Vjatcheslav Ekimov and Max Van Heeswijk take up the slack to give the team a shot at a place on the podium.
The DVD coverage of the 2003 Paris-Roubaix has something new: instead of picking up the action midway through the race, the coverage begins with the very first of the 26 sections of pavé. It's often said that the winners and losers of Paris-Roubaix are determined by how they deal with the first sections of pavé, and by starting the coverage coverage at the very beginning, we're given the opportunity to see for ourselves how this turns out. This additional material gives us a bit under an hour's worth of racing before the riders arrive at the first "decision point" of the race, the pavé at the Forest of Arenberg. I'd say that we really haven't gained all that much by seeing the earlier portion of the race; while we do get to see a threatening breakaway form and then be whittled down to a group of nine riders, all of the real race favorites spend the first sections of the pavé tucked away in the chasing group, waiting for the Forest to make their first move. Fortunately, the intelligent design of the DVD makes it possible for viewers to customize their race coverage: the chapters are divided according to the sections of pavé, making it easy to jump forward to the Forest of Arenberg if that's what suits your fancy.
And it's at the Forest of Arenberg that things heat up... and they really do heat up. At this point, the "big guns" start firing in earnest, with Andrea Tafi aggressively attacking along with Peter Van Petegem, trying to shake their major threat, three-time Roubaix winner Johan Museeuw. The breakaway group keeps changing and reforming, as riders attempt to split off the front or to bridge the gap between the breakaway and the chasing group behind. The race coverage is very skillfully edited, discreetly trimming out less interesting portions of the race to give us a viewing experience that has complete continuity while hitting all of the key breakaways, attacks, counterattacks, and tactical maneuvers. The race just keeps getting more and more exciting as the distance to Roubaix gets shorter; the last hour of the race in particular is extremely gripping, and the finish is a fantastic duel between Ekimov, Van Petegem, and Saeco's Dario Pieri. The finishing kilometer into the Roubaix velodrome is handled extremely well, with the camera sticking on the three contenders all the way. While Paris-Roubaix is better known for its "muddy hell" conditions, the dry surface of the cobbles this year give us a fantastic show, as it seems like the riders felt they could really be more aggressive and ride a more tactical as well as a faster race.
Co-commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen do an excellent job as always of providing interesting and informative commentary throughout the race. Sherwen in particular seems to have fully warmed up to commentating since he joined Liggett a few years ago, seeming much more relaxed and likely to share interesting anecdotes about his own racing career (he rode Paris-Roubaix many times as a professional). They do a nice job not just of narrating the action that's taking place, but also of informing the viewer about the various riders and teams: who's in great shape, who's been injured, how the teams are doing in their season overall, and so on. We get many references to the results of earlier races in the season, as well as discussion of the riders' plans for upcoming races, which is why I recommend watching the spring Classics in chronological order for maximum enjoyment: Het Volk, the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche-Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. (They're delightfully addictive: watch one and you'll want to watch them all!)
The 2003 Paris-Roubaix is a two-DVD set, packaged nicely in a single-wide keepcase with a spindle for each disc. It's a Region 0 (all region) NTSC disc. I was happy to note that the cover, disc art, and menu screens are all spoiler-free, with very attractive shots of the race that don't reveal the winner.
Paris-Roubaix is one of the toughest races to capture on camera. With billowing clouds of dust being raised by the bicycles and by the support vehicles, and with the cobbles causing the cameramen on the motorcycles to bounce around madly, it's amazing that we get as good a view as we do. Unavoidably, there's some picture breakup and static appearing in the image at times, and more so than in some of the other Classics (that take place on better roads), but it's really kept to a minimum.
The DVD transfer does an excellent job of presenting the image; any problems that we see are all from the original television footage, not from the transfer. The print is extremely clean, with no noise or print flaws at all. There's some edge enhancement, but we're actually looking at one of the few circumstances in which edge enhancement actually improves the image, giving a little more definition to a picture that wasn't of the highest quality to begin with. Colors are bright, clear, and clean throughout the coverage, and overall the image looks nice and very watchable.
The race is shown in its original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is more than sufficient here, with the commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen clear and understandable throughout the race coverage. For some reason, Liggett's voice is slightly muted compared to Sherwen's, but not excessively so. The soundtrack also picks up enough of the ambient sound of the race (spectators cheering, cars beeping, and so on) to give a good feel for the experience, while staying balanced with the commentary.
The bonus commentary track for selected sections of the race (which I discuss in the next section) is accessible by choosing the second audio track. The commentary from Frankie Andreu is just as sharp and clear as those on the regular track, and sounds great.
The menus are very well designed, with each section of pavé getting its own chapter, and with the chapters usefully labeled with information on the difficulty and length of that section.
The 2003 Paris-Roubaix has a very interesting special feature: an audio commentary for two sections of the race from veteran rider Frankie Andreu. Before retiring a few years ago, Andreu rode Paris-Roubaix ten times, giving him a solid understanding of the ins and outs of this tough course. "Frankie's Feature," as it's described in the bonus section, is split into two parts: around ten minutes of commentary for the Forest of Arenberg section on Disc 1, and over an hour's worth of commentary for the entire last 40 kilometers of the race on Disc 2. It's quite interesting to hear Andreu talk about the race, as he focuses on discussing the individual and team tactics involved at each point, and providing insights on the experience of the race from a professional rider's point of view. In addition to being very interesting for "veteran" fans, this is a great way for viewers who are new to bicycle racing to understand and appreciate the race more.
The bonus commentary is accessed through the special features menu; on the first disc, it's prefaced by an unskippable short clip introducing Andreu. Viewers who want to watch the Forest of Arenberg section with his commentary can also bypass the special features menu (and introductory clip) by choosing Section 15 from the chapter menu, and then switching to the second audio track. On Disc 2, if you want to select the start of the commentary section from the menu, you'll need to choose the Section 8 chapter and skip forward: there's a "hidden chapter break" between Sections 8 and 7, which is where Andreu's commentary begins.
In the past, Paris-Roubaix hasn't been one of my favorite Classics, but the 2003 edition has done a lot to win me over. It's an extremely interesting race with a lot of action and exciting challenges among the contenders for victory. World Cycling Productions has done an excellent job of presenting the four-hour coverage of the race, including a well-thought-out bonus commentary track that adds a lot of repeat viewing value; it's highly recommended.