Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the oldest of the spring "Classic" races on the professional bicycle racing calendar, and it's by far the most prestigious. Races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders are held in very high esteem, but if a rider were to choose just one of the Classics to win in a season, the extremely tough Liege-Bastogne-Liege would be that race. And no U.S. rider had ever won the race... until 2003, when Tyler Hamilton, the talented rider from Marblehead, Massachusetts who rides on the Danish CSC team, took a stunning victory.
World Cycling Productions' two-DVD set pairs the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race with the Fleche Wallonne, which takes place a few days earlier; taken together, the races are known as the "Ardennes weekend" since they both run over the Ardennes region of Belgium (and in the past the races used to take place on a Saturday and Sunday of the same weekend). This year the Fleche Wallonne is a very low-key affair, and really can be considered just as "bonus material"; the outstanding Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the real reason to pick up this DVD. Let's take a look in more detail at the two races.
The 2003 Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a knockout race, with fast-paced action from the very beginning. It's evident right away that the riders are highly motivated to win, and there are a number of important riders eyeing the prize here: favorite Lance Armstrong, as well as Rabobank's Michael Boogerd, Fassa Bortolo's Michele Bartoli, Euskatel's Iban Mayo, and even Telekom's Jan Ullrich, who is eager to prove he's in good form after a long layoff.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a challenging and interesting course, with both flat sections and hills scattered throughout the course; the climbs offer different tactical possibilities than those in a race like the Tour of Flanders, as the hills around Liege are not quite as steep as in the other Classics, but tend to be longer. Particularly in the last half of the race, there are many points where riders can springboard away to a potentially race-winning break, and of course the finish line itself is at the top of a climb.
The full two hours of coverage on the DVD are put to very good use in covering the action here. From the very beginning, the peloton is constantly in action, with the strongest riders hovering in the first five to ten positions, ready to make a move. A threatening breakaway has gotten away when we join the race, but unlike in the Fleche Wallonne, the peloton actively works to chase it down, while other riders split off to try to bridge the gap and stay away from the chasers.
Aggressive riding is the theme of the day, as team Lotto's Axel Merckx gives his all to keep the breakaway alive, and then as U.S. Postal's Lance Armstrong makes an outstanding move to jump away with two other riders. It has all the makings of a race-winning break, but team CSC fights tooth and nail to keep their leader, the U.S. rider Tyler Hamilton, in contention. The final 25 kilometers or so of the race, as the riders take on the last climb of the day back into the town of Liege, is extremely intense, with Armstrong fighting to keep away while Hamilton and the rest of the peloton bear down on him. The last five kilometers in particular have attack after attack, including Hamilton's race-winning move.
Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen commentate on this race, and are in their usual fine form here, with lots of enthusiasm combined with plenty of interesting comments about the action on the road, the riders and the current racing scene in general. If I were to rate this race by itself, it would certainly get a full five out of five stars: it really doesn't get any better than this.
The real reason to buy this DVD is to watch the amazing Liege-Bastogne-Liege; the Fleche Wallonne race that took place a few days earlier is completely secondary, since this year it turns out to be frankly rather bland.
Since the Fleche Wallonne doesn't award any points toward the World Cup competition, it's sometimes overshadowed by the other spring Classics on the calendar. Nonetheless, the race has often been very exciting, such as in 1995 with Laurent Jalabert, Evgeni Berzin, and Mauritzio Fondriest dueling it out for victory. This year, it's very likely that many of the "strong men" in the field, riders like Peter Van Petegem, Michael Boogerd, Francesco Casagrande, and Michele Bartoli, decided to hold back and conserve their strength for the much more prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege a few days later.
What that ends up meaning for the race is that there are few aggressive moves; a large, 15-man breakaway is established early on, but the peloton doesn't really chase very hard, and within the breakaway, the riders likewise play it cool during most of the 199-kilometer race. On the final climb of the Mur de Huy, we finally see a change in the status quo; the breakaway basically shatters into clumps of two, three, or four riders strung out along the course. The final climb to the finish is the one part of the race that has some drama to it; the two escapees, Igor Astarloa and Aitor Osa, who are training companions and neighbors when they're not in a race, decide to work together steadily until the final climb and then race for the line side by side in a "may the best man win" finish.
Surprisingly, Phil Liggett does the commentary alone for this race, without the now-customary presence of Paul Sherwen. For some reason, he's a pale shadow of his normal enthusiastic self in this race, offering few interesting comments on the race and only really warming to the action in the last few kilometers. OK, it's not the most exciting race he's ever commentated for, but he's really below par here; the presence of Paul Sherwen is sorely missed.
Along with Liggett's inexplicably subdued manner, another oddity of the Fleche Wallonne coverage this time around is a small "time warp": a five-minute segment of race footage is repeated midway through the race. Fortunately, after the second time through, there are no more glitches and the coverage proceeds in normal chronological order toward the finish. The running time overall for the Fleche Wallonne coverage is about an hour and twenty minutes.
The Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne races are presented in a two-DVD set, packaged in a slim single-wide case. The DVDs are Region 0 and NTSC.
The Liege-Bastogne-Liege footage is of quite good quality: colors are stable and correct-looking throughout the race, with both the colorful team jerseys and the greens and browns of the countryside looking bright and natural. The image is also reasonably sharp overall, providing an acceptable level of detail in middle- to long-distance camera shots. The print is nicely clean, and is free of any noise or print flaws.
The image quality for the Fleche Wallonne, while certainly better than VHS, is lower than the usual WCP DVD transfer, most likely due to issues with the source material from the television broadcast. The image overall is significantly softer than in other race DVDs, making it difficult to identify the riders in anything other than close-up shots. Colors are also a bit unsteady, looking overly bright at one moment and then overly dull at another. The print is very clean, with no noise apparent in the image at all.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is very good for both the Fleche Wallonne and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege races. The commentary is always crisp, clear, and clean-sounding, and the ambient sounds of the race are nicely captured to give a sense of "you are there" while never overpowering Liggett and Sherwen's voices.
There are no special features on either disc. The menus for both DVDs are very well done. The Fleche Wallonne has only four chapters, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege only five, but they're well-chosen breaks at the start of important climbs in the race. The chapter titles and images don't give away any real spoilers, and the thumbnail image has a useful profile of the climb displayed.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is an absolutely top-notch, exciting race from start to finish, not even counting the added thrill of seeing a "home favorite" take a historic victory. The companion race on the set, Fleche Wallonne, is surprisingly uninteresting this year, which is the only reason the set gets four instead of five stars. That's no deterrent to getting this set, though: Liege-Bastogne-Liege alone more than justifies the price of the DVD, and the Fleche Wallonne can be considered more like an optional bonus feature. This DVD is highly recommended, and if, like me, you're a fan of the extremely talented but also modest and personable Tyler Hamilton, it's a must-buy.