2001 marked Lance Armstrong's bid for a third consecutive Tour de France win, after victories in the 1999 and 2000 Tours; at this point, we know that he not only succeeded, but that he went on to win two more. 2001 was nonetheless an important year: the Tour is a phenomenal victory in any year, but by taking it for a third time, Armstrong would join the ranks of triple consecutive Tour winners Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, and Miguel Indurain. Riders like Telekom's Jan Ullrich (himself a winner of the Tour, in 1997), and ONCE's Joseba Beloki, having placed second and third in the 2000 Tour, were serious contenders for the overall title, but only if they could get the best of the returning Tour champion, a man who was clearly in top form. While the 2001 Tour de France didn't turn out to be one of the more exciting in recent years, it always has something to offer cycling fans.
The Tour de France is what's known as a "stage race": that means that it takes place over multiple days, and while different riders may win the individual stages along the way, the overall winner is the rider who completes the total course in the least amount of time. The current leader at any given moment wears the famous yellow jersey, or "maillot jeune," and he's placed in the position of having to defend his top spot while the other teams try to get their man ahead. The Tour de France runs for three weeks, with a total of 21 stages: each stage is a race in itself, while the battle for the yellow jersey remains a constant theme, brought to the forefront on certain key stages. With this in mind, it's easy to see why the Tour merits a substantial treatment like this 10-hour edition from World Cycling Productions (WCP also offers a four-hour version, but the 10-hour one is by far more satisfying).
The race begins with the prologue time trial, followed by four flat stages where the sprinters get to show off their speed. The DVD coverage passes through these stages very quickly, focusing on the last kilometer or two of each flat stage so that we can see the sprint finish. Stage 5 brings us to the team time trial; here, the team as a whole must finish the course "against the clock," with all its members working together. For a strong rider with a weak team, this can be quite a crucible; while race favorite Armstrong has a great team in U.S. Postal, it's still far from an easy ride for them, and Credit Agricole has a chance to shine, bringing sprinter Stewart O'Grady into the limelight. Up to this point, the coverage of the 10-hour Tour is identical to the 4-hour version; that is, it rushes through these stages much too quickly, with only a few minutes spent on each stage, and much of that wasted on podium shots. Stage 7 is particularly disappointing, relegating Laurent Jalabert's amazing stage-winning ride on Bastille Day to a measly three minutes.
At Stage 8, we finally get to see some "extended" coverage. Ordinarily this wouldn't have seemed like an important stage, except that it's the launching point for an amazing breakaway featuring Stewart O'Grady and several other riders, who manage to get half an hour's lead on the peloton... and hold it to the finish. This is a move that changed the shape of the race for many days to come, and offered a welcome spark of excitement in a Tour that, overall, was fairly low-key. The 10-hour version devotes about nine minutes to Stage 8, which isn't all that much, but it's enough to show the main attack as well as the very exciting sprint finish. It's much better than the one-minute summary that appears in the 4-hour version. Stage 9 is another sprint finish, given barely more running time here than in the 4-hour version (four minutes instead of only two); it's the last one for a while, because Stage 10 takes the Tour de France into the mountains for the first time.
The mountains are where the 10-hour version truly shines, as it devotes ample amounts of time to each of the key mountain stages, in both the Alps and later in the Pyrenees. While in the 4-hour version we often only saw the final climb (missing out on much of the action of the stage), here we get to follow the riders as they tackle several mountain ascents and descents before the final summit. This means that we get to see more of the tactics of the fight for the yellow jersey, as the challengers try to escape, or simply to turn up the heat by increasing the pace. The race for individual stage wins also becomes much more interesting with the expanded coverage, as we get to see the attacks and counter-attacks and feel more of the tension of "will he manage to stay clear until the finish?"
It's in the mountains that the showdown between Armstrong and his main rival Jan Ullrich takes place. Stage 10 takes the riders from Aix-les-Bains over several tough climbs, culminating in the famous climb of the Alpe d'Huez, and this is where Armstrong really starts to push Ullrich (and his other rivals) in his bid to take the yellow jersey and keep it until Paris. After Stage 11's mountain time trial (which is given a fairly brief treatment), the expanded coverage gives us a great show on Stages 12, 13, and 14.
After the mountains, the 2001 Tour is basically over, with Armstrong having stamped his dominance on the general classification. The remaining stages of the race (15 through 20) are all included on a single DVD, and in fact run the same length as in the 4-hour version. There's some interesting material here, particularly the intense fight for the green points jersey between Stewart O'Grady and Erik Zabel which continues all the way to the finish in Paris.
The 2001 Tour de France 10-hour version is hosted by Gary Imlach, just as it is in the 4-hour version; in fact, his contribution is exactly the same, as the introductions to each stage and the supplementary material between stages are exactly the same, with the increased running time coming from additional high-quality race coverage with commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. I particularly dislike Imlach's style in this edition of the Tour; his "I'm too cool for this" attitude is really grating at times, and he actually makes snide comments about the race, the riders, and the general Tour experience at times. Compare that to the honest (and contagious!) enthusiasm and delight that we get from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, and it's easy to see why I vastly prefer Liggett and Sherwen. On the bright side, the expanded race coverage in the 10-hour set means that Imlach is "diluted" by Liggett and Sherwen's excellent commentary, and the experience overall is much better.
The running time of each stage of the 2001 Tour breaks down approximately as follows (stages with additional footage not in the 4-hour version are in bold):
The six-DVD set is packaged in an extra-wide plastic keepcase, with all the discs securely held in their own pages. Rather inconveniently, the discs aren't labeled with which stages they contain, and the chapter menus are all the same, with all 21 stages given as options on each DVD (if you select one that's not on that disc, it tells you which disc to insert.
The coverage of the 2001 Tour de France is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, as the footage comes from television broadcasts. The transfer is beautifully clear and clean, and the image looks very good overall (taking into consideration, of course, that this is material that was taken from live television broadcasts). Colors are bright and natural, and contrast is excellent as well; all in all, the DVD version of the 2001 Tour looks far better than it did on VHS.
The audio quality is perfectly satisfactory here, with the commentary track from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (as well as the introductions from Gary Imlach) coming across in a clear and easily understandable manner.
No bonus material of note is supplied for the 10-hour DVD version. The 4-hour version did have about forty minutes of bonus footage of notable climbs from other Tours, but it didn't offer anything really outstanding and isn't really missed.
The one "special" feature is a map of the overall course that appears as an option on each disc, which is a nice idea in theory but not very informative in practice, as it's small and not very detailed. I'd rather have had profiles of the individual stages.
The menus are serviceable but not perfect. The chapters are divided by stage, which is useful, but two oddities do crop up. The chapter break for Stage 15 actually drops you toward the end of Stage 14; skipping ahead lands you in 16. Don't worry, Stage 15 is there, it just doesn't have a chapter of its own. Also, if you select Stage 19 from the chapter menu (or skip ahead), it takes you halfway through the stage; you'll need to choose Stage 18 and fast-forward a bit to get the interesting lead-out to Stage 19's sprint finish.
However, the thumbnail images in the "scene selection" menu are very poorly thought out: they show the winner of each stage, as well as listing the winner below the image. It would have been much better to just have listed the stage number and location, without spoiling the result.
If you're interested in watching the 2001 Tour de France, then the 10-hour version is absolutely the way to go. With more space devoted to key stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees, this DVD captures the best moments of the Tour. The 2001 Tour isn't one of the most interesting of recent years; Armstrong's overall dominance made for a solid win for U.S. Postal but not as much excitement for the fans. Nonetheless, it's still a great race, and one that bicycle racing fans will want to add to their collection. While the coverage isn't perfect, the 10-hour edition is significantly better than the 4-hour edition, and it's the version that I recommend.