When it comes to intense drama and action, the Tour de France doesn't get any better than this: the 2003 edition is, by far, the best Tour in years. In fact, the last Tour that had as much nail-biting excitement as this one was in 1989 when Greg Lemond snatched the victory from Laurent Fignon by a mere 8 seconds on the last stage of the race. 2003 marks the arrival of U.S. Postal's Lance Armstrong as one of the select few riders who have won five Tours de France (the others being Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Induráin), but more importantly, the 2003 Tour de France is filled with top-notch bicycle racing excitement from the very first stage all the way to the end.
From the very beginning, it was clear that the 2003 Tour would be different than previous years... and more exciting. Lance Armstrong's challengers finally got tired of settling for second best and decided to give everything to the task of toppling the four-time Tour champion. In addition to team Bianchi's Jan Ullrich, ONCE's Joseba Beloki had his heart set on a victory, and was determined to attack Armstrong on every opportunity... and we would soon see that Armstrong, far from being invulnerable, had a few chinks in his Tour-winning armor. Throughout the race, attack after attack would come from all sides: not just Armstrong's expected rivals such as Beloki or Ullrich, but riders like Alexandre Vinokourov and Iban Mayo who threw caution to the wind and challenged Armstrong when it counted.
In many ways, the 2003 Tour was heartbreaking as well as exciting. Beloki was in outstanding form and a true challenge, definitely shaking things up for Armstrong in the early stages of the Tour and making for a much more interesting race... that is, until misfortune and a hideous crash took him out of the race. Even though I knew it was coming, and even which stage it happened on, it was still agonizing to watch; I had been really looking forward to Beloki's challenge for the yellow jersey. (Beloki has recovered from his injuries, but was unable to ride for the entire rest of the season.)
Another "if only things had been different..." drama played out with CSC's Tyler Hamilton. Coming off of the most successful season of his career, with a win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Hamilton was another major threat in the overall classification. Unfortunately, he crashed in Stage 1 and fractured his collarbone. Most riders would have withdrawn from the race; the gutsy Hamilton continued, with his shoulder bandaged up and layers of cushioned gel tape on his handlebars. But he wasn't content just to finish the race: despite his injury, Hamilton fought like a tiger all the way to Paris.
While the fight for the yellow jersey as overall leader of the Tour naturally takes center stage, the 2003 Tour has a lot more to offer as well. The early flat stages showcase the sprinters, such as Fassa Bortolo's amazing Alessandro Petacchi. We also get to see excellent coverage of the competition for the green points jersey (for most consistent overall finisher). WCP's coverage here is very well done, as we actually see how the sprinters like Stewart O'Grady, Erik Zabel, and Bradley McGee duel for the points that are awarded at periodic intermediate sprints throughout the course, as well as at the stage finish. The King of the Mountains competition also heats up as the roads start to slope upward in the Alps, and again the DVD keeps us on top of the situation as Quickstep's Richard Virenque and others strive to earn maximum points here.
World Cycling Productions' 12-hour extended edition of the 2003 Tour de France is outstanding, giving full justice to this extremely exciting race. The DVD coverage begins with a ten-minute introduction to the race; 2003 marks the centenary edition of the Tour, and we get some highlights of the hundred years of the Tour, along with the introduction to the 2003 edition. (However, I actually fast-forwarded through the two minutes' worth of introductory credits, because images from the later stages of the race itself run behind the credits; sure, I know who wins the overall race, but I don't want to see spoilers of anything else!) The presentation of the race route is nicely done, with a combination of useful computer graphics and images giving a taste of what each section of the race will be like, from the time trials to the mountains.
As has been the case with earlier Tour DVDs, the 2003 Tour coverage is hosted by Gary Imlach, with the actual race commentary provided by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. While I still don't particularly care for Imlach, he does a far better job as host of this Tour than any of the earlier ones he's been involved with. His contributions (summaries of the race action, information about the history of the race, updates on the riders, and so on) are delivered in a reasonably serious and respectful manner, instead of the irritating joking style of earlier Tours; while I'd still rather have Liggett or Sherwen hosting the program, Imlach does an acceptable job overall. More importantly, the majority of the running time of the DVD is spent with Liggett and Sherwen, who do their usual great job of keeping the viewers informed about all the action and tactics in the race, while also providing interesting information about the individual riders and their teams.
Even with 12 hours of coverage, the DVD coverage of the Tour de France is still a condensed version of the real three-week, 21-stage event. I'm extremely pleased with the editing job that's been done here: WCP hits the sweet spot of covering all of the exciting moments of the race while intelligently skipping and summarizing those parts that aren't as gripping.
To begin with, the coverage of the flat stages is excellent, with just the right amount of time spent on each stage. For instance, the first stage's coverage begins at five kilometers from the finish line, after a quick summary from Imlach of the attempted breakaway that was caught shortly before we join the race. The five-kilometer mark is perfect for coverage of a bunch sprint finish, as it lets us see how the various sprinters' teams jockey for position at the front, and how the sprinters try to get the best lead-out before they make their final shot for the line. The post-mountain flat stages are also given excellent treatment, such as Stage 11, which picks up at 15 kilometers to go and uses judicious editing to keep the coverage focused on the key moves. The time trials (three individual and one team) are also handled well.
The major mountain stages justifiably get a lot of time devoted to them, as these are always key stages in the overall race. I was very pleased, however, to find that the running time devoted to each stage matches up with how exciting that stage was, so we get to see substantial coverage when it counts. For instance, Stage 7 might seem at the outset to be a stage where nothing exciting was likely to happen; with its two major climbs early in the stage and only a couple of smaller mountains later on, it's the kind of stage that at most usually showcases a breakaway of a few riders who are unimportant in the race for the overall win. In 2003, however, those "lesser" climbs become a launching point for attack after attack on Armstrong, demonstrating that the returning Tour champion was far from invulnerable, and we get ample coverage of this important stage.
Stage 9, the third day in the Alps, is another example of how the excellent editing really shines. We drop into the race to see some action on the climb of the Col d'Izoard, and then as soon we get to the less interesting downhill and flat sections, we jump ahead, with Imlach giving a quick capsule summary of what happened in the section that we skipped over. In this way, we get to see all of the most interesting moves first-hand, including Vinokourov's brilliant attacks, while bypassing the less interesting parts of the day.
Another aspect of the 2003 Tour coverage that gets a huge "thumbs up!" is the post-race interviews. In the past, we've only gotten to hear from English-speaking riders, which meant missing out on most of the important interviews. In the 2003 Tour, WCP finally decides to break the language barrier and get interviews with both English and non-English-speaking riders, with subtitles added as appropriate, in a nice, easy-to-read display at the bottom of the screen. This means that we get to hear from all of the important riders, not just those who happen to speak English. A spectacular sprint finish? Winner Alessandro Petacchi gives us his thoughts. A major crash? We hear from the riders who caused it or were caught up in it. A change in who has the yellow jersey? We talk to man in yellow himself, whether it's French-speaking Nico Mattan or Richard Virenque, Spanish-speaking Victor Hugo Peña, or English-speaking Lance Armstrong. An important attack? Again, we get interviews with the key riders involved. Professional bicycle racing is truly international in scope, and the 2003 Tour coverage brilliantly captures that by getting insights from all the key players.
The 2003 Tour coverage isn't quite perfect... just very nearly so. One area in which the editing is a little less well-thought-out is in the introductory and concluding material to each stage. Imlach wraps up each stage by letting us know the results of the stage and also the current standings in the overall classification, which is excellent. Rather oddly, though, he starts out the next stage by repeating that same information. It's as though the material was originally intended to be seen as one stage per day, which is rather illogical for a DVD release. There's also more supporting material in the race footage than I'd ideally wish for; a lot of this will be most useful to viewers who are relatively new to the professional bicycle racing world, but I wish that much of it had been put in a separate "special features" section, leaving the main feature to focus on just the race. These are very minor quibbles, however: WCP's 12-hour 2003 Tour is certainly their best release yet of this tremendous race, and coupled with just how exciting the 2003 edition was, it fully deserves its high rating.
The 2003 Tour de France 12-hour extended edition fills up a total of six DVDs, which are packaged in a super-wide, attractive plastic keepcase.
The aspect ratio of the DVD coverage is 1.33:1, which is its original ratio, as the material comes from live television broadcasts of the race. Overall the image looks very good, with the image appearing bright and clean, with vivid, natural-looking colors. The edge enhancement seems a bit too heavy at times, but on the whole the image has satisfactory sharpness and clarity, considering that the source material isn't feature-film quality to begin with. The print is very clean, with no noise or print flaws interfering with the image; the source material is also very good throughout the race, with only a few minor instances of picture breakup or interference. All in all, the 2003 Tour looks great.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is quite good, offering a clean sound overall. The most important job of the soundtrack is to present the voiceover commentaries well, and it does: Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen always sound clear and distinct when they're discussing the race. Some nice ambient sounds from the race, such as the spectators cheering, also make it into the soundtrack, while never overpowering the commentary. The overall experience also benefits from the fact that there is no background music for the race coverage: this enhances the exciting "live" feeling while watching it.
On Disc 1, there is an eight-minute introduction to the Tour's route; this is the same material that is included in the main feature. Apart from that, there are no separate special features in this DVD set, which is one area that I think could have been handled better: the supplementary material hosted by Imlach (such as the introduction to the different stages, or the historical background) is interwoven through the main feature, but it would have worked much better if it had been included in a separate special features section. At the least, I wish that the introductory and supplementary material presented by Imlach were at least marked as separate chapters so that viewers could more easily skip them and go straight to the race coverage, if desired.
The overall package design is good, with each of the six DVDs labeled as to which stages appear on which disc; this is very helpful if you want to check out a particular stage. The menu interface is a bit confusing: in the reverse of just about every other DVD out there, the "selected" menu option is indicated by being darker, not brighter, than the non-selected option. Once you get the hang of that, though, it's easy to use. I was pleased to note that the chapter menus for each disc have options only for the specific stages that appear on that DVD, although I wasn't so pleased that spoiler images of the stage winners appear next to the stage name. At least they're small enough to ignore relatively easily.
No insert is included; normally I don't care much one way or the other for inserts, but this is one instance in which a well-done insert booklet would be great, if it offered a map of the stage route and profiles of each of the stages, for example. One happy trend is that World Cycling Productions' DVDs have been steadily improving in overall usability since they started embracing the format just a couple of years ago, so maybe we'll see features like this in future races.
The 2003 Tour de France is a gem of a Tour: the most exciting in more than a decade. Brilliantly aggressive riding from Armstrong's competitors forced the returning Tour champion to dig deep to defend his yellow jersey, and until the very end, the result is far from certain. WCP's 12-hour coverage of this great edition of the Tour is extremely well done, with just the right amount of attention paid to each stage of the race, and with great supporting material such as interviews with all the important riders throughout the race, from stage winners to challengers for the leader's jersey.
With this great combination of a brilliant Tour and outstanding DVD coverage, I've given the 2003 Tour de France 12-hour edition DVDTalk's highest rating: Collector Series. That's not to say that this is necessarily a DVD for all viewers: if you haven't seen any bicycle racing before, this would be a big plunge, so I'd recommend starting with something a bit shorter, like WCP's outstanding one-day Classics DVDs (try the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, or Liege-Bastogne-Liege, for instance). But if you are intrigued by the excitement of the Tour de France, maybe from watching earlier Tours or seeing some of this year's Tour on TV, then the 12-hour DVD is absolutely the way to go. In a way that a shorter program can't, the in-depth, intelligently edited coverage of the 12-hour DVD edition captures all the intense tactical maneuvering, the complexities of team tactics, the thrill of sprint finishes and the battle for the green points jersey, and of course more than anything else, the excitement of a hard-fought and intense race for the winner's yellow jersey.