The 2002 Tour de France may well mark the high point of Lance Armstrong's domination of this epic race. After three wins in a row, the returning Tour champion came to the 2002 edition of the Tour with the determination to make it four, backed up by an extremely strong team. In fact, several of Armstrong's domestiques (riders whose job is to work for him) could be leaders of a team in their own right, including climbers Roberto Heras (probably the best in the world at the moment) and José Luis Rubiera, and Classic specialist George Hincapie.
The good news is that WCP has done a very good job in presenting the 2002 Tour de France in this 10-hour DVD set. Unfortunately, the 2002 Tour is the least interesting one in years, with the race totally dominated by Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal team. That's exactly how Armstrong wanted it, of course, but it makes a more exciting race for the spectators when the champion is put in difficulty (as he would be in the 2003 Tour).
Notably absent from the list of competitors for 2002 is Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's arch-rival for the yellow jersey, leaving a power vacuum that was never really filled by any other riders. Team ONCE puts up the only real opposition to Armstrong, in the form of Joseba Beloki, but ONCE and the other teams ride a strangely passive race, allowing U.S. Postal to dominate the pace of all the major stages.
The racing opens with a week of flat stages for the sprinters, followed by the tough mountain stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees and then more flat stages leading into Paris. A team time trial and three individual time trials (counting the prologue stage) finish up the mix. In terms of overall action, the first half of the race is the most exciting, with the race lead remaining out of Armstrong's reach for a bit longer than we might have expected. Once Armstrong is in yellow, though, that's it: game over.
One of the few highlights of the 2002 Tour is seeing Laurent Jalabert (affectionately known as "Jaja" to fans) in his final season before retiring. In his long career, this incredibly versatile rider won both the Tour's green points jersey and its mountain jersey, worn the Tour leader's yellow jersey, been the World Champion in the time trial, and won the Vuelta a España and many prestigious Classics. In his final Tour de France, Jaja shows off his aggressive tactics, his determination, and his ability to keep his cool under pressure.
The battle for the green points jersey is a tight one throughout the race, in many ways more exciting than the race for the overall win. Telekom's Erik Zabel, the five-time winner of the points competition, tries to make it six, while Australia's Robbie McEwen and Baden Cooke are each determined to have the green jersey rest on his own shoulders in Paris. WCP's coverage of the points competition is excellent, with the intermediate sprints being shown as well as the final finishes, and with regular updates on the status of the competition.
World Cycling Productions provides excellent coverage of the race; it's just a shame that there isn't more excitement in the race itself this time around. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen provide their usual excellent commentary, enlivened by Sherwen's anecdotes about his own experiences as a professional bicycle rider. The one fault I'd find with the coverage here is that it devotes large chunks of time to the mountain stages, regardless of whether or not anything particularly interesting happens in that stage. As a result, several of the mountain stages drag on with extended coverage of nothing much happening. On the brighter side, we get a good summary of "what has gone before" in each stage before starting in with the "live" coverage: this keeps us abreast of the battles for the green points jersey as well as the origins of any breakaways. Most of the flat stages are given excellent coverage so that we can see the tactical action leading up to the final sprint; a few of these stages could have benefited from a bit more time. The time trials are also quite well handled, with exactly the right amount of time spent on them.
Although the race itself was nothing to write home about, the 2002 Tour coverage seems to mark the beginning of WCP's improved Tour de France coverage, moving away from the flashy, "style over substance" approach of past years in favor of a more serious and polished presentation. Admittedly, in some of the early stages, we get quite a few pointless "glamour" segments inserted into the coverage, featuring a montage of race images set to music, but at least they do taper off later in the coverage. A modest number of interviews with the riders are shown throughout the race; we mostly get English-speaking riders, but pleasingly we also get a few interviews with non-English-speaking riders in their own language, with subtitles. Possibly the nicest thing about the 2002 Tour coverage is that it's the beginning of a trend: everything that's well done in this coverage gets done even better in the 2003 coverage of the race.
The 2002 Tour de France is a five-DVD set, nicely packaged in a large plastic keepcase.
The image quality is satisfactory, though not quite as good as some of WCP's other releases, such as the 2003 Tour. The image isn't as sharp and clear as it could be, and some haloing effects appear at times. Apart from this, the image is reasonably good; colors are bright and natural-looking, and the print is clean. Occasional picture break-up occurs, but this is part of the original television broadcast and has nothing to do with the transfer, and there's not that much interference in any case.
The Tour coverage is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack offers a solid listening experience. Most importantly, the commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen is always clear and understandable. On a few stages, the background sound of the race (crowds cheering, car horns beeping, and so on) is a touch louder in relation to the commentary than would be ideal, but this is a very minor point, as the commentary is always quite clear. A catchy bit of theme music is used in the background to the results of each stage, and the stages themselves are shown without any music, which is exactly as it should be.
There are no real special features included here, just a map of the race route on each DVD.
The overall usability of the set shows an improvement from the previous year's edition, as the five DVDs are labeled according to which stages they include. However, the menu is awkward to use; each disc has the same menu with all the chapters included, not just the ones on that disc.
World Cycling Productions has done an excellent job in presenting the 2002 Tour de France. It just happens that the 2002 Tour was simply not very exciting, with Lance Armstrong's domination of the leader board never seriously in doubt. Thanks to the great DVD coverage, though, there's still material of interest here, most notably the hard-fought competition for the green points jersey (for most consistent daily finisher). If you haven't watched any Tours de France, or much cycling in general, this isn't the best race to start with: I'd suggest the 2003 Tour or some of the Classics like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders as a starting point to get you hooked. I'll give a general recommendation of "rent it"; die-hard Tour fans and Lance Armstrong fans will probably want to upgrade that to a "recommended," but I'd suggest that the first priority should be to add the more interesting 2001 Tour and especially the 2003 Tour to the collection.