World Cycling Productions' DVD of the 2003 Tour of Romandie is a real treat, giving viewers a chance to see a very different style of race. The Tour of Romandie is a stage race, like the Tour de France, meaning that it takes place over several different stages, and the leadership may change hands several times before the overall leader is decided at the end of the final stage. However, the Tour of Romandie is a short stage race: it is only five days long (compared to the three-week "Grand Tours" of France, Italy, and Spain). What that means is that all the action is compressed into a shorter period of time, leading to a potentially very exciting race: the race favorites are thrown into contention right away. It's also a showcase for the rider from Massachusetts: Tyler Hamilton, only the second U.S. rider to win the Tour of Romandie, with the first being Andy Hampsten.
The Tour of Romandie takes place in Switzerland, with the 2003 edition running from April 29 to May 3. As such, it's an ideal warm-up race for riders who are interested in making a splash in the Giro d'Italia, which starts just two weeks later.
In the prologue time trial, we're given an overview of the favorites for the race: last year's winner Dario Frigo, the U.S. rider Tyler Hamilton, coming off a historic victory the previous week in Ličge-Bastogne-Ličge, and Laurent Dufaux are three top contenders, but there are other significant challengers as well, including seasoned pro Alex Zülle. The prologue itself is extremely interesting to watch: it's a tough, very technical course that winds through Geneva and features lots of sharp corners and a steep climb, both of which make this short time trial into a distinctive start for the Tour of Romandie.
The first road stage is a flat one, which usually means that the sprinters will be in control. However, Simone Bertoletti threw a monkey wrench in the works with a solo breakaway, making for an interesting finish to the stage. After that, we get two stages with mountain-top finishes before the final day's time trial. In both cases, the action is concentrated toward the end of the stage; the early portion of the race is fairly conservative, with Hamilton's CSC-Tiscali team playing a defensive game and working hard to keep the race together. Stage 3 in particular is covered at greater length than it needs to be, and could easily have been trimmed down by 20 or 30 minutes. (Keep a careful eye on the lone leader as he nears the finishing line. In particular, keep an eye on the road and the race route markings. I won't spoil it for you, but there's a memorable moment there.)Stage 4 is also a bit more drawn-out than it needs to be, though less so than the day before. In both cases, though, once we get to the final part of the stage, we do start getting some interesting breakaways, attacks and counter-attacks, in which the leadership of the Tour of Romandie switches shoulders and sets up a very difficult situation for Tyler Hamilton if he is going to take the overall victory.
The final time trial is given excellent coverage, as well it should, since the results of this last stage will determine the overall winner of the race; since it's a fairly short time trial, it's an exciting finish. Overall, the three-hour coverage of the Tour of Romandie is a bit longer than it needed to be, but it's well done overall and all the most exciting moments are captured.
The Tour of Romandie is a two-DVD set, packaged in a slim single-wide case. The Tour of Romandie is spread out over both DVDs, with two hours on the first disc and one hour on the second, sharing space with the bonus Tour de Suisse.
The menu is well designed. Conveniently, the Tour de Suisse is accessed separately from the Tour of Romandie; we also get the option of selecting specific stages in the Tour of Romandie.
Unfortunately, the Tour of Romandie isn't up to the standard of the other 2003 releases from World Cycling Productions in terms of video quality; from the way the image looks, I'd say that the problem is in the original source material rather than in the transfer.
It looks like the television footage is digital and was heavily compressed for transmission, resulting in a picture that's fairly blurry, especially in long-distance shots, but in a blocky rather than soft way. Digital picture breakup appears periodically, but this is definitively an issue with the source rather than the transfer, as the audio is unaffected (and usually we get a rapid change to a different camera as well). The long-distance shots also tend to be slightly muted in color, which makes it hard to pick out the different teams in the peloton. There's also a fair amount of compression artifacts; whenever the camera pans rapidly over the wooded landscape or the whole body of the peloton, there's a noticeable presence of shimmering artifacts. Close-up shots look satisfactory, here colors are strong and clear, with adequate detail. It's watchable, but a letdown after the outstanding image quality we've gotten in other races.
The audio quality for the Tour of Romandie is excellent, with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen's commentary always sounding crystal-clear and natural. It's a Dolby 2.0 track, which is sufficient for the straightforward nature of the soundtrack. Some of the "race ambiance" is captured in the background of the track, which adds to the experience without intruding on the commentary. The post-race interviews are also clear and easy to understand.
Racing fans will be delighted with the special features on the Tour of Romandie: as a bonus, we get the entire 2003 Tour de Suisse (Tour of Switzerland). This ten-day stage race is the largest stage race apart from the three Grand Tours, it has an ample share of challenging mountains, and all in all it makes for a very interesting viewing experience. Here, the reigning champion is Alex Zülle, with challenges coming from Francesco Casagrande and Alexandre Vinokourov, who states that he's using the Tour de Suisse as a launching point for the Tour de France... and viewers will want to keep an close eye on this talented young man in both the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France.
This ten-day stage race is given an hour of coverage; it's not exhaustive coverage, but it's certainly enough to settle in and enjoy the race. The presentation of the race is excellent; not only are the overall race favorites summarized at the start of the program, but at the start of each stage we're also given a quick overview of which riders are likely to make a bid for the victory that day, which is very useful. Because it's fairly compressed, Phil Liggett provides a post-race voiceover narrative in the past tense, only occasionally dipping into the actual live commentary for some sections like stage finishes. It takes a bit of getting used to after watching mostly "live" races, but Liggett does a solid job.
Running from June 16-25, the Tour de Suisse actually comes after the Giro d'Italia in the race calendar; for maximum enjoyment, viewers may want to hold off on watching this feature until after seeing the Giro d'Italia. However, Phil Liggett makes almost no reference to the Giro in the coverage of the Tour de Suisse, so if you want to watch it right after the Tour of Romandie, you can do so without fear of spoiling the surprises of the Giro.
Bicycle racing fans will be delighted to see the Tour of Romandie and the Tour de Suisse on DVD, filling in the gap between the coverage of the one-day Classics and the three-week Grand Tours. The Tour of Romandie is a very entertaining race, and the coverage is good, if a bit too long at times; it would ordinarily get a solid "recommended." The inclusion of the Tour de Suisse as a bonus feature, however, provides a boost to the content and rewatchability of this two-disc set, so it ends up earning a "highly recommended" rating.