After lavishing much-deserved praise on World Cycling Production's outstanding 12-hour coverage of the 2003 Tour de France, I had the opportunity to take a look at the shorter 4-hour coverage of the same race. As a devoted cycling fan, the 12-hour edition hit the sweet spot for me, offering both breadth and depth of coverage. But what if you are interested in seeing the Tour, but you're not sure about committing to 12 hours' worth? That's where the 4-hour version comes in: this DVD is ideal for you.
Let's start out by taking a look at the race itself. How exciting was the 2003 edition of the Tour de France? In a word: extremely. In fact, it's the most thrilling installment of the race in more than a decade, measuring up well to Greg LeMond's victory in 1989 in which he snatched victory by a mere eight seconds from Laurent Fignon.
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. (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 wins in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Romandie, 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 Most riders would have withdrawn from the race; the gutsy Hamilton continued all the way to Paris, with his shoulder bandaged up and layers of cushioned gel tape on his handlebars.
WCP has done a respectable job in condensing the race coverage to get 21 stages into only four hours. Obviously we have to move at a speedy clip. For the most part, that means that we see only the last kilometer of the flat stages; this lets us see the final sprint, but not the set-up and tactical maneuvering from several kilometers out that we see in the extended coverage of the race. In the mountain stages, the coverage generally focuses on the final climb and the winning move, but we do get reasonable coverage for the key stages. For instance, the mountains of Stages 7 and 9 only get eight and eleven minutes, respectively, but we get 27 minutes of the famous climb of the Alpe d'Huez on Stage 8, 25 minutes on Stage 13 with its uphill finish in Plateau de Bonascre, 19 minutes for Stage 14's climb up to the Col de Peyresourde, and 21 minutes for Stage 15 with its final ascent of Luz Ardiden. The time trials (both individual and team) are handled reasonably well, also.
I am pleased to note that the "frame" material has been proportionately trimmed as well. For instance, we get less of Gary Imlach's introductory material before and after the stages (no great loss there, though I'll concede that he did a respectable job of hosting the 2003 Tour). Some interviews are included, but they are fewer in number, and most of the segments on particular race events (like Hamilton's injury or David Millar's technical difficulties during the time trial) are eliminated or trimmed. The historical background of the Tour de France over the last hundred years was also removed. The upshot of this is that the four-hour coverage preserves an acceptable introduction-to-race-footage ratio throughout the set, more so than in some of the earlier four-hour Tour DVDs.
As a racing fan, I have to say that the four-hour version misses out on a lot of good stuff. I've already mentioned that the sprint stages aren't as interesting, because we don't see the setup. Another casualty of the editing is that we don't get to see the fight for the green points jersey or the King of the Mountains title in as much detail. For the mountain stages, compared to the brilliant coverage of the attacks and counter-attacks in the 12-hour version, the four-hour version feels abbreviated... simply because in this Tour, there was so much happening.
One way or another, the 2003 Tour de France is a must-have DVD for anyone who's interested in bicycle racing, whether this is the first year you've paid attention to the race or you're a long-time fan. The only question is which version to choose, and World Cycling Productions has obliged by providing two solid options: four hours for the more casual viewer or newcomer to bike racing, and twelve hours for the dedicated fan.
The four-hour 2003 Tour de France coverage is a two-DVD set, packaged in a slim single-wide 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.
The only special feature here is a segment on the Tour route, which is taken from the main coverage itself. The menus are relatively easy to navigate, with each stage given its own chapter and accessible through the "stages" menu. The DVDs aren't labeled with which stages appear on each disc, but then again, with only two discs there's not much to figure out. In any case, Disc 1 contains the prologue through Stage 12, and Disc 2 contains Stages 12-20.
If you're a cycling fan trying to decide whether to get the 4-hour or the 12-hour version, I'll make it easy for you: go for the 12-hour version. Not every Tour de France is exciting enough to fill 12 hours, but the 2003 Tour more than merits the extended coverage. The 4-hour version would just whet your appetite... go for the main course right away.
On the other hand, if you're interested in cycling without yet being completely hooked, or if you want to see the 2003 Tour but are a bit shy of purchasing the longer set, then the 4-hour version of the 2003 Tour de France is ideal. Because the 2003 Tour is just plain outstanding, in terms of how exciting the race is, you really can't go wrong. So if you're debating whether to get a Tour DVD or not, then I'd most certainly recommend that you get this 4-hour version. Highly recommended.