The 1999 Tour de France was the beginning of a winning streak for Lance Armstrong, who would go on to take not only this edition of the Tour, but also the next four. But in July 1999, no one knew that the U.S. Postal rider would take on such a dominant role. He was a contender, but only one of many in a race that was, at the beginning, wide open.
1999 was exceptional at the beginning because there were no former Tour winners in the race, as the '96, '97 and '98 winners Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, and Marco Pantani were non-starters. That left quite a few eager contenders, however, most notably Alex Zülle, riding for Banesto, and Abraham Olano, riding for ONCE. Nor was Armstrong the only U.S. rider with dreams of donning the yellow jersey, as Cofidis' Bobby Julich was also keen on a victory.
One of the strengths of the 1999 Tour DVD is its coverage of the first week of racing (the prologue and the flat stages leading up to the first mountain stage). The sprint stages are given a reasonable amount of time, generally starting with the riders at the one-kilometer-to-go mark but occasionally a bit earlier. I'd have liked to have seen even more of a lead-out, but it's reasonably handled. What's really outstanding is WCP's informational context to these stages: Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen point out the key riders to watch, provide useful background information on them, and do an excellent job of explaining the tactics that we see in the sprints. Several interviews are also included, several in the riders' native language with subtitles. Overall, about 45 minutes are spent on the first week alone, making it very interesting.
When it comes to the real meat of the matter – the fight for the overall lead– there's an inherent conflict in a race between what the riders want and what the viewers want. From a rider's point of view, the most desirable outcome is an easy victory by a large margin, which is exactly the opposite of the tense, closely fought battle that makes for great viewing for cycling fans. 1999 is a Tour that went entirely the way Armstrong wanted it, which undoubtedly made him and his team manager Johan Bruyneel sleep quite well at night, but makes the 1999 Tour less than gripping.
The 1999 Tour was, in effect, decided by two key events early in the race. First, there was an early crash that held back most of the main contenders while Armstrong, who had fortunately been ahead of the crash, sped away to take advantage of his rivals' delay. The result: more than six minutes of time deficit for riders like Alex Zülle. The second key event was Armstrong's winning move in the first day of the mountains, cementing his advantage.
However, what the extended coverage of the 1999 Tour reveals is that Armstrong's rivals didn't go down without a fight. While in retrospect we know that the time deficit would turn out to be insurmountable, we can see how Armstrong was repeatedly put to the test and proved to be strong enough to keep his yellow jersey all the way to Paris.
Overall, WCP's presentation of the 1999 Tour is excellent. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen provide the commentary, with Sherwen also giving a few short informational pieces, and Gary Imlach offering a few comments between stages as well. For the most part, the stages are very well edited, with the coverage skipping ahead as needed to neatly trim out less interesting moments, like the stretches in between mountain climbs. As I've mentioned, the treatment of the flat sprint stages is nicely done, and exactly the right amount of time is spent on reviewing the stage results and the overall classification: enough to see any important changes, but not lingering too long. The only quibble I'd have with the coverage is that on several occasions, the events of a preceding stage are summarized at the beginning of the next stage... something that might make sense for a daily television broadcast, but not for DVD.
The 8-hour Extended Edition
Viewers have the choice of either this eight-hour extended edition of the 1999 Tour de France, or an earlier, four-hour release (packaged together with the four-hour 2000 Tour). The essential question for cycling fans is, which version to get?
Considering that the 1999 Tour de France isn't one of the more exciting ones of recent years, my initial expectation was that the shorter version might be preferable, and for casual viewers that probably still holds true. However, after watching the extended version and comparing it to the four-hour version, my verdict is that for cycling fans, the extended edition is superior.
The additional four hours of coverage appears in the mountains; I've indicated in the stage list below exactly how much extra time is allotted to each stage. Whereas in the four-hour version we get a quick overview of the day's progress and only pick up the action on the final climb, the extended coverage generally begins following the action much earlier in the day. In this way, we get a better sense of what the other teams were trying to do, and we see the roles played by riders who almost disappear in the four-hour cut, like Pavel Tonkov.
Stage 15, for example, is very much improved by the extended coverage. In the four-hour version, we get only a quick summary of the events over the course of the stage, which seems to suggest that nothing important happened. Not only that, but Fernando Escartín's great attack is completely omitted, with the coverage jumping to where he's already up ahead and Armstrong is responding. In contrast, the extended version clearly shows that Stage 15 was full of attacks from the beginning, constantly putting pressure on Armstrong; we get to see Kelme's fantastic tactical play with Escartín, and we see much more of the importance of how Armstrong and Zülle respond over the course of their chase.
That's not to say that the extended coverage is always perfect. A fair amount of Stage 10's coverage is "much ado about nothing," with the interesting action really starting at the start of l'Alpe d'Huez, so some of that footage could have been trimmed. However, the four-hour version doesn't start the Alpe d'Huez climb right at the bottom, where it does start getting interesting, but rather with the attackers already partly up it, so while the extended version is a little too extended, it does a better job of showing the important parts of the stage than the shorter version does.
The coverage of the race is as follows (stages with extended coverage are in bold):Prologue: Individual time trial. 12 minutes
Stage 1: 3 minutes
Stage 2: 8 minutes
Stage 3: 3 minutes
Stage 4: 5 minutes
Stage 5: 5 minutes
Stage 6: 7 minutes
Stage 7: 3 minutes
Stage 8: Individual time trial. 6 minutes
Stage 9: Mountain stage, Le Grand Bornand – Sestričres. 48 minutes (compared to 34 in shorter version)
Stage 10: Mountain stage, Sestričres - L'Alpe d'Huez. 1 hour 33 minutes (compared to 31 in shorter version)
Stage 11: Mountain stage. 4 minutes
Stage 12: Mountain stage. 3 minutes
Stage 13: 8 minutes
Stage 14: 8 minutes
Stage 15: Mountain stage, Saint-Gaudens – Piau-Engaly. 1 hour 45 minutes (compared to 25 minutes in shorter version)
Stage 16: Mountain stage, Lannemezan – Pau. 1 hour 20 minutes (compared to 25 minutes in shorter version)
Stage 17: 4 minutes
Stage 18: 3 minutes
Stage 19: 5 minutes
Stage 20: 10 minutes
The 1999 Tour de France is a four-DVD set, nicely packaged in an attractive extra-wide plastic keepcase. The individual DVDs are conveniently labeled with which stages are on which DVD.
The image quality is excellent overall for this race, which is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The print is extremely clean, and considering its origins in live television broadcasts, is quite clear and sharp. Colors are bright and vibrant, making it easy to spot the team jerseys of the riders in the pack.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is quite solid, always presenting Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen's commentary with fidelity. Their voices sound natural and are always crisp and clear, making for a pleasant listening experience. Some race ambiance is included in the soundtrack, and is correctly balanced with the commentary; music is used at times but only occasionally, and it doesn't interfere with the "live" feel of the race.
The menus for the 1999 Tour de France have been re-designed for the extended version, which is a great boon to viewers, as they're now much more usable. The individual DVDs have menus only for the stages that are included on that disc, and the chapters are listed by the race route only, with no spoilers for who wins.
There are no special features.
The first of Lance Armstrong's Tour de France wins, the 1999 Tour de France is an entertaining race, though certainly not as gripping as other editions of the Tour. World Cycling Productions' DVD coverage of the race is excellent, giving a comprehensive view of all the action, including the exciting first week of sprints, and several key mountain stages that, with the extended footage, turn out to be much more interesting than they seemed in the four-hour cut. While the four-hour version is a reasonable choice for casual viewers who just want a taste of what the Tour is like, cycling fans will definitely want to choose the eight-hour version to get the most enjoyment out of watching the 1999 Tour. For that reason, I'll boost the 1999 Tour de France up to "Highly recommended" with its release as an eight-hour DVD set.