Ice Fever: Holland Abuzz About ‘Mythical’ Skating Race
The event hasn’t been held for 15 years. But, this week, Holland is abuzz with anticipation that the famed “11 Cities Tour” might take place in the coming days. All that’s needed are a few more cold nights before 16,000 skaters can take to the 200-kilometer course.
The activity is reminiscent of a small Alpine town after a blizzard. Thousands of volunteers this week have grabbed their shovels and are frantically clearing away a thick layer of white stuff amid frigid temperatures. Even military troops have joined in the effort.
But the scenes are not from a mountain village buried by a heavy snowstorm. Rather, the massive army of helpers can be found in the Netherlands, where the entire nation is excitedly anticipating the prospect of a massive ice-skating event — and one that hasn’t been held for 15 years.
Called the Elfstedentocht, or 11 Cities Tour, the event follows a course almost 200 kilometers (125 miles) long through the extensive network of canals, lakes and rivers in Friesland, the Dutch province in the very north of the tiny country, passing through 11 towns in the region. And it can only be held when the ice along the entire track reaches a thickness of 15 centimeters (six inches).
“We have to be sure the ice is safe,” Immie Jonkman, a board member of the Frisian Eleven Cities Association, which organizes the event, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “The ice on some parts of the course is really great. But, in other parts, it’s really bad.”
With a frigid high pressure system having been parked over northern Europe for the last week, canals in Amsterdam, Utrecht and elsewhere in the country have been jammed with skaters, and some cafés in the capital have even set up tables and chairs on the frozen waterways. The national obsession with skating has only heightened the excitement about the possibility that the Elfstedentocht could once again be held.
The event, the brainchild of Willem “Pim” Mulier, was first held in 1909. But given the need for a long cold snap to create the necessary conditions, it has only been held 14 times since then. When it is held, though, it’s a national event. While only 16,000 skaters are allowed to participate, there were some 1.5 million onlookers lining the route in 1997, the last time it was held. In 1986, Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander famously took part in the race.
“It’s just a skating event,” Jonkman said. “But there is something mythical about it.”
That, it would appear, is an understatement. Thousands of volunteers swarmed onto the canals on Tuesday to clear away snow after organizers voiced concerns that the white blanket could be hampering ice formation. On Wednesday, some 50 soldiers joined them, focusing on an alternate route should weak ice along the preferred course not thicken sufficiently.