No Skating on Thin Ice: Netherland’s Epic Eleven Cities Tour Off

February 9, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Epoch Times Photo
Youth prepare to skate on a frozen canal in Amsterdam, on Feb. 6. The Netherlands famous Eleven Cities Tour on natural ice, will not go ahead for now as hoped because the ice is too thin on parts of the 125-mile "track." (Evert Elzinga/AFP/Getty Images)

HILVERSUM, Netherlands—The frostiest European cold snap in more than a decade had rekindled hopes of staging of the first Eleven Cities Tour of the 21st century—but it was not to be.

Officials from Frisian Eleven Cities Association had to disappoint the nation, and some 16,000 skaters, by announcing on Wednesday that the ice was too thin in parts to hold the grueling 200-kilometer (125-mile) one-day race on natural ice.

The reputation of the marathon in the northern province of Friesland, is almost mythical in the Netherlands. It is held up almost as a symbol of national perseverance or nostalgia for things of Netherlands past.

And with the unusually icy weather in Europe over the past week, there had been high hopes that the race would take place for the first time since Jan. 4, 1997. 

Earlier on Wednesday, the Dutch army had been sent out to clear the snow from the “track” to give the ice a better chance to grow thick enough before the predicted thaw on Sunday. 

There was discussion about possible alternative routes if the ice stayed weak only at certain segments, but not at others.

“All these people are waiting. Of all those people on the ice now, a very large percentage are already practicing to get fit for a possible Eleven Cities Tour,” Paul van der Lest, a member of the Frisian Eleven Cities Association since 1985.

But in the end conditions were not safe enough to run the race.

“We can’t let the tour go ahead,” Frisian Eleven Cities Association Chairman Wiebe Wieling said, breaking the news to the nation in a televised news conference. 

“It’s frustrating, but unfortunately it’s the reality,” Wieling is quoted as saying on the association’s website.

The decision was unanimous between the 11 directors that the ice had not reached the required thickness of 6 inches everywhere along the tour.

A Dutch Tradition

The Eleven Cities Tour skims through Dutch brooklets, rivers, lakes, and typical Dutch canals, stringing together 11 Frisian cities like pearls on a necklace. 

The tour is all about superlatives: the coldest, the longest, largest, most severe, toughest, and the hardest in the world. But also: the coziest, the most beautiful, most characteristically Dutch and sweetest skating tour on earth. All in one day.

It is both a competition for professionals as for the leisure skater. The professionals compete against each other and the clock; the leisure skater merely against the elements and the day’s end. 

In order to get the official mark of completion, participants must get stamps at each checkpoint and be in Leeuwarden, the end point, before midnight. Along the road there are small refreshment stalls where hot chocolate, cakes, and raisins are sold or given out, adding to the warmth and charm of the event.

The first official race, or Elfstedentocht, was held in 1909 and had only 23 participants.

Since then, the tour has been held a mere 14 times—the last one being 15 years ago. 

The long intervals and the race’s unpredictability seem to increase the sense of anticipation and hope for 2012 to become number 15.

With the maximum number of amateurs who can join is limited to about 16,000. Each year participants are selected by drawing lots—regardless whether the tour is actually held or not.

The marathon has grown from a regional spectacle to a national event over the past 30 years.

“The Eleven Cities Tours in 1985 and 1986, because of the live television broadcast, enjoyed such immense popularity, creating national hype,” says van der Lest.

A Dutch movie in 2009 called “The Hell of 1963,” depicts the hardships of the 12th Eleven Cities Tours in 1963, known as the toughest ever. Of the 9,000 participants only 69 men, no women, were said to have reached the finish line.