Saturday, April 5, 2014

E is for the Eleven City Tour

Hans and Gretel Brinker did it.
In Sochi, the Dutch Olympic Team did it.
In 1997, 15,000 Dutch people did it.
I’m not talking “whoopee”, but speed skating on ice.


From Amsterdam to Zutphen, the Dutch love outdoor skating. Lucky for them, their flat country paired with a cold winter climate and ice-covered landscape provides the perfect venue for ice skating. The straight, narrow canals offer long stretches of frozen skating surfaces that indoor rinks simply cannot compare with.

As an American kid growing up in the Midwestern part of the United States, I learned to ice skate outdoors on the frozen river that ran through my grandparents’ farm. Skating surfaces outdoors are unique because they can have bumps, ridges and tree trunks sticking out of them. Speaking from my experience, there is no greater winter thrill than skating outdoors among the pastures, trees and my crazy, hockey stick-wielding cousins. No greater thrill that is, except the Eleven City Tour.

The Eleven City Tour—Elfstedentocht in Dutch—is an outdoor skating race that takes place in Friesland, the northern-most province of the Netherlands. The tour begins in Leeuwarden and winds through 10 more cities before skaters return to Leeuwarden to cross the finish line. The route is 199 kilometers long and speed skaters begin first, with leisure skaters following. The maximum number of people who can participate on the ice of an Elfstedentocht is 16,000.

That said, the Elfstedentocht only can take place if: 1) The ice thickness in all the canals of the eleven cities measures 15 centimeters; 2) Two people will skate; and 3) There are 16 million people willing to cheer them on. Participants receive a “Tour Passport” and as they enter each city their passport must receive that city’s stamp proving that the holders skated there and didn’t fly in on their magic brooms.

Once the ice is determined to be thick enough, the race is called to take place 48 hours later. However because of the strict ice requirements, the Elfstedentocht has only taken place 15 times since its inaugural race in 1909.

The last time the Eleven City Tour took place I spent it in the comfort of a house party with my Dutch pal Benny and some other Dutch friends. As the ultimate host, Benny sent out invitations, served oliebollen (a type of deep-fried Dutch doughnut) and screamed every time the TV showed clips of thousand of skaters on the ice. He—like all the Dutch partiers—was in ecstasy. Yes, the tour takes place in Friesland and sometimes just once every 20 years, but when it happens the entire country participates in the excitement. This unique national event binds Netherlanders together and celebrates the joy of being Dutch. Or as Benny says “YAAAAAAAAAAAH!” 

In 2012 organizers thought the ice would be thick enough to have another Elfstedentocht. While the canals in the northern cities measured the requisite 15 centimeters, the ice in the southern cities measured less than five centimeters and therefore deemed unsafe. The tour did not take place in 2012, or last year, or this year.

But next year brings another winter and chance for an Elfstedentocht and if it happens, I’d love to participate with my skates. Of course if I wanted to win I’d have to have all my crazy, hockey stick-wielding cousins chase me the whole way. Hmmm, maybe next year…