Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Elfstedentoch - Eleven Cities Tour

We cannot leave Friesland without mentioning the Eleven Cities Tour, which is a skating tour nearly 200 kilometres long. It is held as a speed skating match with 300 contestants and a leisure tour of 16,000 skaters.

The tour leads past eleven historical cities of the Frisian Province. It starts in Leeuwarden and goes to Sneek, IJlst, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum and back to Leeuwarden.

The tour takes place only in winters when the ice reaches 15 centimetres thick along the entire course. The last tours were held in 1985, 1986 and 1997 and all skaters must be members of the Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities; a starting permit is required. Skaters must collect a stamp in each city and at an additional three secret checkpoints and complete the course before midnight of the tour day. The finish point of the tour is on a canal near Leeuwarden called the Bonkevaart.

Since the Elfstedentocht is a rare event, when temperatures drop below zero for a few days, the country gets exited, and excitement intensifies as the temperature remains sub-zero. The day before the tour many Dutch flock to Leeuwarden to celebrate the "Night of Leeuwarden", a city-wide street party. 

There had been mention of skating the eleven cities as far back as 1760 and it is a part of the Friesian tradition. In 1890 Pim Mulier conceived the idea of an organized tour with the first one being held in 1909. The winters from 1939 to 1941 were severe, with the race being run in each of them. The 1940 race ran three months prior to the German Invasion of the Netherlands and had 3000 competitors who started at 05:00 on the 30th of January. The arrival at the finish of the first five skaters at 16:34 made the front page of the Dutch Newspapers.

The 1963 race was classified as "hellish" when only 69 of 10,000 were able to finish the race in -18ºC temperatures and a harsh eastern wind. The next race was held in 1985, and with the more than two decade gap, skates, clothing and training had advanced and changed. 

The 1985 race ended prematurely because of thawing and skaters were taken off the ice by 22:00. A skater named WA van Buren managed to finish. Prince Wiilem-Alexander, who had skated under that pseudonym is now King Wiilem-Alexander of the Netherlands. Van Buren means "from the neighbourhood".

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