Europe’s deep freeze has Netherlands buzzing with hopes for epic Elfstedentocht ice race


The words '11 steden' (11 cities) are drawn on the snow in Bartlehiem on the route of the scheduled Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) on Feb. 7, 2012.


Robin Utrecht

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It’s hard to overestimate the grip that the Elfstedentocht has on the Dutch psyche.

For sports fans in the Netherlands the epic 200-kilometer (125 mile) skating race is like the World Series, Super Bowl and Stanley Cup combined.

Its mythical status is enhanced by the fact that it can only be held in exceptional winters when the canals are covered by 15 cm (6 inches) of ice along the length of the course.

The last Elfstedentocht was back in 1997 and concern over global warming had led some gloomy skate fans to wonder whether the race has a future.

They are among some of the few Europeans happy with the Siberian weather which has the continent in its grip, plunging temperatures below – 20 C and raising hopes that this year could be the one.

Earlier this week, speculation that the legendary race could soon take place was front page news in Dutch newspapers. “Three ice-cold nights might do it,’ headlined Het Parool. 

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“We're going for it,” said the page top in the Algemeen Dagblad, quoting Jan Oostenbrug. As “ice master” he is in charge of checking that the course is sufficiently frozen to hold the estimated 16,000 skaters expected to join the race.

Oostenbrug explained that hundreds of volunteers were working to clear snow from the frozen canals in preparation for the race.

On Wednesday, officials considered holding the race, but deferred, stating that the ice was not yet thick enough. By Friday, people were skating on many stretches of the course, but officials were skeptical that the race would be held soon, citing still-dangerous conditions.

Warmer temperatures are expected over the weekend, but the icy weather could return next week. 

If the Elfstendentocht, or “11 cities tour,” goes ahead, organizers expect up to 2 million spectators – one in eight of the Dutch population – could line the route. The race has only been held 15 times since the first in 1909, and winners become instant national heroes. The legendary 1963 contest was held in a raging blizzard. Just 136 finished out of 10,000 starters.

A 2009 report warned that with current levels of global warming the ice would only be likely to reach the required thickness once every 18 years, compared to every 7 years in the 20th Century.

A worse case scenario envisaged by the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency said that chills big enough for the race would only happen every 180 years after 2050. Skate fans are hoping that 2012 bucks the trend.

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