Europe’s brutal cold may allow Elfstedentocht, 125-mile skating marathon, to go forward in The Netherlands

The World

Freezing temperatures across Europe continue to play havoc with travel schedules, and sporting schedules.

But in The Netherlands, where speed-skating is one of the country’s most popular sports, -14 degrees Fahrenheit is a temperature reading to be welcomed. That’s because the cold weather could, for the first time in 15 years, allow a very special skating race to be staged.

It is called the Elfstedentocht, or “The 11 Cities Tour,” and it is a grueling 125-mile skating marathon across the frozen canals and lakes in the Dutch province of Friesland, northeast of Amsterdam. As the name implies, the route goes through eleven cities, beginning and ending in the Frisian capital, Leeuwarden.

The Elfstedentocht was first held in 1909. Since then, the conditions have only been icy enough to run the race 15 times.

The last time was in 1997, and it was almost a photo finish, with Henk Angenent taking first place. But it was another Henk, Henk Kroes, who made the call that the 1997 race could be run at all.

Kroes was just a kid when the race was held the time before, in 1963.

“That was one of the hardest winters,” Kroes recalled. “Ten thousand skaters started in Leeuwarden, but only 69 arrived in the city at the end of the day.”

Kroes, who participated in the 1963 race, wasn’t one of the finishers.

But by the time 1997 rolled around, Kroes was President of the Royal Society of 11 Frisian Cities, the group which decides whether or not the race can be run at all.

In 2007, Kroes handed over the reigns of the Society to Wiebe Wieling. At a news conference on Monday, Wieling announced that for the first time in 15 years, the conditions might be icy enough to run the race.

“Unfortunately, we can’t give you a date, or tell you how likely it is that it will happen,” Wieling said. “But I can assure that we are working very hard to improve the course.”

Dutch television has been replete with scenes of course officials hard at work, clearing snow from the ice.

The northern part of the course is, for the most part icy enough, which means it is at least six inches thick. But to the south, the ice isn’t thick enough yet.

Jan Oostenbrug, the so-called Ice Master of the Elfstedentocht, told reporters on Monday that he was hoping for the best in the next few days.

“It’s out of our hands,” Oostenbrug said. “Mother Nature will determine if this works out. If things go feel, then the wind will remain in the east and I will be optimistic about our chances.”

Temperatures, however, are supposed to rise this weekend. Officials are supposed to meet again on Wednesday to evaluate the course.

One person who hopes it stays cold is Olympic speed-skating Gold medalist Mark Tuitert. The Dutchman sent out a message on Twitter saying that he had “Elfstedentocht fever,” and was prepping his skates for the race.

School kids are hoping too, as they will get a day off if the race is run during the week. And after all, who wouldn’t want the chance to hear, as many times as possible, the semi-official Elfstedentocht anthem, entitled “It Is On!”

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