For the benefit of two ladies who have recently become a new, though as yet legally nonbinding part of my extended family, I shall undertake to explain the phenomenon that is the Elfstedentocht, or ‘Eleven Cities Tour’ if you will. I shall do so in English because (a) they don’t speak Dutch and (b) I am a bit of a showboater when it comes to my ability to speak and write in English. As there is tragically little demand for this or indeed any of my talents, I figured I’d best get a bit of practice in and educate the world at large while I’m at it.
In the Netherlands, you may or may not know, we tend to enjoy activities that are best done on a flat surface. Thus, we’re quite good at soccer and even better at iceskating. Downhill skiing we’re not so good at and I’m not sure but I suppose nobody is really all that good at uphill skiing. I’d love to receive any Youtube links you may have lying around of people who are. Anyway, iceskating is one of our national passions, along with high-starch foods and casual racism. And the pinnacle of this is not the European or World Championship, nor is the any Olympic iceskating event. We like those, sure, but we LOVE the Elfstedentocht.
It’s a tour of about 200 kilometres, which passes through or near eleven cities in the province of Friesland. We’re not talking about a sports arena or even doing some laps on a big lake: this is a tour of the province that will see you go through city centres and near-deserted fields. I use the word ‘city’ somewhat sarcastically when speaking of Friesland, but in a legal sense at least, that is what they are.
An Elfstedentocht is a rare event: the last one was held in 1997 and the winner, a farmer called Henk Angenent, has become a celebrity and a national treasure with roughly the same status as Neil Armstrong. In the 20th century there were only 15 races, as the ice on the entire track needs to be at least 15 centimetres thick before it can support the weight of hundreds of racers and thousands of onlookers. In 1985 the ice was so bad the race really should not have taken place, but the organisers were put under such pressure that they did indeed allow skaters to start. Sure enough, the race was ended prematurely, though another farmer called Evert van Benthem managed to get to the finish in 6 hours and 47 minutes. Most people need longer than that and it is not usual for people to take 10, 15 and even 20 hours to finish.
They day of the race is magical. Naturally, it’s all televised. Nowadays that is no big deal: any event that is even slightly more more substantial than a hobo bying a packet of gum is covered by at least 200 reporters and nearly as many helicopters. Still, in 1985 that was still unusual and I recall having the day off from school because nobody (not even teachers) would have shown up anyway: the entire country is watching the event, either on their sofa or from a fold-up chair along the 200 km track. By the way, 1985 was the first time that women were allowed to enter as competitors, rather than amateurs. If that sounds rather unenlightened for a nation such as ours, remember that the tour prior to that was held in 1963, when sexism was still something men were allowed to enjoy.
Anyway, any winter where there is enough ice to support even the smallest of malnourished ducklings, the Dutch will begin to speculate about the Elfstedentocht. It hardly ever happens that there is a long enough period with below zero temperatures so that the ice is thick enough, though. Will 2012 be one of those years? We hope so. It is the event that unites us more than anything and it will almost certainly create a new Dutch legend.
Probably another farmer…