Elfstedentocht: a (n)ice tradition

Whenever the temperature drops to a point where there might be a little layer of ice on top of the small streams through Friesland, every major news outlet starts making items about the Elfstedentocht. The NOS, part of the Netherlands Public Broadcasting system, always has a team in place to cover the Elfstedentocht stories if needed. The questions of the reporters have been the same for as long as I can remember: “Do you think there will be an Elfstedentocht this year?” and the answer is always the same too: “We don’t know yet, but we sure hope so!”.

This phenomenon is best shown by a live broadcast of De Wereld Draait Door in 2012. Famous Dutch ice skaters were invited to watch the press conference where the heads of the Elfstedentocht announced that there will not be an Elfstedentocht later that year. Especially former world champion Erben Wennemars wasn’t ready for the bad news and was close to shedding tears live on national television. If poor old Erben would have just looked at the weather forecast he would have known it wouldn’t be cold enough to go through with it.

The Elfstedentocht (Eleven cities tour) is a skating tour that is held in the province of Friesland. Thousands of ice skate fanatics come together for a race through eleven cities (who would have guessed) in the north of The Netherlands.  This 200 kilometers long Dutch tradition can be heroic, exhausting, exciting and wonderful. The participants have to go through all of the eleven cities to get a stamp, without those they can not officially finish. If the ice along the route is thick enough (15 cm) the legendary race can go on. Or as the people in Friesland say: “it giet oan”.

Some fun facts about this Dutch tradition:

– The Elfstedentocht took place 15 times since 1903.
– The last edition up til now was in 1997.
– King Willem-Alexander, who was a prince at the time, finished the race in 1986.
– The whole route has to be on natural ice.
– There was a race during World War II in 1941.
– The fastest finisher is Evert van Benthem in 6 hours and 47 minutes.
– Willem Augustin finished the Elfstedentocht 8 times.

But for the last two centuries it did not go ‘oan’. Crazily enough that is a big part of the reason why I love this part of Dutch culture. I am too young to have ever watched an Elfstedentocht live and that is probably why I like this legendary event for something else than the older generations. I love the drama and mass hysteria that rises in our little country every year the thermometer is moving to the point where fluid water might be able to become a little icy. The excitement about an event that may never be organized again (yay global warming!) astonishes me every year.

To see people get excited for something that is not gonna happen is heartbreaking, but at the same time I can’t get enough of it. Mother nature: please give me more winters without an Elfstedentocht, I am loving it.

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