January 5, 1997 in Nation/World

A Dutch Treat All Else Put On Ice As Netherlands Holds Its First Skating Tour Since 1986

Charles Trueheart Washington Post

In the black hours before dawn Saturday, in a blistering cold that has paralyzed the rest of Europe, the first phalanx of this country’s fastest, hardiest or craziest skaters was loosed from giant cages for a gruesomely taxing 125-mile race across cracked canals and rutted, frozen lakes.

The yelling, stomping competitors and 16,000 others who followed them down the ice ignited an extraordinary national festival during which normal life in the Netherlands scrapes to a halt and humanity pays its respects to blade runners and motion on ice. Even in Saturday’s subfreezing temperatures, or perhaps especially, this is what the Dutch do for fun.

The Eleven Cities Tour, or Elfstedentocht, has the air of a chill Saturnalia that occurs only when nature gives its blessing. That happens only once in a blue moon, when the weather is cold enough and thus the ice thick enough. The tour has been held only 15 times in this century.

The last was in 1986. The wait has been long. Thus the Dutch pandemonium when the decision to hold Saturday’s Elfstedentocht was announced - just Thursday morning, when the region’s council of ice elders made its last measurements and gave the mittened thumbs-up.

Less than 48 hours later, an estimated half-million people, many from too far away to have had much sleep, had flocked to watch from bridges and banks of canals in medieval towns such as Sneek, Franeker, Workum and Dokkum in the northern province of Friesland.

Waiting, much like cycling fans, for their heroes to whiz by, they stomped cold feet to blaring music, sang songs and downed tiny glasses of a sharp juniper liquor called Beerenburg and cups of a coarse pea soup called snert.

More than 1,000 Dutch policemen on skates or on foot kept the mildly unruly and at least one naked person in line, but unpleasantness was rare. The hearty partying, which began Friday night, resumes in earnest Saturday night on what are informally known as 11-pub tours.

What makes the Eleven Cities Tour extraordinary among sporting events is its genuine spontaneity. All of the Netherlands every winter anticipates its announcement whenever the weather turns bitterly cold. But the decision is never made until the last minute, following consultations as secret as a papal conclave, prompting frantic preparations by sudden volunteer forces of thousands.

The uncertainty of the event also holds terrible heartbreak for hundreds of professional skaters, who train every year for an event that might not happen and seldom does.

Among the 261 men and 45 women uncaged in the first professional wave at 5:30 Saturday morning were some top-ranked speed skaters and past Olympic medalists and world champions.

The first to cross the finish line, after 6 hours and 49 minutes, was a local sprout farmer named Henk Angenent, 29, who called this the greatest day of his life. Klasina Seinstra, 28, was the women’s winner in 7 hours and 49 minutes.

With a low-key asceticism so resonant with the pride of Netherlanders, the prize for winning the Eleven Cities Tour is a simple medal and a place in Dutch history.

Past leaders of the pack have even been known to hold hands in order to cross the finish line together.

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