Every year, at first sign of heavy frost, the Netherlands is holding it's breath. Will an eleven city tour take place? The weather report becomes cautious. The heavy frost has to continue for at least 2 weeks for the ice to become thick enough. In this period there is no snow allowed. It could cover parts of the track and become an obstacle for ice formation. The members of the organizing committee come together. They measure the thickness of the ice along the 200 kilometer track. Every day the press interviews them. It is possible? The tension rises when the organizing committee is in session for a longer time. It's like waiting for white smoke to rise from the chimney. Is it possible?
What are the Dutch waiting for? It is the eleven cities tour. A skating event through the province of Friesland that connects 11 old Frisian cities. These cities are often very small by current standards, but they are part of an old tradition. It began in 1909 and although not very often organized (only 15 times) it has achieved a mythical kind of status. The 12th tour in 1963 took place under such difficult circumstances that was passed on as example of Dutch sisu for many years. The winner Reinier Paping became a legendary hero. When the 13th tour took place in 1985 (yes, 22 years later) people rushed to take part in it.
The importance of this event cannot be underestimated. It rarely happens, but when it happens the whole country is watching. More than 16.000 people take part. They start at midnight in the provincial capital Leeuwarden and they are given 24 hours to reach the finish. When they do complete strangers will hug them and give flowers. And while skating the 200 km track they find many watchers along the channels cheering at them. It is a winter folklore at it's best.
To Dutch speed skaters it is one of greatest honors they can achieve to win a race like this. When a Dutch team was in Nagano at the world championship, they were asked what they would do if an 11 city tour would start tomorrow. The answer was, we return immediately. A world championship is not that special. The 11 city tour is. The Japanese reporter was shocked to hear that. His next question was how many days it would take to do these 200 km. When they answered him that the fastest skater did it in just under 7 hours he looked incredulous.
Speed skating has always been important in the Netherlands. And especially on the longer distances we are hard to beat. In the allround championship we specialize on the 5.000 and 10.000 meter. Skaters who are good at these distances we call “stayers”. They are very adept in maintaining a constant speed during the race. This as an opposite to the sprinters (500 and 1.000 meter specialists). Sprinters need go as fast as they can from beginning to the end. For stayers it's important to divide your strength so that you don't collapse. It's this feature that makes the Dutch good at speed skating.
Because the 11 city tour cannot always take place the Dutch have invented alternative tours. One of these alternatives is the Finland Ice Marathon in Kuopio. It usually takes place in the last week of February. You can see some Dutch speed skaters there and some Finnish skaters who give them strong competition. It is fun to watch. And afterward is fun to have a warm drink in the restaurant where the awards are given. The skaters are great company and the atmosphere is informal. It is always worth a visit.
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