Summer definitely seems to be over in the Netherlands and as people talk about the heat wave that had taken over Europe this year, the real question on almost everyone’s lips is; 'Will there ever be a sixteenth Elfstedentocht?'
Some experts believe that there will definitely be another one, but the only downer is that the periods between elfstedentochts will become much longer as climate change continues to take its toll on mother earth. The last tour took place in 1997 and that is something a lot of ice skating enthusiasts find rather unfavourable for Dutch ice skating. The number of people joining ice-skating associations has drastically decreased in comparison with fifteen years ago as the chance of an elfstedentocht keeps getting smaller. This, according to the experts, has everything to do with climate change.
How do you convey the urgency of climate change to the populace? While there are lots of people who are willing to do all they can to roll back the effects of climate change, some Dutch folks are only willing to lend a hand if it will help bring about another elfstedentocht. To this group, their love of ice skating and an age old tradition transcends the importance of mother earth.
This year has seen some unusual hot weather both in the Netherlands and other parts of the world. It was an extremely hot summer with drought and heat waves that led to wildfires in some parts of Europe and even in the U.S. The past four years has seen some very mild winters with no thick natural ice in the Netherlands. As a result, a lot of children have not been able to discover the joys of ice skating, and ice-skating clubs/associations are also noticing the sharp decrease in new members, especially enthusiastic children.
In February 2012, the tour almost took place, but the ice was too thin and deemed unsafe for the tournament. The chance of an elfstedentocht has only shrunk since the beginning of 1900. Around the turn of the century, it was still at 20 percent, half a century later, it was 27 percent, but around 2010 the chance percentage plummeted to 5.5 and that will not improve over the next 35 years, as predicted by the experts at KNMI.
So What Exactly Is The Elfstedentocht?
Ice skating is a big deal in the Netherlands and while a lot of visitors have no idea what the elfstedentocht entails, it is actually quite a fun tournament for those interested in ice skating and the funfair that comes with it. In 1845, the newspapers stated that three Frisian men had skated eleven cities in one day and that they did this in 14 and ½ hours. In the winter of 1890-1891, inspired by these three men, hundreds of Frisians decided to skate the ice along the eleven cities. Each time, the skaters challenged each another and tried to skate faster than one another. The record time then was 12 hours and 55 minutes. As proof that they skated the entire route, they took notes of the cafes and restaurants along the way. On January 2, 1909, the first real elfstedentocht was held. The word 'Elfstedentocht' literally means Eleven City Tour.
On this maiden elfstedentocht in 1909, twenty-three skaters participated, and in the same year the Vereniging de Friesche Elf Steden was founded. Since then, this association organises the competition and also determines if a tour is going to take place or not. Unfortunately, being a competition that heavily depends on harsh winters, it isn’t possible to organise it every year. Sometimes years pass without an elfstedentocht, as between 1963 and 1985 when there was no competition for twenty-two years! In 1997, the tour was held for the fifteenth and so far last time. Due to the increasingly warmer climate, the Frisian winters are also becoming milder and as a result, the chance of an elfstedentocht keeps getting smaller.
The elfstedentocht is a skating race of over 200 kilometres on natural ice in the province of Friesland. It is also called the 'Tour of Tours', since it is the most famous skating race in the Netherlands and many people find it an honour to be able to participate or even be there. The tour is named after the eleven cities of the province of Friesland, namely; Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum. The start and end point is the Frisian capital Leeuwarden, through which a circle of trenches, canals and lakes are skated.
The first elfstedentocht was held in 1909. However, a tour doesn't take place every year. There have only been fifteen elfstedentochts in history and the reason why there have been so few has to do with the location of Friesland - as it lies South of the North sea. In the winter, it doesn’t freeze very much in Friesland and the wind usually comes from the sea, making it warmer on land. For a tour to take place, the wind must come from the East, so from land, bringing cold air from Russia/Eastern Europe. If the wind is strong and cold enough, it must also remain for a few days to make the ice thick enough for an elfstedentocht to take place.
Will there ever be another Elfstedentocht?
In recent years, the Netherlands has gained popularity and admiration for producing lots of consistent gold medalists in the skating competition of the Winter Olympics. The Dutch believe that competing in the elfstedentocht doesn’t just produce good and enthusiastic skaters, but also tough ones who are moulded and toughened by the harsh nature of the elfstedentocht. It is a proud moment for any Dutch person to take part in the elfstedentocht and there are lots of professional skaters who would give anything to participate in and win this tour than skate in the Winter Olympics.
Due to the negative effects of climate change, frozen canals are becoming a rarity in the Netherlands as lots of Dutch kids are starting to lose interest in ice skating. All through the years, a whole culture has grown around Dutch ice skating and the sport's popularity is now only hanging by a thread. The Netherlands is still one of Europe's top ice skating countries, and while the sport may still be loved by some, others say that skating rinks with artificial ice do not have the same attraction as the natural frozen ice on canals and other frozen water bodies. This has led ice skating enthusiasts to feel that another elfstedentocht would remind people of how much fun it is to skate. The same enthusiasts also feel that if a tour were to take place in the next three years, ice skating clubs/associations would again be filled with enthusiastic people influenced by the tour's participants.
Every time temperatures drop below zero in the Netherlands, elfstedentocht fever spreads like wildfire. Dutch folks immediately get excited and start asking if there’s going to be a tour.
If a tour is ever going to take place, what would be the conditions?
1. Minimum Ice Thickness for an Elfstedentocht
For the elfstedentocht to take place, a minimum ice thickness of 15 centimetres is required on almost the entire route. During the tour, there are thousands of people on the ice, so the ice must be thick enough to carry the weight of all these people. Klúnvoorzieningen are also installed at weak spots (if any) -these are wooden bridges built over ice that isn't thick enough so that the skaters can pass the weak ice through these bridges.
2. Route Elfstedentocht
The elfstedentocht traditionally passes through the eleven Frisian cities. The tour starts in the capital Leeuwarden and from there participants skate southward to Sneek, then Ijlst and then Sloten. From Sloten skaters go west towards Stavoren. In Stavoren they skate north via Hindeloopen, Workum and Bolsward to Harlingen. From there they skate east. From Harlingen skaters go towards Dokkum via Franeker. From Dokkum they go towards Leeuwarden, where the finish line is. In Leeuwarden, after crossing the finish line, skaters receive the famous 'cross' (a medal in the form of a cross).
Not all tours have the same route. If the ice isn't thick enough on certain ditches, canals or lakes, the route can be changed. The only condition is that the route must run through the eleven Frisian cities.
Even though the world continues to see the effects of global warming, some die hard fans of ice skating in the Netherlands deeply believe that there will be another elfstedentocht. Some old folks think it might never happen in their lifetime while most young people see the tour as an archaic tradition that should remain in the past. These set of people believe that a harsh winter is nothing to be celebrated and an elfstedentocht would put too much pressure on the Dutch government as they try to organise a tour that would not disrupt the order of things in the country. There is the issue of the Frisian cities becoming overcrowded with both participants, locals and tourists from far and wide leading to the various means of transportation becoming overcrowded and uncomfortable, etc.
Still, the “Yea sayers" seem to be more than the “Nay sayers". The only thing they need is for the weather to cooperate and the temperatures drop below zero. The fact that an elfstedentocht can not be organised every year because of its need for a severe winter, has undoubtedly contributed to the cult status of the tour. In addition, the skating of more than 200 kilometres through the Frisian landscape, literally in all weathers, is also heroic. Whether as a participant in the competition or just an onlooker, it still remains a wonderful experience that is never forgotten quickly!
So is there ever going to be another elfstedentocht?
We hope so! And we hope it happens as soon as possible. Worst case scenario, the tour will only take place once every 100 years and a lot of us won’t be alive to witness it. Now that would definitely be a bummer!