Elfstedentocht: The famed, frozen race that may never return

Paping’s feat in 1963 brought him lasting nationwide fame, which wasn’t always welcome.

“His wife always said it has been the most terrible thing in our lives, because he never said no to a journalist, or to an invitation or to an opening,” says Wieling.

The back-to-back winner of 1985 and 1986, Evert van Benthem, moved to Canada – in part to escape the constant attention.

Although female skaters had taken part almost since the beginning, 1985 was the first year in which they were officially allowed to compete.

Lenie van der Hoorn was the first female competitor home that year. If and when the Elfstedentocht takes place again, there will be a separate title for women for the first time.

Twenty-seven years and counting since the last edition, it’s impossible to predict exactly what impact the next race will have – if it comes at all.

But Wieling is certain the winners will continue to occupy a special place in the Netherlands’ sporting pantheon.

“You will be the hero of the country for many years, until you die,” he says.

“No-one will ever forget you – and you will be confronted with that every day.”

Even in the continuing absence of ice, the lure of the route between Friesland’s ‘Eleven Cities’ remains.

In 2019, former Olympic open-water champion Maarten van der Weijden – who had leukaemia in his youth – raised millions of euros for cancer research when he swam the route.

In 2023 he capped even that remarkable feat with an Eleven Cities Triathlon, completing three laps of the course – one in the water, one on a bicycle and one on foot, accompanied by swelling crowds of supporters and again raising millions.

There is an Eleven Cities cycling tour which takes place each year, while tourists can trace the route at a more leisurely pace.

During the winter, thousands of Dutch skaters head to higher, colder climes to take part in an ‘alternative Elfstedentocht’, racing the full distance around a lake in Austria.

There is even a musical, launched in October in a specially built theatre in the Frisian capital, which has the Elfstedentocht as its central theme.

A revolving, ice-covered stage allows the actors to skate while remaining stationary in front of the audience.

But it is the real sport, and the original route, which holds the tightest grip on the Dutch imagination.

Every year, when there is a cold snap, they head for the ice.

Sports skaters gliding at high speed through frozen landscapes, families teaching youngsters the magic, young and old gathering wherever there is enough ice to skate.

Freezing weather, hot drinks, sweet snacks – and every year the same excited conversations. Could it happen? Will there finally be an Elfstedentocht this year?

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *