iOS app Android app More

Denis Campbell

Denis Campbell

Posted January 13, 2009 | 04:12 PM (EST)

Watching the Ice Thicken...


While winter grips Northern Europe with an icy deep freeze and many look nervously to possible natural gas shortages as Russia's Gazprom dispute with the Ukraine lingers, the residents of The Netherlands' northernmost province of Friesland look anxiously forward to this coming week as the mercury has dipped each night to -18 (about 3 F) each evening. We're not talking about the inauguration of Barack Obama (although most think that a good result), they are instead focused on the growing thickness of the ice on the area's many canals.

Holland is a nation obsessed with skating, and indeed each weekend on Nederland 1, one can watch wall-to-wall coverage both days of men and women wearing computer wind-tunnel designed, skin tight leotards as they race around a 440-meter long oval on skates. The signature event (yawn...) is the 10,000 meter race where 2 competitors at a time race 13 laps around said oval, whilst announcers breathlessly read off lap times and intervals towards a world record. To hear them it's as if they were watching the Dow plummet every time W opens his mouth.

And the Dutch fans, truly the best in the world, are decked out all in Orange and make a frightful amount of noise in support (never is heard a swear towards or discouraging word) of their heroes, except the Germans but that's another issue for another time.

So why worry about canal ice? Because if it reaches a thickness of 15 cm. (about 6 inches), the call goes out across the nation (and the world) for the best speed skaters (and anyone else) to assemble quickly for the ultimate speed skating marathon. It's called the Elfstedentoch (11-cities course) which runs a 199 kilometre long (120 or so miles) circuitous route through and around Friesland and is probably the nation's biggest sporting event because it is held so infrequently.

While this is a country where one can hardly ignore the many beautiful landscape paintings of skaters on canals, due to global warming, the race has not been possible since 1997. Things are so bad, that each winter local outdoor rinks have resorted to creating a synthetic ice covering to allow this skating crazed country to enjoy their past-time.

While most Burgermeesters (we call them mayors) of each town on the route would seem to have official duties and issues such as roads, bridges and schools to worry about in this economy, they dutifully and solemnly each day walk out onto the route and measure the ice to see if it has attained the requisite thickness of 15 centimetres (about 6 inches), along the entire course.

If that occurs then for only the 16th time since 1909, the race will be held.

And it is serious business bestowing national honour and lifetime fame on the winner. In 1997, Brussels sprouts farmer (his day job) Henk Angenent won the race in 6 hours and 49 minutes, a time that was less than half that of the original winner. That race was also important because Dutch crown Prince Willem-Alexander also competed.

Indeed the race brings out enthusiasts of all ages. While the serious marathoners get into the grueling pace, the rest enjoy the skating and local cafes along the way as it winds its way through the villages and cities of Sneek, Mokkum, Leeuwarden and ends in the appropriately named Workum from where it all started just 7 hours earlier. You would be hard pressed on any day to drive the route in only 7 hours.

The course is grueling and is also famous for photos and video of several 'step-over' points where the racers must leave the ice because of bridges or other obstructions and tip-toe across specially laid carpets to where the ice again resumes.

Not even war-time occupation stopped the race from going forward. During the 1940s four races were held, three during the Nazi occupation of Holland. The estimate used to be one race held every 10-years and because of climate change that has increased to one every 18 years.

As for the serious competitors, the cycling world was abuzz when top cyclist coach Hennie Kuiper became coach of a Dutch speed-skating team. Frisia, a financial organisation, signed four top marathon-skaters to that team: Henk Angenent ('97 winner), Piet Kleine (a national icon as well), Jan-Eise Kromkamp en René Ruitenberg. So they will all be ready when and if the call goes out.

And so (yawn...), will the rest of us.