Well folks, we are officially nearing the end of Dutch winter! Gefeliciteerd to all those who paid a visit to this wonderful northern country some time in the past few months - you are the bravest of the brave! In less than two weeks the days of weather-induced cancellations of both train service and flights, as well as wading through icy unplowed roads will (most likely) be behind us. Dutch people love grumbling about weather as much as anyone (often for good reason), but especially so when Mother Nature unleashes snowstorms and the temperature drops below zero degrees Celsius. Nevertheless, freezing wintry weather does have one redeeming feature for the Dutch: the ability to ice skate on natural ice.
When the temperatures are finally cold enough for the many, many, MANY waterways to freeze over, once the snowstorms have ceased and the sun is finally shining, Dutchies bring out of storage their ice skates and take full advantage of the abundance of natural ice. And for good reason! Skating on one of the country's many frozen over canals is pretty much as good as the great Dutch outdoors gets in the winter. It's also one of the few things that seem to get all Dutch people uniformly enthused (the other biggie obviously being football). And once you elevate skating on natural ice to the privilege of skating in the Elfstedentocht... well then, you have a country that is literally on the edge of their seats in anticipation every day that freezing temperatures hold. As soon as a few days of freezing temperatures pass, people begin questioning the likelihood of an Elfstedentocht being held that year... and the excitement only increases as the temperatures hold.
The Elfstedentocht is perhaps both the greatest and most elusive aspect of Dutch winter. It is an speed-skating match of 300 contestants as well as a leisure-skating tour of around 16,000 participants held in the province of Friesland - and it has been happening since 1760. It is also one of the nation's biggest sources of national pride (the other one being yes, you guessed it, the football). It passes through all 11 of the cities in the northern province ( Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, and Dokkum), spanning a distance of 200km. Skaters have to collect a stamp in each city, as well as three secret checkpoints, and have to finish the course before midnight the same day.
Now here's the kicker: because the ice on the 200km course has to be at least 15cms thick throughout for safety reasons, this competition has only been held once in the past 20 years, in 1997, and thrice in the past 30 years. Thus, as you can probably imagine, each winter is a period of great anticipation for all the hopeful competitors. Unfortunately, the odds are incredibly high that the 2012-2013 won't be lucky, but there's always next year! And if not, the year after that! It's sort of like cheering for a not very good sports team year after year, except the Dutch are actually very athletic and the only thing disappointing is (as always) the weather.
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