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One of the northern provinces of the Netherlands, Friesland, has eleven ancient cities loosely separated by a series of canals and lakes. As the Netherlands has cold winters, at times, these canals freeze over allowing for locals to break out the skates. In fact, ice skating and speed skating in particular are hobbies common to the region. And every few years, the weather lends a hand in furtherance of this pastime. When the weather gets cold enough, the ice gets thick enough across Friesland to allow for a huge, nationally renowned skating race through each of the eleven cities.

Called the Elfstedentocht (or in English, the Eleven Cities Tour), the race is a roughly 200 kilometer trek across the frozen landscape and takes, at its fastest, over six hours.  For the race to occur, the ice must be at least 15 centimeters thick throughout the course — which is rare. While the tradition of skating from city to city dates back to 1760, the race was not formalized until 1909. In the century-plus since, the Elfstedentocht has only taken place 15 times and not since 1997.

The infrequency of the event captivates the collective attention of its host nation, resulting in Elfstedenkoorts – Eleven Cities Tour Fever — whenever temperatures approach suitable conditions in the Netherlands. Officials decked out in suits and ties take to the news to give a daily ice update. There may be no better evidence of Elfstedenkroots than 2012′s cold Dutch winter: even though a running of the Elfstedentocht has not been announced, hotels in the area are seeing a significant uptick in bookings.

If the race occurs in 2012, area officials expect as many as 15,000 skaters — and more than ten million viewers watching on television.  Nearly 2 million fans will travel to the region as spectators — an absolutely enormous number given that the total population of the Netherlands is only about 17 million, and doubly so given that the race only occurs at sub-zero temperatures.

Bonus fact: In 2002, Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury found himself in the Olympic semi-finals in the 1,000 meter short track event after winning his qualifying round and surviving the quarterfinals when a competitor ahead of him was disqualified for obstructing another racer. In the semis, Bradbury was one of the older and slower racers, so his coach suggested an alternative solution to racing as fast as possible: fall back and hope the others collide. It worked. In the semi-finals, three of the others collided and Bradbury came in second, qualifying for the finals. In the finals, he was 15 meters back with 50 meters to go, but all four competitors ahead of him crashed (as seen here) — and Bradbury coasted to the gold medal. He was the first person from a southern hemisphere country to win a Winter Olympic gold.

From the ArchivesFrozen Notes: How very low temperatures may have made musical history.

RelatedA LEGO ice skater, only a penny (plus about five hundred more of them for shipping).

Originally published

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