“It Giet Oan”: Eleven Cities Fever

The “Elfstedentocht” of 1997.

Photograph Wikimedia Commons

Ever since unexpectedly, after a very mild December and dreary gray Christmas, Jack Frost decided to pay us an extended visit, there is a buzz of excitement going through the Netherlands. Now that the ice has reached a thickness of about 10 centimeters (4 inches) some even dare whispering “it giet oan”. “It giet oan” is Frisian for “it’s on” and they are the magical words that announce that the infamous “Elfstedentocht” (Eleven Cities Tour) is on. 

Once the words are officially spoken by the chairman of the Eleven Cities Tour organization it seems all Dutch go mad (even those not really into the event, can’t help making comments about it). They collectively pack up some warm clothing and skates and head for the north, to the city of Leeuwarden. Shops manage to get all things orange and Frisian on the shelves within a day and skate sharpeners make over hours.

Now what is this fuzz all about? What is this “Elfstedentocht” that gets a whole country into a frenzy also referred to as “Elfstedenkoorst” (Eleven Cities Fever)?

It is an epic speed skating tour of 200 kilometers (that’s about 125 miles and a minimum of 7 hours of skating!). It runs along lakes and canals with natural ice that pass through all eleven Frisian cities. The tour starts in the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden, then passes along Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum and ends up in Leeuwarden again. For the tour to take place, the ice needs to have a thickness of 15 centimeters (6 inches). Only then it is strong enough to carry the thousands of skaters that will join the race. Since a winter that cold only happens once or twice a decade in the Netherlands, the race is quite a rare event.

The first official organized “Elfstedentocht” took place in 1909. It was organized by Pim Mulier who became inspired to do so when he skated along all eleven Frisian cities himself in 1891. He also designed the cross that all participants, that manage to reach the finish, get. He was, however, not the first to skate that route. For centuries, skating had been a very practical means of transportation in cold winters for the Frisians. Skates were a cheap and fast alternative to walking on slippery roads. As early as the 1700s there have been reports of young men challenging each other to skate along the eleven Frisian cities as a proof of their strength, endurance and bravery (and I guess that impressing the girls has played some part in it as well ;o)).

Nowadays, the event is extremely popular with both men and women. Every time thousands of people show up at the start to prove themselves. Since the route has a limited capacity, however, the number of participants is now topped at 16,000. To prevent that many participants start but do not finish because they are physically unfit to ride the tour, some selection has been introduced by the organization. Only those who are a member of the “Elfstedentocht” association can join the tour. The only way to become a member is to have two members vouch for your capabilities to ride the tour.

Since cold winters are such a rare event in the Netherlands the official “Elfstedentocht” has only been held fifteen times: in 1909, 1912, 1917, 1929, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1954, 1956, 1963, 1985, 1986 and 1997. The most famous, or perhaps better infamous, of these tours was the one of 1963. During that tour weather conditions became very grim. There was a stormy east wind sweeping up drifting snow, the ice was full of cracks and temperatures plummeted to minus 18°C (that’s about 0.4 °F). Of the 10,000 participants that showed up at the start, only 69 made it to the finish and many had to be treated for frostbite.

The 1963 tour even inspired a movie “The Hell Of 1963″. If you like you can watch a trailer to get an idea or listen to the title song “De Hel Foarby” (Beyond Hell) sung by the popular Frisian pop group “De Kast” (also a nice chance to hear some Frisian singing! It’s a really beautiful language, at least to my ears). If you are wondering what the lyrics of the song are about, this rough translation by Google Translate will give you an idea. It beautifully illustrates the skating-to-prove-yourself-worthy-of-a-girl’s-love-theme that dominates the movie and shows that those Frisians can be very romantic indeed!

Personally I am not into skating that much (too cold!). But since so many people take much pleasure in the event, I sincerely hope that in spite of the announced short thaw period this weekend, the ice will keep on growing and soon we will hear: “It Giet Oan”!

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