On the Ice

24 Feb 2013 | ACCESS

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by Nikki Young
First published in ACCESS Winter 2010 Magazine


Skating seems to be inextricably linked with the Netherlands, from Hendrick Avercamp's 17th century paintings portraying the joys of winter fun on the ice, to the popularity of the classic American children's book Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland. The Dutch enjoy skating both as children and as adults, both for leisure, and at the top levels of competition.


Ice skating in the Netherlands

Skating actually started out as a necessity to traverse winter's frozen rivers, canals and lakes when hunting to survive. The Finns were the first to develop ice skates some 5,000 years ago from animal bones fastened with leather straps. It was much later, in the 16th century, that people started seeing skating as fun and perhaps even as a sport.

However, skating and speed skating were not limited to the Netherlands and the Nordic realms. The first skate to use a metal blade was found in Scandinavia and was dated to the year 200. It was fitted with a thin strip of copper, folded and attached to the underside of a leather shoe. By 1592, a Scotsman designed a skate with an iron blade, and these iron-bladed skates led to the spread of skating and, in particular, speed skating.


Elfstedentocht, the eleven cities race


The Elfstedentocht (or, in West Frisian, Alvestêdetocht) in the province of Friesland, is the world's largest and longest speed skating competition and leisure skating tour. It has been held at irregular intervals, whenever the ice on the course is deemed good enough, mostly because not every Dutch winter permits skating on natural ice. The last races were in 1985, 1986 and 1997, and with global warming taking its toll, it's a matter of speculation when the race may be held again. The Elfstedentocht has only been held 15 times in the nearly 100 years since it was first organised as a competition in 1909.


The tour, some 200 km in length, is conducted on frozen canals, rivers and lakes between the 11 historic Frisian cities: Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum then returning to Leeuwarden. As well as the racers, some 15,000 amateur skaters take part, putting high requirements on the quality of the ice, which must be - and remain at - a minimum thickness of 15 cm along the entirety of the course. Spectators are also known to gather on the ice in their enthusiastic support of the racers, adding more stress to the surface. There is a limit of 15,000 skaters, and within that crowd, groups of 600 skaters start at 8 minute intervals from 5am to 8am.


Since the Elfstedentocht is such a rare occurrence, the possibility that it may take place creates a wave of excitement all over the country. The media start speculating about the chances for an Elfstedentocht as soon as a few days pass with sub-zero temperatures. The longer the freezing temperatures stay, the more intense this Elfstedenkoorts (eleven-city tour fever) gets - culminating in a national near-frenzy when the magic words, "It giet oan!" ("It is on!" in West Frisian), are spoken to announce that the tour is actually taking place. The day before the race many Dutch flock to Leeuwarden to enjoy the party atmosphere that surrounds the event. The evening before the race, the Nacht van Leeuwarden (Night of Leeuwarden), becomes a giant city-wide street party.

Let's skate!

It stands to reason that surrounded by so much water, swimming and skating are the two obligatory skills for every Dutch child. Many schools offer skating lessons as part of their sports curriculum, and for the rest, skating lessons are available at an ijsbaan (ice rink). The busiest period is during the school winter holidays, when you can acquire your skaatsdiploma (skating diploma) within two weeks. A Dutch custom which is quite handy for families is a ruilbeurs or skate exchange, whereby people get together with their skates and exchange or 'ruil' them for the size they need. These events are usually advertised in the newspaper or posted at the skating rink.


Something for the weekend

Although for some this childhood activity is forsaken with age, there are plenty of people who enjoy the thrill of the ice just as heartily as adults.

For Harry Kleine, a partner in a global tax consultancy, skating is still very much a regular activity when winter comes. "Last year I skated every weekend," he said, "but this year I'll probably go a little less, perhaps every fortnight." During the skating season he frequents FlevOnice in Biddinghuizen, the world's longest man-made ice track of 5km, where he can skate at a speed of about 20 to 25 km per hour.

When asked for his ideal skating conditions though, he answers quickly, "Natural ice is preferable, of course, and for this I often drive to the lakes to the south of Amsterdam, the Loosdrechtse Plassen and the Vinkeveensche Plassen". He goes on to add, "Last year we were lucky and there was a lot of natural ice - but we also had a lot of snow which was not so good." He doesn't forget to mention the sociable atmosphere on the ice when the lakes are frozen and everyone comes out to skate, stopping for a hot chocolate or soup at a Koek en Zopie (a temporary food and drinks stand, on or near the ice).


Skating in town

You probably won't have to go far for some skating opportunities this winter, though. Temporary artificial or man-made ice rinks seem to pop up as soon as the weather chills and can be found in many cities, including on Amsterdam's Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein. As an added bonus, and to help you combat the cold, many vendors sell glühwein and Irish coffee near and around the ice rinks.

In Amsterdam, when cold enough, the Keizersgracht and surrounding canals are closed to boats to allow the ice to form. Generally, if the temparature drops to -4 C for at least four consecutive nights, it's a definite possibility.

So there should be plenty of opportunities to try this classic Dutch pastime for yourself, or at least to watch and admire the skating skills of the locals. Who knows, we might even have the long-awaited Elfstedentocht!


Skating facts:

  • Women were first allowed to take part in the Elfstedentocht in 1985. Before that, women had to skate with the amateurs and no award was given. Lenie van der Hoorn was the first female to cross the finish line.
  • In 1986 the Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander participated in the Elfstedentocht, under the name, W.A. van Buren.
  • Each type of skating has its own specially developed skate: the figure skate, the bandy skate, the racing skate (speed skate), the touring skate and double runners (worn by young children when first learning to skate).
  • Dutch speed skater, Sven Kramer, picked up four gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.


Pop-up ice rinks



The speed skater, Sven Kramer, comes from Friesland.

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