FAQ: eleven facts about the Eleven Cities Race

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Everything you wanted to know about the Eleven Cities Tour

1. Where did the skating tour get its name?

The Eleven Cities Tour is held in the north of the Netherlands, in the province of Friesland (locally known as Fryslân), which has many lakes and waterways. The route passes through eleven cities and is 199 kms in length. The route starts and finishes in the Friesian capital Leeuwarden. The other cities are: Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum. When the skaters reach Leeuwarden, they have passed under 189 bridges.

2. How did it start?
Skating has always been a bit of a national sport in the Netherlands, but in Friesland it was the only way of getting around in the winter. In the olden days, not everyone could afford a horse. We know that there were successful attempts to skate to all the Friesian cities in one day in past centuries. A rhyme from 1749 tells the tale of a tour passing all the Friesian cities, by someone called Pier from Bolsward. And in the harsh winter of 1899, 100 skaters completed the route on their own accord. In 1909, the Friesians decided to turn it into an organised event.


3. How many times has the Eleven Cities Tour been held?
Dutch winters are quite unpredictable, so the race is held at irregular intervals. There have been fifteen since 1909. That means there is one every six to seven years. And that is quite frequent, if you consider that we have been waiting for fourteen years since the last one. And after the 1963 Tour, it took 22 years before the Friesians could get back out on the ice. So the Eleven Cities Tour is a rare event, which makes it even more popular.

4. Is the Eleven Cities Tour popular with everybody?
Very much so! Every winter, as soon as it gets cold, the question arises whether or not there will be a Tour. Eleven City fever climbs as the temperature drops. After all skating is a favourite national pasttime, and the ‘Tour of all Tours’ appeals to that old-fashioned Dutch sentiment. People set up ‘Koek en Zopie’ stalls selling hot chocolate and pea soup. Sausage manufacturers take advantage of the event by handing out free orange woolly hats bearing their name.

5. Can anyone take part?
No, first you have to be a member of the Royal Association of Friesian Eleven Cities. And then your name is put in a lottery to get hold of a pass to participate. The association limits the number of participants to just 20,000, otherwise all those skates would cause too much damage in places where skaters have to leave the ice to cross a road or where the ice is not good enough. There is even a Dutch verb for walking over land on skates: ‘klunen’. And to become a member you have to have the support of two members. They have to state that you are a good enough skater to complete the 200 kilometres. Lots of skaters do not make it to the finish.

6. Who was the mystery skater in 1986?
The fourteenth edition of the Eleven Cities Tour on 27 February 1986 had a mystery guest. Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, 19 years old at the time,  took part under a false name, W.A. van Buren. Board member George Schweigmann got a phone call one day ahead of the event asking whether the prince could take part. It was problematic, because the crown prince was not a member. Nevertheless, Mr Schweigmann gave him permission and even let him have starting number 1. Prince Willem-Alexander managed to finish on time, although there are people who say he only started half way.

7. How difficult is it?
That depends a lot on the weather conditions. In 1909, the winner Minne Hoekstra took almost 14 hours to cover the distance, in 1997 Henk Angenent just took seven hours. Experts say 1963 was the most difficult race. It was minus 18 degrees Celsius. Only 69 skaters out of 10,000 made it to the finish: the worst ever result in the history of the race. The title of a recent film on the Tour that year says it all, it is called ‘The hell of `63’

8. What about women?
Hmm, women. So far we haven’t mentioned them, which isn’t that surprising. They were only allowed to take part for the first time in 1985. The fastest woman then was Lenie van der Hoorn, in 1986 Tineke Dijkshoorn won and in 1997 Klasina Seinstra was the best skater and she was pregnant. But they were not real winners, just the fastest women. The next event will have a women’s race. So next time round there will be an official female winner.

9. What do you win?
Nothing , just fame without fortune. Many Dutch people are able to name previous winners of the race like Reinier Paping in 1963 and Jeen van den Berg in 1954. Henk Angenent, who won the last race in 1997, says that his life was turned upside down by the whole thing. There is no prize money for the winner, but Mr Angenent, who is a farmer, was able to buy a new house, milking machine and tractor with sponsor money. Lesser gods have to make do with a humble, but much coveted Eleven Cities medal. It is probably the next best thing to making it onto the Royal honours list.

10. Place to be?
Bartlehiem; the skaters pass the bridge in this hamlet twice. Thousands of people gather at what has become a world famous bridge to egg on the competitors for the last difficult kilometres. Thousands? Maybe even ten thousand! And that it the problem with Barthlehiem. It just gets too busy and local farmers are not pleased with the invasion of skating fans. So here is another tip; find a nice quiet spot on the Dokkumer Ee waterway, which is also passed twice by the skating heroes.

11. Will it take place?
In 2010, weatherman Harry Otten said: "If all the Friesians start sweeping the ice now, an Eleven Cities Tour can be held in the last week of 2010". He said it was cold enough; the problem was the snow. The snow acts like a blanket preventing the ice from getting thicker. So get the brushes out, and then there will be a Tour. Similar conditions applied in 2012. The ice in the southern half of Friesland was too thin, the Association of Eleven Cities said. But two things are for certain, the big freeze is continuing and Eleven Cities fever is rising.