Dutch hopes grow for 125-mile speedskating race

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By MIKE CORDER, Associated Press

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Sports events across Europe are falling victim to the continent's deep freeze but the Dutch are ecstatic, hoping that the revered "Eleven Cities" speedskating race can be staged later this month for the first time in 15 years.

The race, held along a 125-mile (200-kilometer) network of canals connecting 11 towns and cities in northern Friesland province, would cause a national frenzy, drawing thousands of participants and more than a million spectators. It was last held in 1997.

Frisian Eleven Cities Association chairman Wiebe Wieling told a nationally televised press conference on Monday that organizers hope to hold the event, known by its Dutch name "Elfstedentocht," but added: "The weather will determine what happens next."

He said ice is still too thin along southern parts of the route over which some 16,000 participants will skate if the race goes ahead.

But the national weather service forecasts freezing temperatures at least through Friday, fueling hopes.

"We want nothing more than to organize the 'Elfstedentocht,'" Wieling told reporters. "We have been waiting 15 years and we're doing all we can."

The grueling race is one of the most deeply cherished Dutch traditions. Though people have skated along frozen Friesian canals for centuries in cold winters, the race — first officially organized in 1909 — has only been staged 15 times.

It is open only to members of the Frisian Eleven Cities Association, which holds a draw each year to establish who is allowed to take part. The invitation-only nature and its rarity only adds to the allure.

Winners become overnight celebrities in this country where speedskating is one of the most popular winter sports and the thousands of others who finish forever cherish the small enameled cross they are awarded. Participants are given a card at the start that they have to get stamped at stations along the route to prove they have covered the entire course.

The last man to win the race, farmer Henk Angenent, completed the 1997 event in six hours, 49 minutes. The winner of the 1963 race — which was held in extremely cold and windy conditions — took just under 11 hours.

Some skaters have started training just in case the event gets the go-ahead, including Dutch Olympic speedskating champion Mark Tuitert, who is used to skating far shorter races on immaculately groomed indoor ice.

"Busy sharpening skates, rummaging through layers of clothes, training soon for the elfstedentocht. I'VE GOT THE FEVER," the 1,500-meter Vancouver Games champion tweeted.

Regional association managers met late Sunday to take stock of the route — the first such meeting since 1997. They will meet again Wednesday evening to discuss the conditions.

The news in the north was good: "I have rarely seen such beautiful ice," said association "ice master" Jan Oostenbrug.

But in the southwest, where snow that fell Friday formed a blanket that slowed ice growth, the ice is still too weak.

One official sank through the frozen surface of a lake that forms part of the route Sunday, Oostenbrug said.

It was "almost like frosting — when you step on it you sink through the top. You can't skate on that," said Wieling.

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