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The Elfstedentocht [ɛɫf'steːdə(n)tɔxt] (West Frisian: Âlvestêdetocht, English: Eleven cities tour), is an almost 200 kilometres (120 mi) long skating tour which is held both as a speed skating match (with 300 contestants) and a leisure tour (with 16,000 skaters). It is held in the province of Friesland in the north of the Netherlands, leading past all eleven historical cities of the province. The tour is held at most once a year, only when the natural ice along the entire course is at least 15 centimetres (6 in) thick;  sometimes on consecutive years, other times with gaps that may exceed 20 years. When the ice is suitable, the tour is announced and starts within 48 hours.
The tour, almost 200 km in length, follows a route along frozen canals, rivers and lakes visiting the eleven historic Frisian cities: Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum, then returning to Leeuwarden. The tour is held only if the ice is, and remains, at least 15 centimetres thick along the entire course as about 15,000 amateur skaters will take part, putting high requirements on the quality of the ice. The last tours were held in 1985, 1986 and 1997. All skaters must be members of the Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities. A starting permit is required. Skaters must collect a stamp in each city, and at three secret check points, and must finish the course before midnight.
Since the Elfstedentocht is such a rare event, its declaration creates excitement all over the country - in the build-up to a possible race in 2012, Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister remarked "once every 15 years our country is not governed from The Hague but by 22 district heads in Friesland. And our country is in good hands". As soon as a few days pass with sub-zero temperatures, the media start speculating about the chances for an Elfstedentocht. The longer the freezing temperatures stay, the more intense this "Elfstedenkoorts" (eleven cities fever) gets - culminating in a national near-frenzy when it is announced that the tour will actually be held. The day before the tour many Dutch flock to Leeuwarden to enjoy the party atmosphere that surrounds the event; that evening, called the "Nacht van Leeuwarden" (Night of Leeuwarden), becomes a giant city-wide street party (Frisians, who have a reputation of surliness, are said to thaw when it freezes).
On the day of the tour most Frisians and Dutchmen either stay home to watch it on television, or find a place along the route to cheer on the skaters, either taking the day off or calling in sick for work. In February 2012, Friesland hotels were fully booked and expecting between 1.5 and 2 million visitors in expectation of a tour before it was announced, as the weather seemed suitable. 
There are often points along the route where the ice is too thin to allow mass skating; they are called "kluning points" (from West Frisian klúnje), and the skaters walk on their skates to the next stretch of good ice. In 1997 ice-transplantation was re-introduced to strengthen weak places in the ice, for instance under bridges.
There has been mention of skaters visiting all eleven cities of Friesland on one day since 1760. The Elfstedentocht was already part of Frisian tradition when, in 1890, Pim Mulier conceived the idea of an organised tour, which was first held in 1909. After this race, the Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden(nl) (Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities)  was established to organise the tours.
The winters of 1939/40, 1940/41 and 1941/42 were particularly severe, with the race being run in each of them. The 1940 race, run three months prior to the German invasion of the Netherlands, saw over 3,000 competitors start at 05:00 on 30 January, with the first five finishing at 16:34. The event dominated the front pages of Dutch newspapers.
The Elfstedentocht of 1963 became known as "The hell of '63" when only 69 of the 10,000 contestants were able to finish the race, due to the extremely low temperatures, -18°C, and a harsh eastern wind. Conditions were so horrendous that the 1963 winner, Reinier Paping, became a national hero, and the tour itself legendary.
The next Elfstedentocht after 1963 was held in 1985; times had changed. Before, one of the best methods to stay warm during the tour was to wear newspapers underneath the clothes. In the 20 years between the tours of 1963 and 1985, clothing, training methods and skates became much more advanced, changing the nature of skating.
The tour of 1985 was terminated prematurely because of thawing; as early as 22:00 in the evening skaters were taken off the ice. In 1986 the Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander completed the Elfstedentocht under the name W.A. van Buren, Van Buren being a traditional pseudonym of the Royal House.
The ten-day cold spell in late January and early February 2012, the 33rd such occurrence since 1901 when temperatures as low as -22.9°C were recorded in Lelystad, heightened the expectation of a 2012 Elfstedentocht - the expected day of the event, had it taken place, was Saturday 11 February. The preparations before the race was called off on 8 February are typical of what can be expected.
On 2 February 2012, it was reported that 95% of various locks that controlled the water flow in the canals had been adjusted to maximise the ice thickness. On the same day, the Dutch meteorological institute forecast that temperatures would not rise above freezing until Wednesday 8 February at the earliest and that the thickness of the ice would be 15 cm from Tuesday 7 February until Saturday 11 February. On 3 February, the Dutch meteorological institute forecast a probable ice-thickness of 20 cm on Saturday 11 February and on 5 February they forecast an ice thickness approaching 25 cm.
On 6 February it was announced that the committee had met the previous evening for the first time in fifteen years. Although there were areas where the ice was not thick enough for the race to be held, the forecast for continuing freezing weather meant that they were optimistic that the race would be held. A press conference was held at 09:30 CET and the committee was due to meet again on 8 February. At the press conference, it was stated that in north Friesland the ice conditions were suitable to hold the race. In south west Friesland, the conditions were not so good, Stavoren being a particular problem where the ice was only 2 cm thick in places.
On 6 February a prohibition order on navigation on many of the canals in Friesland was extended in order to facilitate the growth of the ice. The following day the Dutch meteorological institute forecast that the cold spell would break on Sunday 12 February or Monday 13 February with the temperature rising above freezing point.
Late afternoon on the 8 February Wiebe Wieling, chairman of the organising committee said that the race was off - the committee had to be realistic - safety issues had made the race impossible. A ten-day cold spell was insufficient for the event; the 1997 event had taken place at the end of a 12-day cold spell.
The time taken for the winner to complete the course is given in hours and minutes. Although temperatures were sometimes above freezing on the day of the tour, all tours were preceded by many days of sub-zero temperatures.
|2 January 1909||n/a||Minne Hoekstra(nl)[Note 2]||13:50||189 km||13.7 km/h||—|
|7 February 1912||+3.8°C||Coen de Koning||11:40||189 km||16.2 km/h||3|
|27 January 1917||-1.8°C||Coen de Koning||9:53||189 km||19.1 km/h||5|
|12 February 1929||-10.1°C||Karst Leemburg(nl)||11:09||191 km||17.1 km/h||12|
|16 December 1933||-2.0°C||Abe de Vries (nl) and|
|9:53||195 km||19.7 km/h||5|
|30 January 1940||-6.1°C||Piet Keijzer(nl),|
|11:34||198.5 km||17.3 km/h||6|
|7 February 1941||0.0°C||Auke Adema||9:19||198.5 km||21.3 km/h||1|
|22 January 1942||-11.7°C||Sietze de Groot(nl)||8:44||198 km||22.7 km/h||1|
|8 February 1947||-8.5°C||Jan van der Hoorn(nl)||10:51||191 km||17.6 km/h||5|
|3 February 1954||-5.4°C||Jeen van den Berg(nl)||7:35||198.5 km||26.2 km/h||7|
|14 February 1956||-4.9°C||no winner declared (**)||—||190.5 km||—||2|
|18 January 1963||-7.7°C||Reinier Paping||10:59||196.5 km||17.9 km/h||7|
|21 February 1985||+0.3°C||Evert van Benthem||6:47||196.8 km||29.0 km/h||22|
|26 February 1986||-6.9°C||Evert van Benthem||6:55||199.3 km||28.8 km/h||1|
|4 January 1997||-3.6°C||Henk Angenent||6:49||199.6 km||29.3 km/h||11|
Women were first allowed to take part in the tour proper in 1985; before then they had to skate with the amateurs and no award was given. The women to cross the finish line first were:
(**) After shared wins in 1933 and 1940, when the front-runners decided not to compete but join hands to cross the line together, this practice was forbidden by the organisation. Jan van der Hoorn, Aad de Koning, Jeen Nauta, Maus Wijnhout and Anton Verhoeven however ignored this rule when they crossed the finish line in unison. They were not disqualified, but no winner was declared.
The course can vary slightly from race to race, depending on the quality of the ice. The cumulative distance at each checkpoint in 1997 was:
The eleven cities cycle race was first held in 1912 and developed in parallel with its skating counterpart, but unlike the skating race, has taken place on almost every year - apart from the 2001 event which was cancelled due to foot and mouth disease, it has taken place on Whit Monday every year since 1947. The event has become immensely popular and as a safety precaution it ceased to be a race but has become a tour with a maximum average speed of 25 km/h between checkpoints.
The tour, which starts and ends in Bolsward rather than Leeuwarden, is currently limited to 15,000 entrants. Between 05:00 and 08:00, entrants leave Bolsward every eight minutes in batches of about 600 and those who complete the 240 km course before midnight receive medals.
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