Touring and marathon skating

Ice skating tourism

In ancient times economic life came to a hold when winter became severe. Ice skating then was just a popular pastime. But in the low-lying and water rich Netherlands it also made it possible to make rather long journeys at a low budget. The frozen canals became highways and good skaters rather quickly rode 50 miles or so to visit their relatives in towns they had to walk to for many more hours in summer time.

Not much has changed in the course of time. Also nowadays when temperature is low enough to freeze the waterways thousands take their ice skates and make a tour. Maybe the Netherlands is the only country in the world where skating tours is that popular that it is hardly imaginable that one has not at least once participated. Through the ages people from abroad have been astonished to see how the Dutch are warmed by the cold of the winter. They seem to become metamorphosed. Even confirmed slowcoaches become active and full of energy.

Since skating tourism for many in winter was the only source of income the communities tried to promote it by publishing maps and guides to attract skaters. They also maintained a system of ice way management. Contracts were concluded with local skating clubs and individuals for keeping certain tracks free of snow, for equalizing the ice surface and for marking holes and cracks.

Not only the pubs along the canals tried to earn something. They had to compete with commoners that tried to sell hot drinks and something to eat. Others tried to sell local specialities as tokens of remembrance. And lots of men swept the ice expecting a small tip when passed by.

Natural ice
What distinguishes touring skating from all other kinds of track skating is that it is done on natural ice. It requires more power then skating on artificial ice and the circumstances can be heavy. Nevertheless the real skater is fond of it and looks forward to it again as soon as the spring arrives.

Organized tours
At present the economic factor has decreased. But ice skating is still a popular pastime attracting lots of people that are prepared to take a day-off. Organized tours are offered throughout the Netherlands by local ice clubs (and nearly any town has one!). They compete to be the first to offer tours in the open on natural ice. These tours comprise various distances of which 25 kilometres/20 miles is considered to be a short one. The ultimate tours are 200 kilometres/165 miles long. We then speak of marathons. Often the tours are divided in two classes: the competitive skaters start first and the pleasure skaters next. For both categories the reward is some medal or pennon.

Skating along the eleven Friesland cities
The highlight of these activities is found in the famous so-called Elfstedentocht, a tour of 195 kilometres along the eleven medieval Friesland cities. It is known that already in the 18th century this tour offered a challenge to the Dutch. But not only the Dutch were attracted. The at his time well-known English skater C.G. Tebbutt wrote in his book Skating (1897) that he and two companions completed the tour in 14 hours. At that time the individual achievement as such was sufficient to tickle ones vanity as there were no journalists waiting for the first to arrive. This changed in 1909 when the tour was given an official contest character. Nowadays this tour is the biggest well-organised skating event in the Netherlands attracting ten thousands of people. It is accompanied by tv-crews from various countries following the skaters with their cameras even on the ice sitting at the rear of a motorbike.
The reward for fulfilling the tour is the Eleven Towns Cross, an unsightly medal of ca. 22 x 22 mm, that is cherished by its owners as if it were a costly diamond.

Alternative eleven cities tour
Due to the unpredictability of the weather, the relatively short periods of freezing weather and the importance to keep the canal surfaces open for shipping, the Elfstedentocht has been held only fifteen times in the past 100 years. The first in 1909 and the latest in 1997, which is too less for too many. As a result of the generally increased prosperity more and more people are prepared to travel and put their skates on elsewhere. Thus in the 20th century at the beginning of the seventies the idea was born to organise alternative Eleven Towns Tours yearly. The first was held in 1974 in Norway but in the meantime Austria, Canada, Finland and Germany have been guest countries as well.

Marathon skating
In the Netherlands another special (and very popular) kind of speed skating emerged from touring: marathon skating. This means circling a 400-meter track between 40 and 150 times with a maximum of 100 skaters (at the same time). Marathon skating is dominated by teams but individual ranking system exists as well. Points can be earned at sprints after certain distances, by giving full laps to other riders, and by finishing within the first ten. Further rankings exist for the strongest team, for fighting spirit and the best sprinters. As a result of all of these elements a marathon race can become an exiting event.

skates for touring
All types of (wooden) ice skates have been used for touring skating, at least in ancient times. All ice skates of the Holland and Friesland models originally have been used as touring skates. The owners only occasionally used them for speed skating contests. Making them was a job for the local blacksmith in co-operation with the carpenter and the harness maker. Some blacksmiths made better ice skates than others and thus lots of models have been developed. Often they were named after the villages where the blacksmiths lived. In Holland famous blacksmiths lived in Bergambacht, Ouderkerk and Waddinxveen; in Friesland in Akkrum, Warga and IJlst. As the models of successful blacksmiths were imitated quite often families of ice skates originated in these neighbourhoods. Those ‘families’ nowadays are known as Holland skates, Friesland skates, West-Friesland skates, Groningen skates, et cetera. This makes collecting Dutch skates from the period until circa 1925, when the individual craftwork disappeared as the advent of industrialisation won out over traditional craftsmanship, very interesting.

Modern skates for touring
In the second half of the 20th century a few special models for touring were developed such as Combi Skates, Norwegian Touring Skates and Swedish Hobble Skates.

Dutch handbook
for skating tours

tickets for participants
in skating tours

in Gouda skaters bought
stone pipes
that ought to be
brought home
in tact
as to prove the
capabililty of skaters

modern rewards for completing tours
of certain distances

a specimen of the
very much cherised
eleven cities cross

Friesland touring skates

case with special maps
for touring by skates

modern touring skates

Dutch handbook for
skating marathons
and tours

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