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Statue in Leeuwarden of an Elfstedentocht competitor. The eleven cities and all the winners are listed on the plinth Elfstedenrijder Auke Hettema Heliconweg FEC Leeuwarden.JPG
Statue in Leeuwarden of an Elfstedentocht competitor. The eleven cities and all the winners are listed on the plinth

The Elfstedentocht (Dutch pronunciation: [ɛlf'steːdə(n)tɔxt]; West Frisian: Alvestêdetocht [ɔlvəˈstɛːdətɔχt] , English: Eleven cities tour) is a long-distance tour skating event on natural ice, almost 200 kilometres (120 mi) long, which is held both as a speed skating competition (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; [1] 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.


Course and rules

The tour, almost 200 km in length, follows a closed or circular 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 Towns. A starting permit and bib is required (€100 in 2017). [2] Skaters must collect a stamp in each city, and at three secret check points, and must finish the course before midnight.

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 meaning to run on skates over a carpet [2] ), 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.

The finishing point of the Elfstedentocht is a canal near Leeuwarden, called the "Bonkevaart", close to the landmark windmill, De Bullemolen, Lekkum. [3]

Elfstedentocht Place Names Elfstedentocht-Plaatsnamen.png
Elfstedentocht Place Names

Route table

CityFrisian NameDistance from Start (km)
Leeuwarden (start)Ljouwert0
Sneek Snits22
IJlst Drylts26
Sloten Sleat40
Stavoren Starum66
Hindeloopen Hylpen77
Workum Warkum86
Bolsward Boalsert99
Harlingen Harns116
Franeker Frjentsjer129
Dokkum Dokkum174
Leeuwarden (finish)Ljouwert199

Planning and publicity

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 fifteen years our country is not governed from The Hague but by twenty-two district heads in Friesland. And our country is in good hands." [4] 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 street party (Frisians, who have a reputation for surliness, are said to thaw when it freezes). [5]

On the day of the tour many Dutch either stay at home to watch it on television (9.2 million viewers by one estimate [2] ), or find a place along the route to cheer the skaters on, 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 anticipation of a tour before it was announced, as the weather seemed suitable. [5]


Competitors of the first (1909) Elfstedentocht Deelnemers aan de eerste elfstedentocht 1909.jpg
Competitors of the first (1909) Elfstedentocht

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 when 22 men competed. [2] After this race, the Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden (nl) (Association of the Eleven Frisian Towns) [6] was established to organise the tours.

In the 1912 edition Jikke Gaastra was the first woman ever who finished the Elfstedentocht, but couldn't complete the full tour because the ice wasn't good enough after Sneek. In the 1917 edition Janna van der Weg was the first woman who finished the tour.

Video of the Elfstedentocht of 1954 (commentary in Dutch)

The winters of 1939/40, 1940/41 and 1941/42 were particularly severe, [7] 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. [8]

The Elfstedentocht of 1963 became known as "The hell of '63" when only 69 of the 10,000 participants were able to finish the race, due to the extremely low temperatures of -18 °C, powder snow and a harsh eastern wind. Conditions were so horrendous that the 1963 winner, Reinier Paping, became a national hero, and the tour itself legendary. [9] [10] Paping could not make out the finishing line as he was snow blind by the end of the race, and many of the contestants had frostbite, broken limbs, and damaged eyes. [2]

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. [2]

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 current Dutch King (at the time still Crown Prince) Willem-Alexander completed the Elfstedentocht under the name W.A. van Buren, Van Buren being a traditional pseudonym of the Royal House. In 1997 Piet Kleine, who had previously won a gold medal at the Olympics for speed skating was disqualified because he missed getting a stamp at Hindeloopen despite video evidence that he had been there. [2]

Elfstedentocht 2012 - the race that did not happen

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, [11] heightened the expectation of a 2012 Elfstedentocht the expected day of the event, had it taken place, was Saturday 11 February. [12]

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. [13] 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. [14] 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. [15]

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. [16] 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. [17]

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. [18] 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. [19]

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. [12] [20] 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. [11]


The time taken for the winner to complete the course is given in hours and minutes. [21] Although temperatures were sometimes above freezing on the day of the tour, all tours were preceded by many days of sub-zero temperatures. [22]

De Bullemolen, along the canal "Bonkevaart", the finishing point of the Elfstedentocht Lekkum - Bullemolen met vlaggen.jpg
De Bullemolen, along the canal "Bonkevaart", the finishing point of the Elfstedentocht
DateTemperature [Note 1] WinnerTimeDistanceAverage
2 January 1909n/aMinne Hoekstra13:50189 km13.7 km/h
7 February 1912+3.8 °C Coen de Koning 11:40189 km16.2 km/h3
27 January 1917-1.8 °C Coen de Koning 9:53189 km19.1 km/h5
12 February 1929-10.1 °CKarst Leemburg11:09191 km17.1 km/h12
16 December 1933-2.0 °CAbe de Vries and

Sipke Castelein

9:05195 km19.7 km/h5
30 January 1940-6.1 °CPiet Keijzer,
Auke Adema,
Cor Jongert,
Durk van der Duim
and Sjouke Westra
11:34 [8] 198.5 km17.3 km/h6
7 February 19410.0 °C Auke Adema 9:19198.5 km21.3 km/h1
22 January 1942-11.7 °CSietze de Groot8:44198 km22.7 km/h1
8 February 1947-8.5 °CJan van der Hoorn10:51191 km17.6 km/h5
3 February 1954-5.4 °C Jeen van den Berg 7:35198.5 km26.2 km/h7
14 February 1956-4.9 °Cno winner declared [Note 2] 190.5 km2
18 January 1963-7.7 °C Reinier Paping 10:59196.5 km17.9 km/h7
21 February 1985+0.3 °C Evert van Benthem 6:47196.8 km29.0 km/h22
26 February 1986-6.9 °C Evert van Benthem 6:55199.3 km28.8 km/h1
4 January 1997-3.6 °C Henk Angenent 6:49199.6 km29.3 km/h11

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: [23]

The eleven cities

The course of the 1997 Elfstedentocht Elfstedentocht-Plaatsnamen.png
The course of the 1997 Elfstedentocht

The course can vary slightly from race to race, depending on the quality of the ice. [24] The cumulative distance at each checkpoint in 1997 was:

Alternative Elfstedentocht

An "alternative Elfstedentocht" has been held every year in January since 1989 on the Weissensee in Carinthia, Austria.

The lake is 12 km long and around 3000 speed skaters do either the 50, 100 or 200 km course at what is likely to be the world's largest ice sport event.

The Dutch Speed Skating Championship is part of the event and the fastest competitors do the 200 kilometer course in just over five hours. [25]

Fietselfstedentocht (Eleven towns by bicycle)

Departure of the Elfstedentocht cycling tour in 2006 Bolsward - Elfstedenrijwieltocht.jpg
Departure of the Elfstedentocht cycling tour in 2006

The eleven towns 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. [26]

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.

In 2013 the organisers banned Velomobiles from the event by limiting the event to two-wheeled vehicles propelled by human power. [27]


On March 27, 2019 Maarten van der Weijden, a Dutch long distance swimmer, announced that on June 21, 2019 he would start a second attempt to swim the whole eleven-city tour. His first attempt in August 2018 was halted due to poor swimming conditions and illness due to E. Coli. His second attempt turned out to be successful. Van der Weijden arrived at the finish in Leeuwarden on June 24, 2019. So far in this attempt he raised a total of € 3,910,763.11 for cancer charities.


  1. Mean temperatures at de Kooy, one of three Dutch meteorological stations for which records go back to 1910.
  2. 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.

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