The Netherlands: Freeze offers skaters rare chance of marathon race

Dutch troops were racing yesterday to prepare iced-over canals and waterways for a legendary 125-mile ice-skating race that could be staged for the first time in 15 years.

A group of 50 soldiers shovelled snow along a possible alternative route in case ice on part of the traditional track of the Elfstedentocht, or 11 Cities Tour, is too weak to support the 16,000 skaters who would take part if organisers stage the race.

General Hans van der Louw said his troops were happy to help in efforts to stage only the 16th race since 1909. "We want to do our bit for this national party," he added.

The guessing game about whether the race will happen is an obsession every time temperatures dip below freezing in this nation of nearly 17 million people, where speed-skating is second only to football as the national winter sport. The race can be staged only when ice along the entire route reaches six inches (15cm) thick.

This week, the Frisian Eleven Cities Association said it was doing all it could to clear the way for the race to be skated for the first time since 1997. If it goes ahead, up to two million spectators are expected to brave the bitter cold in the northern province of Friesland to cheer on competitors.

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