February 1, 2019 / 1:21 PM / 4 months ago

Short of ice, Dutch canal-skating marathon finds second home in Austria

A general view of Lake Weissensee as ice skaters make their way during the Alternative Eleven Cities Tour on lake Weissensee, a dutch speed skating event based on the traditional 'Elfstedentocht' in Techendorf, Austria January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

TECHENDORF, Austria (Reuters) - It is 22 years since canals in the Netherlands froze enough to run the country’s most famous speed skating event, an epic race that snakes through towns near the northern coast.

But enterprising skaters have created a reliable backup - on a lake in the Austrian Alps.

The 11 Cities Tour, or Elfstedentocht, a roughly 200 km (125-mile) marathon through the northern province of Friesland, was first held in 1909. The most recent, in 1997, drew more than 16,000 skaters, the fastest finishing in just under seven hours.

Milder winters have meant it is now rare for ice on the canals to form to the required thickness of 15 cm (6 inches). The Dutch meteorological institute KNMI predicted in 2007 that there would only be four races this century, compared with 15 in the previous one.

No such problems affects the Weissensee, a picturesque lake in southern Austria. It freezes over every winter, and an alternative Elfstedentocht has been held there annually since 1989, drawing thousands to several races spread over two weeks.

“In Holland it’s not cold enough, sadly,” said 31-year-old Karin Soutberg, one of this year’s roughly 4,000 skaters. “That’s why we do it over here.”

Instead of one big loop through the northern Netherlands, skaters do 16 laps of a 12.5 km circuit winding across the lake. And the landscape, with its dramatic Alpine backdrop, is different too.

“It’s nice to skate with some actual views,” Soutberg said.

Reporting by Lisi Niesner; Writing by Francois Murphy; editing by John Stonestreet

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