In the early hours of a January morning in 1909, a young theology student named Minne Hoekstra laced his skates up tight and set off into the darkness on the frozen canals of the Dutch province of Friesland. Still recovering from pneumonia, Minne was determined to best his rivals in the first Elfstedentoch, or 11 Cities Tour.
The contest, almost 200 kilometers long, brought Minne to the finish line first — more than 13 hours later in the dark of the night. It wasn’t until three years later that weather permitted the race to be held again on Friesland’s icy canals.
And so rather than waiting for the weather to cooperate every year, the Friesians began an 11 Cities spring bicycle tour in 1912. But “11 Village” tour might be a bit more appropriate in Friesland.
And so last weekend, my girlfriend and 12,998 of our closest friends, having caught the Elfstedenkoorts — or 11 Cities Fever — set off at sunrise to tour Friesland over the 240-kilometer course. Having spent most of the past year on 50-pound Dutch city bikes, our eagerness was through the roof, but our fitness left something to be desired.
It helps that I have a compulsion to never do anything in moderation. (More cynical minds have called this a sickness.)
Setting off on two handmade-in-Holland Koga touring bikes, the sun greeted us as we made our way out of the first city, Bolsward. We couldn’t help but marvel at what a few rays can do to our spirits after a long, cold and dark winter in northern Europe.
The wind snapped our jerseys and marked the passing of time. Our cadence was set by the guttural sound of Dutch cheers and farmer’s clogs on other bikes. Literally.
A large portion of the Netherlands sits below sea level, so it’s no surprise that it’s flatter than Kansas. But don’t be fooled. That doesn’t make for easy riding. Now, there’s a curious thing about this country. No matter which way you look, the wind is always in your face.
Even a doped-to-the-gills Pro rider would have trouble with this blustery business. Multi-national conglomerates like GE harness the stuff to light cities and power factories.
But we did have two things working in our favor. The first was that there were 12,998 other riders to draft behind. The second was the Dutch tradition of oliebollen. Exact translation: “oil balls,” which are deep fried dough balls, often filled with apples or raisins. Having perfected the art of bonking years earlier, I learned long ago that it can be unforgiving.
My older brother swore by stuffing his jersey pockets with cookies stolen from his college dining hall. “Better than any Power Bar you’ll ever find,” he said proudly.
So, we took heed. I bought a half-dozen oliebollen before the start and put them in a plastic bag and slipped the grease balls into my jersey. Picture Krispy Kreme, Dunkin’ Donuts or your local summer carnival’s sugary funnel cake – but better. Much better.
Okay, I’ll admit, things got a little messy. But the doughnuts did the job. Sugar rushed to our brains faster than I’ll ever ride a bike. “Hell, the Red Light District and the sticky sensimilla of Amsterdam had nothing on this stuff,’’ I thought to myself as I went in for another bite. “This is the finest the Netherlands has to offer.”
We instantly found our rhythm. We flew past windmills, old and new, over bridges spanning canals. There were racer-lookin’ riders on lighter-than-air carbon bikes and farmers riding …. well, farmer’s bikes. Thoughts wandered in and out of our brains. Or maybe it was the wind.
One of the requirements of the 11 Cities Tour is to get a card stamped at each of the cities to prove you’ve hit them all. (What’s the 11 Cities Tour if you’ve only seen 10 of them?) Fine in theory, but it added a few hours to our trip because thousands of riders bottlenecked in the tight-walled streets of the old towns, forcing us to walk through the card-stamping sections. Compared with efficient chip card systems that mark split times in other rides, this process was quainter than a Dutch farm girl holding tulips.
I had to remind myself that this was a century-old Dutch tour, not one of the Spring Classics, and that was part of its charm.
The time off the bike gave us a chance to dig into our oliebollen and sip on soup provided by the organizers. Farmers opened up their barns to sell snacks. We pressed on, snaking our way through the riders and taking advantage of their efforts in the wind.
With smiles across our wind-whipped faces, we crawled across the finish line almost 12 and a half hours after we set out. We were greeted by a lively crowd and a tent filled with flowing taps of beer and grandmothers who handed us medals and stamped the final stamp on our cards.
Unlike Minne, we had no hearty Friesian blood in us. But we did have the benefit of Dutch tradition. We had oliebollen and good ol’ fashion Friesian enthusiasm – thanks in part to Minne’s efforts more than 100 years ago.
If you ever find yourself in Friesland at this time of year, be prepared to catch the 11 Cities Fever. It’s as contagious as the oliebollen are addictive.