THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch troops joined a race against time Wednesday to prepare ice for a legendary 125-mile (200 kilometer) race across frozen waterways in the northern Netherlands that could be staged for the first time in 15 years.
A group of 50 soldiers in camouflage fatigues shoveled 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 organizers stage the race.
Gen. Hans van der Louw told national broadcaster NOS the troops were happy to help in efforts to run the Elfstedentocht for only the 16th time since the inaugural race in 1909.
"We want to do our bit for this national party," he said.
The will-it-or-won't-it-happen guessing game about the race is an obsession every time temperatures dip below freezing in this country of nearly 17 million, where speedskating is second only to soccer as the national winter sport.
The already intense interest was ratcheted up even further this week when the Frisian Eleven Cities Association announced it was doing all it could to clear the way for the race to be skated for the first time since 1997.
If it happens, up to 2 million spectators are expected to brave the bitter cold in the northern province of Friesland to line frozen canals, rivers and lakes, and cheer on competitors in the invitation-only race.
A major part of the event's allure is the fact that it is entirely dependent on weather conditions. It can only be staged when ice along the entire route reaches six inches (15 centimeters) thickness, something that requires days of severe frost and little wind.
The race, which is only open to members of the Frisian Eleven Cities Association, also showcases the stark beauty of the northern province of Friesland, a flat expanse of land crisscrossed by rivers and canals and dotted with lakes, historic farmhouses and windmills.
The region is a magnet for speedskating fans from around the world in the winter since it also is home to the country's premier indoor speedskating oval, the Thialf stadium in Heerenveen.
All eyes are now on weather forecasts that predict the freezing temperatures will warm up on Sunday.
The organizing committee was scheduled to meet again Wednesday night to discuss whether the ice is strong enough for the race.
Despite the continuing uncertainty, preparations are already in full swing.
The soldiers who pitched in Wednesday were clearing a stretch of frozen canal close to a windmill and a cafe called "The Winter Sport" near the village of Woudsend in southern Friesland. The canal is being considered as a possible bypass for one of the weakest sections of the traditional track.
Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Grotens said the military also is poised to provide logistical support, from camp beds at an airbase to ambulance crews and soldiers to help control crowds, should the race get the green light.
Public transport companies also were planning how to move the masses of spectators, flag makers were churning out commemorative flags, and a distillery in Friesland was working around the clock to produce the spicy gin-like drink favored by skating fans as a warming tonic.
Even national carrier KLM got in on the act, announcing it would let competitors rebook tickets for free if the race coincides with their flight.
"As a typically Dutch company, KLM has very warm feelings for the Elfstedentocht," director Peter Hartman said in a statement.
Associated Press photographer Peter Dejong contributed from Woudsend.