Dutch Speedskaters Waited 24 Years for Canals to Freeze. Then the Pandemic Froze Their Dream Race. - WSJ

The Netherlands have been waiting 24 winters for a cold snap like this one. Not too windy, not too snowy, and temperatures sinking like a bike in a canal. That’s because these are the precise conditions required for the ultimate Dutch sporting event: a 200-kilometer speedskating race on frozen waterways through 11 cities in Friesland.

It’s known as the Elfstedentocht. And it’s pronounced…don’t worry about it.

Because it depends so heavily on climate, the race has been held only 15 times since 1909, most recently in 1997. There has never been a drought this long. Dutch people worried that climate change meant they would never have a winter cold enough or long enough again—until they stepped outside last weekend and found the weather starting to cooperate with temperatures in the teens.

There is only one problem now: the Elfstedentocht stars are aligning in the middle of a pandemic. Under current Covid-19 restrictions in the Netherlands, the race would not be allowed to happen, even if the ice grows thick enough. 

That hasn’t stopped Dutch speed skaters from watching the weather and their government, and praying for a way to make it possible. The most famous people in the country right now are meteorologists.

“I’m looking every day, sometimes 10 times a day, at the weather models,” said 53-year-old Henk Angenent, the 1997 Elfstedentocht champion and one of three living winners of the men’s race. “I think the winter is coming back at the end of next week. It’s what I feel.”

The hype has snowballed so fast that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is being forced to treat ice skating as a matter of state. While it would be permissible to head onto the ice with one other person, he said, any mass event simply couldn’t fit with the country’s rules on physical distancing. Organizers say an Elfstedentocht would attract between 1 and 2 million fans to the edge of the canals.

But the clamor for a few allowances is growing. Dutch speedskating legend Erben Wennemars laid out the case for more cold and fewer restrictions in his newspaper column.

“We have been at home for months and have no idea how long this situation will continue,” he wrote in the Algemeen Dagblad. “Many people need a ray of hope. A dot on the horizon. Maybe a small miracle, a fairy tale that gives us hope again.”

In any other year, an Elfstedentocht could be announced with just 48 hours notice. Organizers formally known as Royal Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities, put together a plan every winter and wait for a deep freeze. It takes two weeks of temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and ice at least 6 inches thick to support some 30,000 skaters. More often than not, the local “ice masters” have to nix the whole thing.

So when organizers declared last November that there would be no Elfstedentocht this winter, it was a safe bet that the whole exercise would be academic again. Then the first signs of ice this month made skaters start to dream.

“We’ve never been closer, if you look at the weather,” said Immie Jonkman, a member of the Elfstedentocht’s board. But, she added, much of the hype has come from the rest of the country. Frieslanders more in tune with how their canals behave have been a little more measured. “It’s great to have something to think about besides corona. I think that’s why people are getting so excited about ice.”

Whether or not Elfstedentocht happens—and Jonkman insists that it won’t—the Netherlands are still giddy at the prospect of what they call “natural ice.” Having a chance to skate on canals again is seen as a chance to reconnect with Dutchness in a way that knocking back a Heineken or picking a bunch of tulips just can’t match.

“It’s a cultural heritage for us,” said Richard Plugge, the director of the Jumbo-Visma cycling team who has been advising national speedskating authorities on potential Covid protocols. “The natural ice defrosts the Dutch. It makes us a warm, happy family.”

Even that has become a rarity in recent years due to climate change, according to Sytse Kroes, an Ice Master who remembers skating 5 miles to school during his childhood winters. A small band of devotees in recent years have cobbled together an alternative Elfstedentocht on the Weissensee in Austria. Others make regular trips to Sweden to get their natural ice fix.

“But it’s terrible,” Kroes said. “In Sweden, you have to skate on lakes. Here you can skate from city to city.”

Kroes talks about icy winters in Friesland like they’re vintages of fine wine: 1968 was a great year. So was 1987. One subzero spell in 2012 seemed like it might produce a Grand Cru season only for the Elfstedentocht to be called off at the last moment. Ten days of freezing hadn’t been enough. 

One small consolation could be the running of the marathon speedskating championships for elite athletes, which haven’t been held in nearly a decade. The government has expressed cautious support for the idea and the sport’s governing body is studying how to create a restricted environment around a lake—or, in Dutch, a “Natuurijs Bubbel.” 

All of this hinges, of course, on the Netherlands staying cold. A few extra degrees or a couple of days of snow (Kroes points out that snow ice is the enemy) could punt the entire conversation into 2022. The coming days will be crucial to determine whether any skating is possible at all. For the Elfstedentocht, however, the wait is set to continue, 24 years and counting. 

“We’re only at the start of an ice period,” Kroes said. “But people have no patience anymore.”

Write to Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com