We have now gone more that twenty-six years without an Eleven Cities Skating Race, the longest gap since the first organized race in 1909. The last time the classic skating race was held was on January 4th, 1997. There have only been four races in the last sixty-seven years and a total of fifteen since that first organized race in 1909. For the race to go ahead, the ice has to be six inches thick along the entire 125-mile course of the race, which as its name implies passes through all eleven towns in the province of Friesland that have a formal city charter. In the Netherlands, with its generally mild winters, it has always been rare for the ice floor to reach that thickness everywhere along the route, and with the effects of climate change, the time between successive races has been creeping up. Long distance skating, preferably on the natural ice of the country’s many canals and lakes, is one of the most popular Dutch sports and pastimes. It is not surprising then that the few races that have taken place are etched into the nation’s collective memory. All races were special, but the race of January 18th, 1963, stands out as the toughest and most iconic.
The winter of 1963 was easily the coldest of the 20th century, and the day of the race was one of the coldest of that already record-shattering winter. At the start, in the darkness of the early morning hours, it was 0°F. During the day, the temperature rose to around 20°F, but a harsh northeasterly wind started blowing mid-morning. The riders faced it head-on during long, unsheltered miles along narrow canals through the flat fields of northern Friesland in the second half of the race. Snow squalls limited visibility (one rider collided with a houseboat and another with a bridge), and the quality of the ice was abominable. Some stretches had ten inches of snow on the ice; riders told of having trouble determining where the land ended, and the ice started. Many stretches had deep and wide cracks in the ice. The consensus is that there is no way a race would be allowed to go ahead under those circumstances today. But in 1963, 9,862 riders laced up their skates (or tied them under their shoes if they were skating on classic wooden skates as a good number still did in those days), despite the harsh weather. Around one percent completed the race. And among those few who managed to conquer the elements, Reinier Paping was the first to pass the finish line.
Paping was a newcomer. He had skated the Olympic distances in a few tournaments, without significant success. His best result was a fourth place in the Dutch all-round skating championships in 1955, and internationally his best and only result was a thirtieth place finish at the European championships in the same year. Before starting the 125-mile Eleven Cities Tour, he had never skated a race longer than fifty miles. But Paping was strong, started without any expectations and went with the flow of the race.
Soon after the start in Leeuwarden, a group of about fifty riders took the lead. Among them were all the favorites and the unknown Paping. Gradually, riders started dropping off the back of the pack, and when the group reached Sloten there were about twenty of them left.
Paping had such good form that day that he regularly skated at the front of the group and occasionally took a lead of a few hundred feet. The harshness of the circumstances is exemplified by the fact that it took the lead group nineteen minutes more than it had taken the leaders in the 1956 race to reach Sloten, covering the first twenty-five miles, or one-fifth of the course.
Between Workum and Bolsward – where the halfway point of the race is – Paping increased the speed so much that the large leading pack shattered into different smaller groups. The lead group consisted of Paping, favorites Jeen van den Berg (1954 winner) and Anton Verhoeven (disqualified joint-winner in 1956) and experienced long- distance skater Jan Uitham, who had already completed two Eleven Cities races, although he had never placed in the top ten.
So relentless was Paping’s pace between Bolsward and Harlingen that by the time he reached Harlingen, he had taken a three-minute lead. His experienced pursuers reckoned that with more than fifty miles to go, the vast majority straight into the wind and blowing snow, there was no way that Paping could sustain his lead without the help of others to share the load. But when they got to Franeker, with forty-five miles to go, they heard that Paping had passed the city eleven minutes before them. Paping later said that at this point he started to believe he could actually win the race. This gave him extra power, while Uitham, Van den Berg and Verhoeven suffered from the cold and exhaustion. Verhoeven dropped off, and at one point, Uitham and Van den Berg managed to reduce Paping’s lead to eight minutes.
There is one stretch in the race, between the hamlet of Bartlehiem and the city of Dokkum, where the skaters go out and back along the same length of canal. It is there that Paping encountered his pursuers about a mile south of Dokkum. It was at that point, Van den Berg later said, that he realized he had lost the race.
Paping reached the finish in Leeuwarden with a twenty-two-minute lead over Uitham, who came in second and third-placed Van den Berg. It took him ten hours and fifty-nine minutes, three hours and twenty-four minutes longer than it had taken Van den Berg to complete the distance in 1954. Queen Juliana and Princess Beatrix were on hand, with thousands of other spectators, to welcome the winner home. Of the almost ten thousand riders who had left Leeuwarden in the morning, only 126 finished the race. The lowest percentage ever.
Long before the widespread opportunity to cash in on sporting fame, Paping, for his efforts, received two annual passes to the skating rink in Deventer, a silver cigarette holder and ten guilders from an anonymous skating enthusiast. When he mentioned during an interview that his breakfast the morning of the race was a bowl of Brinta brand porridge, Brinta offered him a sponsorship deal: five hundred guilders, a cigarette lighter and a hair dryer.
Paping started a sporting goods store in Zwolle, where he sold several pairs of skates to a young Evert van Benthem, the man who would become his successor twenty-two years after Paping’s victory of 1963. Living in relative obscurity, Paping remained active and healthy until late in life. He died after a short illness on December 20th, 2021. He was ninety years old.
We profiled Reinier Paping in Issue 64 of Dutch the magazine.
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