By Tjibbe Hoekstra
HINDELOOPEN, Netherlands (Reuters) - Ice fever is sweeping the Netherlands where thousands of ice skaters are waiting to hear whether a historic race through 11 Dutch cities will be held this month, the first time since 1997.
Some 16,000 competitors are hoping to take part in the 200-km (124 mile) Elfstedentocht marathon along the frozen canals in the Dutch province of Friesland for the first time in more than a decade.
On Wednesday evening, race organizers deferred a decision, saying ice conditions were still not right.
"At this moment we cannot organize the race, as the ice is not thick enough on some parts of the route," Wiebe Wieling, president of the organizing committee, told a press conference.
A thaw is expected to set in on Sunday, but some weather forecasts show the cold snap could resume at the end of next week, he said, adding the committee would "remain on standby".
While much of Europe rued the bitter cold snap, the Dutch have religiously followed weather reports, ice updates and bulletins from the organization that decides whether conditions are right for the marathon race.
In homes, bars and offices the talk all week has centered on whether it was cold enough for the canal water to freeze evenly, whether the snow blanket was too thick, hampering ice formation, and whether the ice would reach the required 15 cm (6 inches) of thickness needed along the entire course.
Official "ice masters" or district heads, nominated by the local skating clubs, have been out checking the ice with poles and metal spikes. A regiment of soldiers were drafted in to clear away snow in the hopes of speeding ice formation.
"We don't have any weak spots any more in my district," said local ice master Gauke Bootsma as he stood on a frozen canal in the historic merchant and fishing town of Hindeloopen, one of the 11 cities of Friesland. Every day he measures the ice with a sharp, antique hook.
In the southern district of Balk, conditions were uncertain and the ice too thin on some stretches.
"We wanted to scrape the ice with a machine yesterday, but it was too heavy and fell through the ice, so we have had to do the work by hand," said Auke Hylkema, Balk's ice master, who fell through the ice on a lake on Saturday while measuring its thickness.
Thousands of men and women have been preparing feverishly for the race: to participate, one must be a member of the Elfstedentocht association, and out of more than 30,000 members, only about 16,000 skaters are allowed to compete.
They set off from Leeuwarden in staggered batches of several hundred skaters, the first ones at 5.00 a.m. in the winter dark, while the last lot bring up the rear at about 10 a.m.
Wrapped up against the biting cold, and fortified along the way by hot chocolate and pea soup, they skate all day across ice that's been sculpted into lumps and ridges by the wind or ironed smooth by man.
"It all depends on the wind. A strong wind makes skating hard. Though I'm getting a bit older now, I'm 90 percent sure I will make it," said Tsjalling Pasma, 59, from Balk. "I go skating every Sunday at an artificial ice rink to keep in form."
A veteran, Pasma skated the Elfstedentocht in 1985, 1986 and 1997, and expects it will take him about 12 hours to finish.
The record was set by cattle farmer Evert van Benthem in 1985 with a time of 6 hours and 47 minutes. He became a national hero after winning the race twice in a row, in 1985 and 1986.
But for most Dutch, it's not about winning but about getting out on the ice. Skating fever has largely knocked the euro crisis and the troubles in Syria off the front page for now and could even be co-opted by politicians.
Geert Wilders' Freedom Party wants the day of the race to be declared an official holiday so "everyone can enjoy it", while Prime Minister Mark Rutte remarked that "once every 15 years our country is not governed from The Hague but by 22 district heads in Friesland. And our country is in good hands."
(Reporting by Tjibbe Hoekstra; Editing by Sara Webb and Paul Casciato)