HINDELOOPEN, Netherlands (AP) — Under leaden skies, a steady stream of Lycra-clad skaters duck slightly as they glide under one of the wooden bridges over the Zijlroade river that runs like a gray ribbon through this picturesque town on the route of the Eleven Cities Tour.
A day after organizers ruled that ice is too dangerous for the legendary 125-mile (200-kilometer) Elfstedentocht race with 16,000 competitors to go ahead, hundreds of skaters took to the route Thursday, gliding peacefully through the flat, frozen landscape, their skates making a metallic click on the ice.
Standing on the ice next to a bridge in Hindeloopen, a cluster of historic houses huddled around the Zijlroade, Thomas Mogendorff said he had one of the coveted tickets for the race and was refusing to give up hope that it might still go ahead.
"I won't tear up the ticket until all the ice has thawed," he said. "I'm still hoping they were wrong and it will freeze again."
Mogendorff, a short-track speedskater used to powering around manicured indoor ovals, was getting used to skating on natural ice, with slushy, rutted patches under bridges and deep cracks in other places.
"In short-track, one crack and you fall and your race is over," he said. "Here there are cracks everywhere."
Skating in winter is a way of life for the Dutch, who learn as young children by pushing chairs around frozen ponds to help them keep their balance. As skies cleared in the afternoon Thursday and schools emptied, laughing youngsters spilled onto the ice in Hindeloopen, some on skates, others skidding around in winter boots.
That deeply ingrained love of skating is part of the reason for the Elfstedentocht's popularity. Another is its rarity — it has only been staged 15 times since the inaugural race in 1909.
The race was last staged in 1997, its winner, farmer Henk Angenent, becoming an overnight celebrity.
Speculation about a possible Elfstedentocht reached fever pitch this week after an arctic snap froze canals, rivers and lakes across the country. Hotels throughout the northern province of Friesland sold out and the country's military was set to be deployed to control crowds expected to reach up to 2 million.
The organizing committee, the Frisian Eleven Cities Association, only allows it when ice across the entire route is six inches (15 centimeters) thick. Often, ice is thick enough on one part of the track but not others. This week, it was too thin almost everywhere.
In Hindeloopen "it was only 5 centimeters (2 inches) thick in places," said local skating official Gauke Bootsma. "You can't let 16,000 people skate over that."
At a nationally televised news conference Wednesday night, association Chairman Wiebe Wieling disappointed the nation when he said: "We can't let the tour go ahead at the moment."
The tour got a royal seal of approval in 1986, when heir to the Dutch throne Crown Prince Willem-Alexander completed the grueling race, registering under the name W.A. van Buren to shield his true identity. Exhausted, he fell into the arms of his mother and father, Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus, as he crossed the finishing line in darkness.
Bootsma also runs a museum of skating and a cafe along the tour route. He said business was fine despite the tour not going ahead.
"If people are skating the tour, they have no time to come in for a drink," he said. "Now people take their time and stop here for a rest."
Skaters interviewed on the ice by The Associated Press had mixed feelings about the event not going ahead — disappointed but at the same time happy to be able to skate from town to town through the deep-frozen landscape in relative peace as long as the ice lasts. A thaw is forecast from Sunday.
Jisk Schuurmans, a Frisian farmer visiting from his home in Canada, struggled to put into words the race's mythical appeal to the Dutch national psyche.
"It's everything," he said. "You can't get any better than this."
But he also said the near-hysteria about the race in recent days took the edge off the event.
"It's too chaotic now, there's too much hype," he said.
Siebe de Boer, 69, pulled up at a bridge 12 miles (20 kilometers) into his 18-mile (30-kilometer) skate and said he was disappointed, but also was a typically levelheaded Frisian.
"If it can't happen, it can't happen," he said. "We're staying down to earth about it."
Ben Nijman, 56, explained the allure of skating on frozen canals as he warmed up in a canalside cafe over a bowl of pea soup — traditional skating food, known locally as snert.
"You can't always skate on natural ice, so when it freezes enough you have to go," he said. "You clear your diary and just go."