THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- Volunteers poured onto frozen rivers and lakes in the northern Netherlands on Tuesday to shovel away snow that is one of the major hurdles in the way of a grueling speedskating race being held for the first time in 15 years.
Helpers arrived from as far afield as Amsterdam, more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) away, to clear the ice after organizers of the Elfstedentocht, or 11 Cities Tour, warned that snow that fell Friday was hampering ice growth.
Their enthusiasm reflected the Elfstedentocht fever that has gripped the Netherlands amid speculation that the cold snap that has brought misery to much of Europe could deliver ecstasy to the Netherlands in the form of the race being skated for the first time since 1997.
Auke Hylkema, a so-called district chief in the Frisian Eleven Cities Association that organizes the event, sounded amazed by the number of people braving bone-chilling temperatures to lend a hand.
"They're sweeping and shoveling, trying to get everything ready as soon as possible," Hylkema told The Associated Press in a telephone interview in between monitoring problem patches of ice along the eight miles (13 kilometers) of the route he controls.
"We want to get everything cleared today so that when it freezes every degree (under zero Celsius) will help strengthen the ice," he added. Temperatures dipped well under 14 Fahrenheit (-10 Celsius) overnight in much of the Netherlands.
The ice must be at least 6 inches (15 centimeters) thick over the entire 125-mile (200-kilometer) track that winds along canals, rivers and lakes in the northern province of Friesland before the 16,000 competitor event can go ahead.
The 22 district chiefs are scheduled to meet again Wednesday evening to discuss conditions and weather forecasts. Freezing conditions are forecast to continue until Sunday at least, but a thaw could set in early next week.
The nearly mythical race has been staged only 15 times since 1909 and is expected to bring this nation to a halt if it happens this year. In 1997 an estimated 1.5 million spectators lined the route as farmer Henk Angenent won the race and in doing so became a household name.
Like skiing in mountainous nations such as Switzerland and Austria, speedskating is a national wintertime obsession in the Netherlands, which is crisscrossed by thousands of miles (kilometers) of shallow waterways. When rivers and canals freeze, many parents strap skates to their young children's shoes and give them chairs to push across the ice to help them keep their balance as they learn to move around on the slippery surface.
Tuesday's front-page headline in Dutch daily De Telegraaf read, "Polish, mop and sweep," in a reference to feverish efforts to prepare the route.
The national broadcaster NOS, meanwhile, has begun a daily Ice News show to give updates on the state of frozen rivers and lakes around the country and skating tips.
Social media in the Netherlands were abuzz with Elfstedentocht speculation, and the Frisian Eleven Cities Association that organizes the race has got in on the act by opening a Twitter account earlier this month to give updates on progress.
"It froze hard last night! However it is still not clear if or when the Elfstedentocht could be staged," the association tweeted early Tuesday.
The association also used Twitter to warn that the 16,000 tickets sent to skaters allowed into the invitation-only event are nontransferable, an apparent attempt to prevent people trading or selling the much-coveted invites.
Only members of the association are allowed to take part. The association has far more than 16,000 members, so it divides them between skaters who can race in even-number years and those who can take part in odd-number years.
Hylkema's stretch of the route is in the south of Friesland province, the region with the biggest problems.
On Monday night, volunteers in the town of Balk smashed brittle ice that was covering the narrow Luts river so that stronger ice could develop.
"This morning we had 1.5 inches (four centimeters) of ice. It was great, black ice and strong. We hope that tomorrow it's eight centimeters (three inches)," he said.
Hylkema knows from bitter experience how temperamental the ice can be in his neighborhood.
On Saturday, he crashed through the frozen surface of the Slotermeer lake while checking ice thickness.
Sinking through the ice is not too bad, because the water is warmer than the air," he said. "But a kilometer and a half (a mile) is a long way to walk back with wet clothes and hair and water in your boots. Everything freezes."