The severe cold spell that is causing so much grief from Spain to Siberia has nonetheless brought special joy to the Netherlands. Day after day of subfreezing temperatures has produced the six inches of ice needed in canals and rivers for the Eleven Cities Tour, a 124-mile skating marathon.
The surprise winner Saturday was Henk Angenent, a Brussels sprouts farmer from Alphen aan de Rijn. He covered the course in 6 hours, 49 minutes, 18 seconds, just two minutes behind the record set in 1985.
"This race is the most beautiful thing in the world," says Wim Westerveld, one of the competitors. It was his fourth race; he was one of the thousands who didn't make it to the end in the 1963 event, held during a blizzard. "But this time, with no particular ambitions, I made it, and with better times than in either of my other runs" in 1985 and 1986, he says.
"The heavy wind was the worst" that competitors have had to contend with, says Mr. Westerveld, a mechanical engineer from the town of Eemnes. Hylke Boerstra, a Dutch banker living in Bremen, Germany, concurs: "Beautiful ice conditions. But very heavy winds."
That the first three hours of the marathon are held in predawn darkness doesn't help, either. The race received blanket coverage by the Dutch media. There was a plan to cover the first hours with an infrared camera on a helicopter, but it was determined that this would produce dangerous noise and wind.
Part of what is remarkable about the Eleven Cities Tour is how quickly it comes together: The decision to hold the race was made Thursday, and Saturday morning at 5:40 the first of some 16,000 skaters set out from the starting line. About 4,000 volunteers help out with the race.
Skating has been part of the Netherlands since before the Middle Ages. Today parents strap double-bladed skates onto toddlers to give them an early start in mastering the skill. But the tour, begun in 1909, has been held only 15 times because of the need for ice to be consistently six-inches thick all along the course. Every winter, the organizers stay in close touch with the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute to decide whether to hold the race.
Last year, it looked as if a tour might be possible, but officials discovered three soft spots in the ice and decided not to hold it. Bad ice conditions could lead to injuries.
As crowds cheered the skaters, some of whom straggled to the finish late in the day, elsewhere in Europe the weather picture was much more grim. The death toll attributed to the cold had reached 228 yesterday, and after a slight break in temperatures over the weekend, forecasters from Paris to Warsaw were predicting another cold wave for the new week.
France has been hard hit, with icy rain and snow halting the famous high-speed trains and stranding thousands. In Britain, the Thames River uncharacteristically froze at Marlow, 25 miles west of London.
"Europe is used to winters made mild by Mediterranean and Atlantic air coming from the south and west," explains Klaus Gagel, a meteorologist at the German Weather Service in Offenbach. Typical daytime winter temperatures in Western Europe range from 32 to 50 degrees F.
The two-week cold wave is unusual in that it has lasted so long. "Off and on, it's not unusual for temperatures to go below that range, but generally that's very short term," Mr. Gagel adds. "When you've had 10 years of mild weather, for something like this to happen, it's a surprise. This is an extreme event." But over the long haul, the current temperatures are "normal" within a weather cycle of 20 years or so.
Margaret Emerson, a forecaster at the London Weather Center, calls the current chill in Britain "the coldest start to a new year since 1979." The British climate is usually moderated by warming winds from the south and west, but a blast of cold air from Russia has been severe enough to make it across the North Sea and the English Channel without much moderation.
Poland, with 50 weather-related deaths so far, has been one of the countries most severely affected. "But this weather is not all that unusual," says Michal Jaworski, a forecaster at the Polish National Weather Service in Warsaw.
Across the newly democratizing countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the cold weather is proving to be an acid test of government and private charitable social services.
John Geoghehan, deputy director of the Europe department of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, says these countries are "getting over the hump" of reestablishing social services after the transition from communism and during a period when money for aid to the elderly, poor, and handicapped all but "completely dried up."
"Another factor is that the whole concept of volunteerism is coming back into the vernacular," Mr. Geoghehan says. After so many years of forced "volunteerism" - unpaid Saturdays on a work brigade or required blood donations - many citizens of formerly communist countries look askance at "volunteering" for anything. But that's changing as people see opportunities to help neighbors in need, he says.