This year’s SUP11-City Tour was extra-special for a couple of reasons. For one, it very nearly didn’t happen. An event as logistically-complex as this (10 days across half a dozen locations) was always going to be prone to cancellation in the year of Covid. But organisers somehow pulled it off to ensure one of the longest-running (and longest, period) races in the sport continued its 12-year history.
The other reason was the media output.
The 11 Cities never slouches on the photo/video front, but 2020 was on another level. I like to joke about SUP media not being ESPN, but looking at the daily highlights and photos from Friesland you’d be forgiven for thinking the 11-City Tour had a much larger budget. In reality, the budget is virtually non-existent. Everyone works this event free–everyone volunteers their time simply because they love being part of such a special week.
(The SUP11-City Tour is so charismatic it even managed to drag me out of
semi-retirement hibernation. It was fun getting back on the mic–hope you enjoyed the daily live shows!)
Led by chief organiser and enthusiastic media-boat-captain Ritske Merkus, more than 70 volunteers helped produce this year’s 220km paddle around the Dutch province of Friesland. From typical tasks like rego and timing to relatively unique offerings such as “bell holders” and the small army of masseurs that comfort weary paddlers at the end of each stage, the 11 Cities has its bases covered. Out of those 70 volunteers there were 10 solely focused on media. Photos, videos, Insta Stories, results, recaps. You name it, the media team was on it.
The photo crew were led by 11 Cities veterans @mayola.phtgrphs and @pixr.ed and joined by drone hero @ydwer, @laragia_photography and @lucas_xtr. The video team working in parallel included @wouterkloostermann, @ma_ieke, @ria_victoria05 and media manager extraordinaire (slash live stream co-host) @marije.elgersma. Not to mention event founder @amreichman who wrote daily recaps (and joined us on the morning show twice) despite being a proverbial world away.
I’ve been playing those highlight videos on loop the past 10 days, but today I want to share a few photos that each tell a little story about this mad-crazy event.
Friesland (or “Fryslân” in the provincial language) is a beautiful place featuring wide open fields, flat-water canals and an assortment of windmills, cows and quaint little towns (or “cities”–most of the 11 cities would be called villages in any other country; the Dutch use the word in a curious manner). So if you haven’t already, add the SUP11-City Tour to your bucket list. The adventure on the water is fun while the camaraderie and atmosphere off it is even better.
It’s an event that, as 2011/2012 veteran Casper Steinfath said in his greeting during the stage five morning show, thoroughly deserves its highlighted place on the annual race calendar.
Hope to see you there in 2021 ✌️
PHOTO #1: Day-stagers gather for the final leg from Dokkum to Leeuwarden.
While about 60 paddlers competed in the full, five-day adventure this year (which is well down from the usual 100-150 in non-pandemic years, though still very respectable given the current levels of lockdown), the fifth and final stage saw 112 paddlers gather in Dokkum for the 27km Sunday stroll to Leeuwarden.
The day-stagers add a true foundation to the 11 Cities. They also add a unique element: Amateurs start 20 minutes ahead of the top athletes, which creates an interesting mix as the fastest men and women weave their way through the back-markers.
The leisure competitors only complete one segment out of five, but this year they chose the toughest: Stiff headwinds made for a long, tough slog to the finish line on Sunday.
You probably don’t know any of the people in this photo and that’s entirely the point: The sign of a successful event is often how many regular paddlers get out on the water.
PHOTO #2: “The Fields of Friesland” (and a windmill, just for good measure).
While the quaint villages (sorry, “cities”) offer a picturesque backdrop, the majority of this race travels through empty fields where often your only company is the bahhh of a sheep, mooo of a cow or cheer of a very dedicated SUP11 fan standing on one of the many bridges.
The Netherlands is famous for its water management (one-third of the country lies below sea level), and windmills dot the countryside in a throwback to a bygone era. Many are just for show these days but some are still in operation for irrigation. You’ll pass dozens during the week, and they all make for great postcard pics.
Beautiful drone shot by 📸 @ydwer
PHOTO #3: “De Luts” aka the Frisian Jungle Ride.
This 4km canal is probably the most-scenic part of the entire 200+ kilometres. Paddlers get to experience the “theme park ride” early on in the second stage, with De Luts sitting just beyond the infamous “Slotermeer” lake that usually whips up disastrous headwinds. That makes this stretch of water not only a photo-friendly hotspot but also a wind-free safe haven.
PHOTO #4: Ring the bell!
Paddlers must ring a bell mid-way through each stage in a symbolic gesture to show they’ve passed through all of the “cities”. It’s a throwback to the original ice-skating version of the 11-City Tour (the “Elfstedentocht” that began in 1909) where competitors would check-in for stamps to prove they hadn’t taken a shortcut. Those stamps were trialed in the early versions of SUP11 but quickly abandoned in favour of the much-simpler bell ring.
PHOTO #5: Simon Jager paddles solo to the finish of stage one.
Simon is an 11 Cities veteran who lives on a North Sea island to the north of Friesland. Unable to read or write, he registers for the following year in-person at the conclusion of each Tour. He doesn’t say a lot, but his presence on the water is like the proverbial canary in the coalmine: without Simon, it just wouldn’t be a real 11 Cities.
PHOTO #6: Back-of-the-pack: This is Halbe Algra, Magreet Hubert and Corien van Rijswijk crossing the line on day three. The trio were often the final three to finish each stage (their finishing times for the week were all around the 37-hour mark), however they got the biggest cheer because they embodied the spirit of the event. The 11 Cities makes you feel welcome no matter whether you finish first or last.
PHOTO #7: Prone paddlers are a small but no-less-impressive part of the SUP11-City Tour. Here we see a trio including Anne de Jong and Lotte Spaargaren completing the final stage (they also completed the non-stop as a team).
Lotte holds the honour of being the first paddler to complete the non-stop race solo (2018). Her time? 38 hours, 39 minutes. On a prone paddleboard… Prone. Prone..!
PHOTO #8: The infamous portage run during stage four where competitors must pick up their boards and sprint (or stroll) 100-200 metres. Water levels vary across Friesland, and at certain locations a lock system is used to keep everything in check. Boats will take 15-20 minutes to go through the “locks” (or “weirs”) but paddlers take the much shorter route overland.
Just getting out of the water here is a skill in itself. It wasn’t designed for paddleboards, and if you’re unlucky enough to arrive at the back of a draft train you’ll find there’s virtually no room to exit. This brief part of the race will make your heart (and legs) hurt like no other. It’s also where the draft trains are often torn to shreds.
Here we see “Queen of the Locks” Tanja Ecker making a quick escape from Wietske Kuipers.
PHOTO #9: The mixed expression on the face of Claudio Duran Jimenez sums up the 11-City Tour: You’ll love it and hate it, you’ll feel joy and pain, and you’ll experience both a fun adventure and torturous challenge as you spend five days alongside a dedicated group of sore but smiling paddlers.
PHOTO #10: There’s so much happening in this photo.
We’ve got the champ and the contender (Bruno Hasulyo and Joep van Bakel), the finish line on day 3 under an old wooden bridge named after the original ice-skating 11-City Tour, two of the longest-serving volunteers in SUP11 history standing on the bridge cheering home the paddlers, and the dedication of the incredible media team including 11 Cities veteran Mayola Dijksman aka @mayola.phtgrphs who captured this gem…
PHOTO #11: The carrot dangling over the finish line, which keeps many paddlers going, is the famous “11 Cities Cross” that’s awarded to everyone who completes the entire route either non-stop or over five days.
This small medallion has its roots in the old ice-skating race and is awarded in most of the other “Elfsteden” events as well (SUP is just one of many–around two dozen sports retrace the route of the famous ice-skating classic).
Here’s Richard Wiesner from the Czech Republic collecting his hard-earned cross. Richard finished in 32 hours, 47 minutes. Non-stop…
There are hundreds more great photos over on the SUP11-City Tour Facebook gallery
Want to join us at SUP11 2021? Registration is going to open mid-October 🙌