In February, 2017, hundreds of Dutch people are expected in Luleå, the small city on the Gulf of Bothnia that happens to have a natural ice track, spanning approximately 12 km around the peninsula where the city centre is located. This is the story of how it came to be, of how “Jan the Iceman” and a group of Dutch ice skating enthusiasts found their paradise.
Jan Blomqvist is not the type who pats himself on the back whilst loudly bragging about his work. Jan is not the least bit boastful – but don’t let his humility fool you. Jan Blomqvist, or “Jan the Iceman” as he is known in certain circles in the Netherlands, has been around since the birth of the ice track and is now the manager of the team tasked with creating the spectacular ice track every year. “But I don’t want to be called that. I prefer ‘Jan the Iceman’ he chuckles, bursting into a characteristic laugh.
2017 is the 14th anniversary of Luleå’s ice track. However, it is the first year that KPN Grand Prix have chosen the ice track as the location for one of their races, meaning that world class skaters will be racing between Luleå’s harbours. Practically no one in Luleå could have imagined this when the ice track first came into being, except for “Jan the Iceman”, that is.
The original reason for there being an ice track surrounding Luleå, only a few metres away from the city centre, stems from a citizens’ initiative put forward by local politician Ylva Strutz in 2002. She wanted an ice track for recreation and long-distance skating to be created on the sea ice surrounding the city.
“No one else at the local council had ever worked with ice layout in the way that was required to design the ice track, consequently I was given the job”, explains Jan Blomqvist.
He had previous experience from a race track and a horse-racing track in Luleå’s North Harbour. However, incidents, noise and pollution from race cars put a stop to those projects. And, of course, there was the racehorse incident. “We did actually have proper horse races on which you could place bets. But that went awry and one of the damn horses ran away during a race and was captured about 8 km outside Luleå”, says Blomqvist, laughing at the memory.
Enter: Bram Smallenbroek
Together with his team of six people, he has been responsible for the ice track – and its modifications, ever since. The original track only spanned half the city peninsula. Over the years, it has grown larger and the ice track is now approximately 12 km in length, if you count all the detours, such as those to the archipelagic island, Gråsjälören and the Mjölkudden residential area. Every year, when the ice has become at least 35 cm thick, they roll out the six-ton ice grading machine that keeps the ice track cleared and level. The work done by the team is highly appreciated by the people of Luleå and the locals are happy to talk about the amazing ice track whenever they get a chance. Maybe it’s their pride and constant chatter about the ice track that led ice skating enthusiasts in the skate-crazy Netherlands to find out about Luleå.
Jan “the Iceman” Blomqvist had long suspected that it would only be a matter of time before the Dutch found out about the ice track for which he was responsible. He had, after all, been in a meeting with colleagues from a nearby city, where they discussed opportunities for bringing Dutch visitors to Swedish Lapland. They love ice and natural ice is in short supply in their home country. “The Iceman” didn’t think any more about that, he thought; as long as I maintain our ice track in tip top condition, it will eventually happen. And so, out of the blue, one day in 2015, he received a call from a foreign number. “The Iceman” was fully occupied with his ice track and really did not have time to pick up calls. After three or four calls from the same number, Jan Blomqvist gave in and answered the phone. “It was Bram Smallenbroek. He was up for a world record skating attempt but he had nowhere to go and he asked if I could help him.”
The dream about ice
Bram Smallenbroek, a former professional ice skater born in the Netherlands and competing for Austria, wanted to bring Olympic champion Bob de Jong to the ice track in Luleå, to break the world record for ice skating on natural ice. He needed 500 metres of straight track on high quality ice. “I replied that I could offer 800 metres. That made them come here. You should’ve seen their faces when I showed them the ice track. Their jaws dropped”, laughed “the Iceman”.
No world record was set that day but Jan Blomqvist could tell that the Dutch group were not done with Luleå just because the world record attempt didn’t work out. He couldn’t understand the language but he could hear from the tone of their voices that they were excited about the possibility of running a race here. “I then understood that there would probably be a request from someone wanting to run a race on the ice track. And there was.”
On February 22, an event, part of the major KPN Grand Prix, will take place on the ice track surrounding Luleå. On February 21 there is already expected to be a large number of leisure skaters participating in a Tourskate event on the ice track.
This is all happening in large part thanks to “Jan the Iceman”, his collaboration with Bram Smallenbroek and his connections in the world of professional ice skating. The ice track, originally intended for ice skating locals, has become an international attraction and is now a popular place to visit amongst tourists. Jan Blomqvist explains that he really wants the KPN Grand Prix to be a success both with the professional skaters and with tourists who are interested in skating and who either visit Luleå to skate themselves or just to experience the ice city of Luleå. “If we do this well now, they will understand what an incredibly great ice track we have here, what great conditions we have for this type of race”, he explains.
The heroes of the ice track
Jan Blomqvist claims to be perfectly satisfied with the current layout of the ice track. A 20-metre-wide ice track lined with a pavement on the side for those who just want to walk on the ice. 12 km long, connecting the city to the archipelago and various residential areas. According to him, it’s perfect. “The Iceman” promises that the track will not change over the next four years. Jan is four years off retirement, after which he will just be a visitor to the track, but he hopes and he thinks that people will care for and maintain what he once helped to create.
Ylva Strutz, the woman behind the citizens’ initiative, will unfortunately never see the new heights that the ice track, which may well have been her best idea, will reach in February. She passed away following an illness in 2016 and she is remembered as an iconic politician and as the mother of the ice track. This ice track, her baby, will live on for many years to come. The people of Luleå love it and it has now become an integral part of the city. Now that the people from the Netherlands have fallen in love with it too, it will probably become even more popular. “The great thing about the ice track is not just the quality or the length of it. It stretches around the whole city and the city centre always remains in sight, you are never far from either hotels or restaurants and other entertainment. That’s what makes it so very exceptional”, concludes Jan “the Iceman” Blomqvist.