Skates That Cruise the Learning Curve

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1996

Skates That Cruise the Learning Curve

Quick, high-performance rides to take you from early T-stops to in-line confidence
By Andrew Tilin

Skates that keep up with you--that should be your watchword at the local in-line shop. That's because whether you're just rolling into the sport or can execute a respectable T-stop, so-called beginner skates inspire two realizations as you gain confidence and speed: The skates go from sturdy to clunky, and you go from contented to looking at more skate reviews. Then you're back in the shop, kicking wheels again.

The new performance skates, however, should prevent buyer's remorse. Their handling and fast-clip capabilities far exceed those of their doddery brethren. Every part of the skate's anatomy has been improved: Bigger wheels promise greater speed. A stiffer and sometimes longer frame (the structure that holds wheel to boot) is more responsive and better able to handle high velocities. And a lower-cut, more flexible boot may feel a little squirmy at first but lets you get into a deeper crouch for improved balance and power. With few exceptions, performance skates sell for about $275 to $400, roughly twice the price of decent entry-level models. But performance skates also move a good bit faster and are many times more comfortable.

One thing hasn't changed: how to shop. Bring your skating socks and give yourself plenty of time to try different models. Most performance skate boots have shells made of polyurethane or a similar plastic, buckle closures, and foam liners. What with the generous padding and the flex patterns engineered into these shells, any skater should be able to find a comfortable boot, but be hypersensitive to any signs of stress or friction in your arches, shins, ankles, heels, and Achilles tendons. You should be able to wiggle your toes but not move them from side to side. Insist on a test ride: Any caring skate-shop salesperson will let you go for a spin and can recommend different insoles or socks of another thickness for a tailored fit.

The shop expert may also suggest that you abandon a plastic boot altogether for a more conforming fabric boot. K2 skates, as well as a few models from other manufacturers, do without the shell and multibuckle formula, instead using a combination of nylon mesh, synthetic fabric, leather, hook-and-loop fastening straps, plastic in the heel and footbed, and even laces for a more shoelike feel. The downside is a relative lack of support, though some skaters would term that freedom, since a fabric boot lets them flex as no plastic boot possibly can.

The other major factor in skating ease and comfort is your stance--and your skates shouldn't make you feel knock-kneed or bowlegged. Some models allow you to adjust the cuff angle--known as the canting--to help straighten a skate that leans too far to one side. Boots that extend higher up the leg are good for skaters who tend to stand more upright, but they make an aggressive crouch position difficult to obtain and may be uncomfortable for women, whose calf muscles are generally lower and thicker than men's.

While boot fit is the key to skate comfort, the frame is the main determinant of skate behavior. Aluminum offers the stiffest and most responsive ride, while nylon and nylon blends are slightly more forgiving. But material is less important than length: The longer the wheelbase (the distance between front and rear axles) the more stable the skate will be at speed--and the less maneuverable. The wheelbases of the men's size-eight skates I reviewed range from 9.4 to 13 inches, and I found 11 inches to be the great divide at which a skate went from turn-happy to behaving more like a freight train. Frame length obviously changes with boot size, however, so compare skates themselves rather than spec sheets.

Finally, bigger wheels have become better wheels, because greater diameters mean you can reach higher velocities. The smallest wheels I found on a performance skate were 76 millimeters--a noticeable upgrade from the old 72s--and many frames can accommodate bigger replacement wheels. Two of the skates in the review house five wheels; the additional wheel lets you go even faster.

The eight performance skates reviewed here are divided along the fault line between the turny (short wheelbases) and the speedy (long wheelbases). Unless otherwise noted, they are available in distinct men's and women's models. Herewith, the finest vehicles available on urethane wheels.


Compared with most other similarly priced skates, the $150 California Pro TC is a leap up the performance ladder. The perforated-foam and mesh liner and the vents in the plastic shell do a reasonable job of cooling your foot, particularly when you're working the 10.4-inch-wheelbase, nylon-frame skate from side to side up a steep grade. And its elaborate brake, attached to the rear of the right skate's cuff and actuated by putting that foot forward, does an admirable job. The TC falls short of more expensive performance skates with a disconcerting rattle on rough surfaces, and it's available only in men's sizes. However, I could cinch the buckles tight, and the TC stayed secure on my foot. So if you're looking for an inexpensive upgrade and have a fondness for cruising smooth bike paths, you might give this skate a spin.

For the money ($279), the plastic-boot Rollerblade Macroblade Maxxum is the best skate I tested: immediately comfortable, flexible enough for serious crouching, and a tremendous handler on those right-angle city-street turns. With the shortest wheelbase in this review (9.4 inches), the Macroblade Maxxum let me make Ingemar Stenmarklike slalom runs down steep hills, enjoying the traction and speed of its 76-millimeter wheels. The three buckles came across my foot and shin in all the right places, and big swatches of mesh in the liner and corresponding ducts in the shell made it the ventilation victor. A heel strap lets you fine-tune liner snugness, the nylon frame is compliant without feeling particularly soft, and the women's model comes with a lower cuff to stay out of calf's way.

Take away the doodads on the $299 Oxygen Kr 3.1--the metal band, reminiscent of the St. Louis Arch, running behind the ankle for better torsional rigidity, the small lever that lifts the front and rear wheels off the ground, giving the skate what's known as rocker for handling that I found to be too quick--and you've still got a comfortable skate that's good for many miles. Ignore the distractions, pull on the lightweight plastic boot, and cruise the flats or skate in town for hours. The frame and boot are one molded piece, making the Kr 3.1 a little stiffer underneath than the other nylon-frame skates. One flourish I like is the braking system, a spring-loaded heel brake that actually slows the rear wheel instead of merely scraping against the pavement. And just as well: The 9.9-inch-wheelbase Oxygen is second only to the Maxxum for wobbliness on big, fast descents.

At just over 11 inches from front axle to rear, the Bauer T8 ($330) deserves long-wheelbase status, but it earns shorty honors for its turning ability on the hills: If the Oxygen were a slalom ski, the Bauer would be a GS board. It has a low-cut, soft boot with a bit of rigid plastic around the buckle on the cuff and surrounding the heel and toe, so you can crouch way down to gain a lot of ground with each stroke. The nylon frame houses 77.5-millimeter wheels, but it will accommodate 80 millimeters. I found it impossible to avoid occasionally going knock-kneed in the T8, despite a canting adjustment on the cuff and a lateral frame adjustment at the toe. But if this versatile skate works with your stance, it's a bargain.


With the K2 Workout ($360) you'll feel rock-steady at 25 miles per hour while passing cars on the shoulder--which is important, since it's no snappy turner. But the 12.9-inch wheelbase isn't all that's exceptional about this skate. The soft boot, with its combination of a buckle, laces, and a hook-and-loop fastening strap that runs across the foot three times, can be snugged to give you a superb fit. The carbon-fiber and nylon frame is laterally adjustable, but I found no need to futz with it. With its racy black, red, and yellow color scheme, its low-crouch capability, and its convertible housing for four or five wheels, this skate wouldn't be out of place toeing the line at your local 10k. A good shorter-wheelbase model is the strictly four-wheel Power Extreme ($296), a stalwart in the line since K2 started making skates in 1994.

If the K2 is a midcut slipper, the Roces Sydney ($399) is a high-speed combat boot. It has a stiff aluminum frame, three strong plastic buckles, and a tall, rigid plastic shell. Thanks to that hard construction, you feel everything--bad pavement, pebbles, ripples in the asphalt--but all of your energy is transmitted efficiently to the skate. Because of its rigidity, the Sydney excels on climbs, and although its 11.5-inch wheelbase is a bit long for maneuvering on city streets, it's perfect for going full-tilt on empty bike paths and is stable down serious grades. The frame is laterally adjustable and will take up to 80-millimeter wheels (it comes with 76ers). Big vents in the boot and mesh in the liner keep you cool.

Rollerblade went down the path of a five-wheel performance skate years ago with the Racerblade, which was heavy, hot, and perhaps ahead of its time. The Fusion 10K ($399) is a worthy update, with a ventilated, lace-up, midcut boot, an aluminum frame with a 13-inch wheelbase, and five 80-millimeter wheels. The frame is laterally adjustable fore and aft. Put it all together and the whole package moves smartly, with the speed of the K2 Extreme Workout. A skater who is actually good enough to fully exploit this hardware may feel confined by the plastic boot, and it only comes in unisex sizes. But if you like significant support with your speed, the Fusion 10K is a solid choice.

Andrew Tilin, a former senior editor of Outside, has been in-line skating for six years.

Copyright 1996, Outside Magazine

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