Fine In-Line Skates

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1994

Fine In-Line Skates

Roll with high quality, not just high technology
By Jim Harmon

Buy right or buy twice--a lesson that in-line skaters have lots of opportunities to learn the hard way. Try to save some money on one of the many "economy" models out there and you're likely to wind up with the foot-numbingly poor fit, flimsy boots and frames, and rattling bearings that can make the skating experience fall well short of fun. Skates worth owning will cost you, but they'll be fast, light, supportive, and comfortably snug--essential for the lower-back-burning, thigh-searing aerobic striding that in the world of in-line skating counts as a good time.

The search for such skates will take you toward the top of a half-dozen manufacturers' lines. But don't be distracted by all the new braking devices, stabilizing rods, air bladders, fabric uppers, and swoopy, one-piece boot-frame combinations you'll find there--sometimes the gewgaws are worth it, and sometimes they're not. The most important characteristic of high-end skates is good, old-fashioned quality construction, which translates into comfort, durability, and a smooth ride. Extras are often just that: extra.

Quality, however, can't be gauged by price alone. There are some great skates to be had for as little as $200, and some only slightly greater skates that will run you $350. The only way to judge them is on the pavement, so when you go to the shop, take your time and your tube socks and skate on as many different models as you can, even if you have to rent them.

Most skate boots are made alike, with a molded polyurethane shell over a foam inner-boot, but they don't all feel alike. The best will surprise you with their softness and pliability, whereas bad boots will hurt in any of a number of ways. They may be hard or boxy, pinch your toes or press down on your instep or rub against your ankle bone, or resist being laced or buckled up tight. Boots that fit right will neither cramp your feet nor leave them room to move around. Pay special attention to your heels and arches, where hot spots and blisters can quickly form if your foot isn't properly cradled. The choice of laces versus buckles is a matter of taste; buckles are more convenient (and tend to be more expensive) but don't necessarily mean a better fit.

If the boots are snug and comfortable, go on to consider their flexibility--there should be plenty front-to-back and none side-to-side. If your feet collapse to the inside or the outside, it very well could be because the boots aren't rigid enough. Manufacturers that offer weaker boots have learned to disguise their shortcomings by making their frames laterally adjustable--if the skate you're standing in sags to the inside, for example, the front of the frame can be moved a fraction of an inch to compensate. In the best skates, with the most laterally rigid boots, this is almost never necessary. On the other hand, if you can't keep your weight easily centered on any skate, the problem could be with you--some feet naturally lean in or out. If that's the case, adjusting the frame can make up for biomechanical shortcomings.

Forward flex, something every skater wants plenty of, is easier to determine. The harder you skate, the lower you need to crouch--it's a matter of aerodynamics and power--and if you can't flex deeply at the ankles, you'll force your toes downward when you bend your knees, grinding the front wheels into the pavement, sapping your efficiency, and inviting face-plants. Look for boots with flexible cuffs, and look out for low buckles that get in the way. If you don't feel pressure on the top of your foot when you lean forward, you probably don't have a flexibility problem.

As for wheels, think big. A diameter of 76 or 77 millimeters is pretty much standard on better skates, because they're designed for better skaters, those who can handle the greater speeds that the big rollers achieve. In most cases, you also want wheels that aren't too hard, and you usually get them. Hardness is indicated by a "durometer" rating, ranging from the midseventies (softer and better suited for rough surfaces) to the mideighties (harder and thus appropriate for smooth paths). What you'll typically find, 78A, is a good compromise; seek out harder or softer wheels only if the terrain warrants them.

Now, consider wheelbase, the distance between the front and rear axles. The longer it is, the more stable the skate will be at high speeds. Any wheelbase over ten inches can be considered long, but don't think in absolute terms: The length of the frame is partly a function of the size of your foot, so you're better off comparing wheelbases from model to model.

If you want to explore the limits of wheelbase, and hence speed, try five-wheel racing skates--cautiously. The extra wheel makes it possible to reach speeds that can be dangerous on a crowded bike path, the long wheelbase (as long as 13.5 inches) decreases maneuverability, and the low-cut (and often soft) boots offer little support. Get the speed thing out of your system--skating like Dan Jansen isn't as easy or as fun as it looks--and then go back to four-wheelers.

Without further ado, here are the nine skates that, for my money, are the cream of the in-line crop.

Bauer. The company's flagship T8 ($280) is built for speed rather than support: It required a major lateral adjustment before I could keep my weight centered on it, something I didn't have to do with other skates. Still, with that straightened out, you can fly on the T8, thanks to its low-cut boot, which closes with buckles and hook-and-loop straps, and its super-long wheelbase (12.25 inches). For the money, though, I like Bauer's F5, which is also low and fast but offered me a much better fit and more support. (I didn't have to futz with the frame, either.) At $210, it's one of the best values in in-line skates.

K2. The Power Extreme ($300), part of a new line of skates from the United States's largest manufacturer of alpine skis, has breathed some fresh air into skate design. Seeking to combine the lateral support of a traditional skate with the comfort of a running shoe, K2's engineers ditched the conventional polyurethane shell for a suede-and-mesh upper and added a rigid cuff. The results are...mixed. The Power Extreme is comfortable, but for me the support doesn't measure up. There are probably plenty of skaters out there who will like an unrestricted fit, but I found the K2 somewhat wobbly. It is, however, the coolest-looking skate yet.

Oxygen. Also from a line that's new this year, the Kr 01 ($349) is, uh, an even bigger breath of fresh air. It features a rigid one-piece boot and frame that delivers a smooth ride. Unfortunately, the performance gets lost in gadgetry: Rather than enclose the back of the leg in plastic, the Kr 01 sports a horseshoe-shaped strip of aluminum that encircles a busy-looking plastic exoskeleton in the name of torsional rigidity--but with no clear advantage over a conventional shell. There's also a fancy but unnecessary quick-change wheel-rockering system and a brake that makes contact with both the pavement and the rear wheel. The latter idea is a good one, though in practice I couldn't tell whether it worked any better than a conventional brake.

Roces. The large floating tongue on the London ($335) has deceptively sharp edges, and I have the flesh wound to prove it. But thanks to the vibration-damping effect of its one-piece boot and frame, this skate offered the smoothest ride of any model I tested, with a snug two-buckle fit and ample forward flex. As good as the London is, however, I preferred Roces's LAX: good-fitting (with lace-and-buckle closure), fast (with 82A-durometer wheels), an excellent value ($275), and the only sporting-goods product in history to be named after L.A.'s airport.

Rollerblade.There are not, nor have there ever been, any skates more comfortable or supportive than those from Rollerblade, and the Aeroblade ABT ($339) sets the standard. Even when flexed hard, the plastic shell doesn't distort or put pressure on the foot, and it provides plenty of lateral rigidity without the aid of gizmos. "ABT" stands for "active brake technology," an interesting system that works well enough--move the skate forward and the pressure of your calf against the cuff pushes the brake to the pavement--though it requires substituting a new awkward movement for one you've already struggled to learn, and it does make the boot bulkier. Anyway, my vote for the best all-around skate available still goes to the Lightning TRS ($185). A fixture in the Rollerblade line for years, it proves that quality and good design triumph over extraneous details. The TRS is relatively inexpensive, light and fast, fits great, and with a lace-and-buckle closure is about as traditional as in-line skates come.

Ultra-Wheels. Like the Roces London and the Oxygen Kr 01, the Ultra-Air ($220) has a rigid, one-piece boot-frame, but in this case I didn't notice any real difference in the ride. This is a nice, straightforward skate: made in the United States (rare), with a three-buckle closure, good lateral rigidity with adequate forward flexibility--you know the drill. It comes in a basic black-and-charcoal color scheme, maybe to match the uniform of company stump-man Wayne Gretzky. It was definitely designed to skate like he plays: nothing flashy, just effective.

Jim Harmon is an avid in-line skater who recently wrote for Outside about the everelusive technique of how to stop.

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