On especially long hiking descents, I admit I’ve fantasized about a faster way to the bottom. Elevator? Parachute? Antigravity shoes? For a fringe group of athletes, that faster way is in-line skating. All it takes is the right pair of footwear, a keen eye for navigating rough terrain, and the willingness to get beat up. Frequently.
I first learned about these daredevils when I spotted a man at my local park in Kenmore, Washington, rolling down a wide gravel path, but I got the lay of the land from Vancouver, British Columbia, skater Kenny Talpa, 41, who’s been off-road blading for three years.
Skaters like Talpa call the sport mountain blading. Hundreds of miles of mountain-bike paths make western Canada an ideal region to practice, but even with his robust network of skating friends, Talpa only knows a handful of people with the gear and the interest to bring their skills to the dirt. “It takes a special breed of rollerblader, because it’s quite dangerous on the mountain blades,” he says.
Enthusiasts have essentially one goal when taking on trails: stay on your skates at all costs. “There’s literally no good way to stop,” Talpa says. Off-road blades have no brakes, which is not uncommon for skates in general, but paved surfaces and polyurethane wheels allow for hockey stops and other maneuvers that slow you down. Slippery dirt paths and off-road tires don’t. At best you might be able to drag a foot behind yourself to reduce your velocity, but what you’re really waiting for are flatter sections of trail to dump speed. Even once you scout a route—a requirement for the sport—you must “commit to the gravity,” as Talpa says. That horrifies most people, including experienced skaters.
Yet the danger and focus required appeals to Talpa. He calls it exhilarating. “The first time I went with mountain bikers, and they took me up a trail that was well-groomed,” he says, “I was totally hooked.”
Off-road in-line skates first hit the market in the mid-nineties with dueling blades from an Italian company called Roces and the now ubiquitous brand Rollerblade. Roces launched two off-road products: the Enduro, which looked like a typical three-wheel skate with larger, grooved wheels for better grip, and the Big Cat, which had two large wheels on a long base like a short ski—a design sometimes referred to as “adventure” or “nordic.” Rollerblade’s Coyote model introduced air-inflated tires instead of the hard polyurethane wheels that were (and still are) standard for skating on paved surfaces. In theory, the inflated tires absorb more of a trail’s vibration to allow for rougher terrain, much like tubeless bike tires.
I asked Rollerblade’s product-marketing manager, Tom Hyser, why the brand pivoted away from off-road designs in 2002. “Because skates don’t work that good in the dirt,” he said, laughing. And they didn’t sell particularly well, either.
Today the German company Powerslide is the only brand manufacturing mountain blades. The bulk of the company’s sales are in mainstream skates for fitness, but it first launched adventure models in 2006, followed by its dedicated off-road label, SUV, in 2014. Powerslide’s designs went all in on the inflatable tires first introduced by the Coyote. And they’re not cheap, retailing for between $400 and $500. The off-road blades only make up a small portion of the company’s sales, though: 2 percent.
Matthew Mickey, who owns Intuition Skate Shop in Bakersfield, California, one of the few retailers on the West Coast carrying Powerslide’s SUV skates, says interest in adventure models has grown alongside the overall pandemic boom for in-line skates. About 1 percent of people who contacted the shop had questions about adventure skates in pre-COVID times, but that number is close to 10 percent now. In Mickey’s experience, off-road models appeal to more than just aggressive downhill skaters. Any confident skater who is interested in trying new terrain could give them a shot—they just might avoid particularly steep hills. “You can totally go on the bike trail and veer off onto packed dirt or grass and start with something kind of mellow with a downward slope,” he says. That made sense to me: the skater I saw at my local park wasn’t fast; he had more in common with a hiker boot-packing a snowy slope than a speed demon.
Still, the sport isn’t especially beginner friendly. Ricardo Lino has been skating since he was three and runs a popular in-line skating YouTube channel, where he’s seen hitting the trails with a couple of Powerslide’s off-road models. (He used to do marketing for the company and now works at another skate brand.) Lino says the skates might be prohibitively challenging for the casual hobbyist.
“It’s very easy to—sorry for the expression—but to eat shit,” Lino says. He chalks that up to a relatively short wheelbase, which makes it easy to fall forward or backwards without superb balance. Plus, even inflatable tires can’t hold up against common terrain imperfections like tree roots. The first three times he tried the skates out for his channel, he went ass over teakettle. (You can watch one of the tumbles here.) “And I’m an experienced skater. I’ve been skating my whole life,” he says.
Perhaps this explains why I’d never seen a skater on trail before, and you probably haven’t, either. But it doesn’t detract from the fact that these adventurers continue to challenge the gods of grit and gravity, expanding what’s possible in the outdoors.