As an owner and operator of Fast Girl Skates, I get a lot of questions regarding what are the best type/ style/ brand of skates, wheels, bearings, etc. My standard response is "every skater has different needs, and the best for one may not be the best for another". And if something is working for you- don’t ever let anybody tell you that what you have is "wrong". It’s up to you as the skater to decide what is right for you- I wouldn’t ask anyone to substitute my judgment for their own.
That being said, any advice given here is merely my opinion, based on what I have learned from the skaters, coaches and others in the industry. It just seemed prudent to go to a speed skate coach to ask about wheels and plates, and the boot maker to ask about proper fitting. When you need answers, go to the people that have been doing it the longest and the best. I think I drove the folks at Riedell and the speed skaters on my league crazy with all my questions when I started. I’ve also realized that there are lots of conflicting opinions out there about equipment, so doesn’t it seem reasonable to get all the opinions you can, and then apply which are best for you? And sometimes, it’s trial and error. A good way to find out what may work for you as a skater is simply to try it. Ask fellow skaters to borrow their stuff for a portion of practice time. And once you find something that works- stick to it until you’re ready to upgrade or make a change.
It’s important to note that the surface you skate on, your stature, your experience and even your position all affect what type of equipment is best for you. For instance, some skaters have narrow feet, some wide, some a combination of both. This will affect what type of boot and plate will work, as well as how the plate is mounted. In order to guide skaters that come into the store, I try to ask a lot of questions about their experience and where/what they skate on. Also- if a skater tends to fall on their knees continually, and they are prone to injury- my recommendation of knee pads is going to differ for them than for a skater who doesn’t fall on their knees.
The most common question I hear from skaters is "Why are my feet cramping?" The number one reason for this is that the trucks are too tight. Your foot is fighting to help you corner, you are gripping with your toes and feet, and low and behold- cramps. To loosen your trucks- you need a skate tool that fits the nut on the bottom of the king pin (the bolt that comes up through your trucks). Start by loosening the nut on the truck ½ turn, then try a few laps and see how it goes. Ideally, the front and back trucks on each skate should be adjusted similarly, but from foot to foot may differ. When they are too loose- you will feel "squirrelly" when on a straightaway. But if it works for you to have your front trucks loose and your rear trucks tighter- have at it.
Another reason your feet may be cramping is lace tightness around the ball of the foot. Try skipping the lace holes over the ball of your foot. Similarly, I’ve recently seen girls with two sets of laces on their skates, one halfway up from the toe, one for the top part of the skate. Whatever you have to do to make those babies feel good and help you skate- do it.
Next issue- I’ll answer questions about pad and helmet fitting, and other common boot discomforts. In the meantime, look to the coaches, captains, and experienced skaters on your league to guide you.
"How do I know if these pads are right for me?" If you get hit really, really hard, and you get up with no major cut, bruise, scrape, injury- they are working for you. Also, if your pads are comfortable, you can move the way you need to when you skate, and YOU feel safe- I’d say that’s a thumbs up. When a customer comes in to try on pads, I usually tug on them to see if they slide right off. And like your skates, they will only get bigger as you wear them, so try to buy them on the snug side. I once tried a new pair of knee pads during a bout, and I got hit so hard they both slid off my knee caps and I landed on my bare knees. During half time- I went and put my old, tighter ones back on. Live and learn. Incidentally, it’s usually best not to try out new equipment at a bout. Especially wheels. More on that in the next issue!
"Do I need to replace my helmet after I hit my head while wearing it?" There are two kinds of helmets that we use in derby: single impact and multiple impact. Single impact helmets are usually CPSC rated, and have the hard Styrofoam on the inside of the shell. These are not unlike motorcycle and bicycle helmets- also single impact. The idea is that when the helmet receives an impact great enough, that Styrofoam will crack. It has done its job and should be replaced. Multiple impact helmets are the ones with the soft foam liner inside the shell, and are meant to take many impacts. Replace your helmet when and if the shell cracks, the straps break and cannot be replaced, or the foam completely breaks down and there is no way to replace it. Like your pads, your helmet should fit snug, and not move around on your head. You should also be wearing it far enough down on your forehead to protect your face and forehead if you fall forward.
"My pads STINK!! Help!" For the love of all that is holy- don’t leave your pads in your bag (and in your car) after practice. After EVERY practice, take them out and leave them out to air dry. Helmet too, and skates. Anywhere sweat goes. Spray them with febreeze antibacterial or similar, I use vodka. Cheap (and diluted) vodka. It’s an old opera trick for the big fancy costumes that are worn in production after production. It kills the bacteria from the sweat, which is what causes the odor. Wash them periodically with whatever works, and everyone uses something different. Some girls swear by vinegar, I use a detergent that has febreeze, and hot water. Air dry only. Bottom line: Prevention and good care is really the best way to combat pad funk.
Next issue- wheels, bearings and "special feet"!
What are the differences between wheels?
If you really want to geek out, give me a call, but here are the basics. Let’s start with the major difference; nylon versus aluminum hubs. Nylon flexes, and that can give the skater more grip and/or control. Aluminum hubs do not flex, so less energy is wasted on your "push". More of the energy goes into propelling you forward. The exception to this rule is Answer, whose wheels have a high-quality urethane hub. It is stronger than nylon, but lighter than aluminum. Let’s move on to grip. With the exception of "pusher" wheels (next issue – wait for it!), all the wheels we use in derby are within a certain range of hardness (about 90A-96A). Super details about hardness can be found on the manufactures’ websites. So what grip is right for you? There are lots of factors that go into this decision. Let the three "S"’s be your guide – your size, your skill and your playing surface. We find that as a skater improves, they will often switch to a less grippy wheel. Usually the harder the wheel, the faster you can go. And there’s a chance control might be sacrificed. The idea is to find the perfect balance of speed and grip.
How do I know when it is time to replace my wheels?
Let’s talk grooves. I have good news for those of you thinking about replacing your wheels because the grooves have gone. I recently learned from three of the major wheel manufacturers that the grooves on the wheels aren’t intended to help with grip. They are merely a by-product of the manufacturing process. According to them, our wheels do not become less "grippy" when the grooves are gone. This might explain why wheel re-groovers have become so scarce. Still, some skaters believe in having their wheels re-grooved. I think that’s fine. It certainly won’t make them less grippy, but keep in mind that you can usually only re-groove your wheels a couple of times before they get too small to use.
How do I know when I’ve found the right wheels for me?
When you find a wheel that works, you’ll know. Seriously. I have one set that I truly believe are magic- they are fast on the sport court and I don’t have that "fall down when no one is near me" problem (usually)- and that is a miracle. I heart them.
Next issue- narrow wheels and "pusher" wheels. How, when, why, what.
What is a "pusher" wheel?
Pusher wheels were created for derby to give the skater more grip. They all have plastic/nylon hubs. Some skaters use them specifically and exclusively on the sport court for bouts, others use them all the time. Here’s the breakdown: They are 88A in hardness, and they have the potential to wear out faster, as the urethane or Poly PD is less durable in order to get the softness. Sure Grip offers the yellow/orange Fugitives, and Radar the Flatouts, in green, blue, hot pink and red. You can buy four or eight.
How do I use them?
What if my wheels have aluminum hubs?
You can combine aluminum hub wheels with nylon pusher wheels, or you can simply buy a set of aluminum hub wheels that are softer (more grippy) and use them as pusher wheels. More expensive, as they aren’t sold in sets of four, but you could split them with another skater. The picture above is of my skates, and at the time (for bouts), I was using the pink Radar Speed Rays, with the black Radar Devil Rays.
One more personal tip for skaters that practice on wood or coated indoor concrete, and only bout on the plastic sport court: I believe that when you are training, ie- practicing, you should use the hardest, fastest wheels you can handle. Practice is when your skating improves. Use your gripper wheels when it is time to skate on the sport court. As mentioned in previous articles, DO NOT use brand new wheels on the sport court on bout day.
Next issue- narrow wheels…
What is the history behind the "narrow" wheel?
This type of wheel was first manufactured by Atom Wheels (formerly Answer, formerly Matter)*. A "regular" width (speed) derby wheel is 44mm. These narrow profile wheels measure at 38mm. A 44mm wheel will track straight, and a narrow wheel will give you extra maneuverability. Think of artistic wheels. They are narrow because an artistic skater is more concerned with maneuvering than speed. Roller hockey players have been cutting their wheels down for years in order to get that maneuverability. Thus derby skaters who have a hockey background began to cut their wheels down as well. Atom recognized this and began to manufacture their derby wheels to meet this need. You might be familiar with the green Omegas, the first narrow wheel. Radar soon followed with their zodiac wheel. Atom now offers the Omega 2.0, which is even narrower, measuring at 34mm. You can even get your pusher wheels and aluminum hub wheels in narrow, with Radar’s Flatoutragous and Mojo, respectively.
What/who/when/why are they appropriate for me?
These wheels are great for anyone who wants more maneuverability. Think of that super agile skater that jukes in and around the other players. They also help many skaters who have difficulty "moving their feet". When you lean to do your cross over, you hit the edge of the wheel sooner, thus making move your feet more quickly to keep your balance. A narrow profile wheel also has two happy side effects; 1. They are lighter simply because there is less material than in a regular width speed wheel. 2. You are less likely to clip wheels with another skater because your wheels simply don’t stick out from your skates as much. That’s pretty great.
What are some of the drawbacks with this narrow profile?
Although extra maneuverability is rad, you must trade some stability. You also get less push. And they tend to wear faster because your weight is distributed over a smaller area, and you are more often riding the edge of the wheel. I really noticed a difference in the ease and quality of my starts, plow stops and hockey stops. It’s not impossible to relearn these maneuvers on a narrow wheel, but it took some doing. And some skaters will have no problem adjusting at all. Good for them!
What are some of the ways these wheels can be used in derby?
You gotta love our derby girls and how industrious and creative they are! I’m constantly amazed at the creative things I’ve seen with wheel use: Some skaters are using narrow wheels on the left sides of their skates, and regular width wheels on the right. That way, they still hit their edge faster and get the maneuverability and rapid foot movement when going to the left as we do in derby, but they get the added stability when going to the right, or stopping using a plow or hockey stop. It’s truly the best of both worlds! It also rings true to the fact that there is no right or wrong way to use your equipment; it’s what works for you. A league mate of mine said that in a new sport like derby; "We are all experts, yet we are all novices, so trying anything is fair game".
*I’d like to give credit to former Atom wheel designer and national rep, Quadzilla, (aka Mo Sanders) for his input on this article.
Next issue- will be a surprise…