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Published on October 20th, 2011 | by Hot Quad

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The Pursuit of Derbyness: Fresh Meat Guide to Roller Skates

One of the more difficult aspects of being new to skating and new to derby is trying to figure out what exactly is required in terms of gear. You need skates, but if you’re at all like me you feel like you may as well be rolling around with a spaceship strapped to each foot. There’s a lot of information online, but it can be difficult to discern what’s coming from a reputable source and it would be a bit of an understatement to say that opinions are both strong and divergent in the area of gear and skate maintenance. So, to help those of us who are new sort it all out, I went to the experts:

Bonnie Thunders, owner of Five Stride Skate Shop (New York, NY)

Ivanna S. Pankin, owner of Sin City Skates (San Diego, CA)

Morty owner, of Fast Girl Skates (Seattle, WA)

Trigger Mortis, of RollerGirlSkates.com (Lewisville, TX)

It’s interesting to note that before any of these women wanted to talk about boots or trucks or bearing or wheels, they really wanted to tell you about your knees. Says Trigger Mortis, “If I could go back in time and tell my beginning derby self anything, it would be to get really really good knee pads.” She recommends 187 Pro or Triple 8 KP Pro. Bonnie Thunders says to never fall directly on your knees – that a two knee fall doesn’t need to be a two knee slam. Morty tells new skaters to try not to fall on the expensive parts (knees) but rather where you have natural padding. She also recommends a helmet and mouth guard at all times.

Of course, you can’t skate on knee pads. When it comes to buying your very first pair of skates for derby, the options can seem about as overwhelming as the price tag. You may be tempted to simply dust off those Britney Spears Sketchers on wheels that have been hanging out in your closet. After all, if Bliss Cavender started rolling with Barbie, you can too, right? Not so fast. Bonnie Thunders warns that very cheap skates have parts that you sometimes cannot remove to replace, like a bolt on toe stop. It’s also far more likely that the plate will crack or the boot will pull away from the plate entirely. Morty encourages you to think of your Britney skates as toys. Trigger Mortis says simply, “Please don’t do it. Give them to charity. Use them for a trophy. Paint them gold and give them to your derby hero.”

If you don’t have a lot to spend, there are some lower-end derby skates that are a good place to start. Bonnie Thunders says she fits a lot of new skaters for skates in the $100-$180 range. While they only come in whole sizes, they feel familiar like a sneaker. Ivanna S. Pankin says to make sure they fit correctly at first because they won’t get more comfortable as you skate in them. A mid-level skate package will run between $250 and $400 and was generally recommended for new derby skaters with a high level of commitment. Boots will run in half sizes and the leather will be of a higher quality. Morty considers the mid level package to be athletic gear, while the less expensive skates are more recreational in nature.

While you can certainly spend more, high-end skate packages come with a host of problems for beginning skaters. Pain was a common theme here. Expensive boots are usually leather boots without padding and they require quite a bit of time to break in. Morty says that a new skater is already experiencing a lot of pain in her lower back, legs and feet, just from learning how to skate. She describes breaking in new skates on top of all of that as daunting. Bonnie Thunders says that even women who have been skating for years think that it sucks to break in new skates. Finally, Trigger Mortis notes that no matter what you buy today, something new and better will come out tomorrow.

When you’re trying on skates at the store, expect that they will feel very different from your sneakers. Bonnie Thunders says that if you’re a former hockey player or figure skater, you’ll probably have a good idea of the tightness you can expect from a derby boot. She likens the break-in process of a leather boot to breaking in combat boots, and says you can expect a little pain, even with a mid-level leather boot. Morty describes a perfectly fitting new leather boot as feeling like an extension of your leg and says they should be very snug but not painful when you’re just standing in them. Trigger Mortis says that you’ll know that your boot fits properly if you can stand on your toe stops without feeling any gap in your heel. You can expect vinyl boots to be more comfortable right off the bat, but be aware that any cushioning inside the boot will break down over time and give you more space in that area. This is also true of leather boots with cushioning.

If you happen to live a substantial distance from your favorite derby shop, you can buy online. Both Trigger Mortis and Morty point to their websites as good resources for reviews, tips and information about products. Bonnie Thunders says that if she’s working with a skater from out of town she will ask them to take a variety of measurements as well as send photos of her feet. However, she describes the process of buying skates without having ever tried them on as “scary.” Morty says her shop will call women who order online but have some inconsistencies in their order, and Trigger Mortis says they will exchange new skates if they don’t work out. Ivanna S. Pankin reminds you that if you’re going to measure your own feet, do it in the socks you skate in and at night when your feet have done their swelling for the day. It’s important to keep in mind that derby shops are usually small businesses. They will work with you and you should call them. If you do decide to make a trip from out of town, make sure they know you’re coming and that they’re open when you’re there.

Once you get your new skates home you’ll need to know a thing or two about adjusting them. First, Trigger Mortis recommends you make sure that the wheels can actually spin. Sometimes new skates come with the axle nuts tightened down more than necessary. She says the wheel should spin by itself for at least five seconds. If it doesn’t, loosen the axle nut a half turn and try again. While the wheel should spin freely, it shouldn’t move laterally on the axle. New skates also come with very tight trucks. Morty usually tells new skaters to loosen each truck (there are four) a quarter turn at a time to get used to the way it feels. Bonnie Thunders says you will know that your trucks are too tight when you can’t make sharp turns or make a circle on one skate. You’ll know when they’re too loose if they feel squirrelly or shake without any motion on your part. Most importantly, make sure that there is connection between the cushions, retainers, truck and nut. Nothing should be moving around on the kingpin.

Skate Picture

If you’ve been skating for a little while and you’re looking for something to upgrade, wheels should definitely be first on your list. This can be a little confusing because if you talk to five different people, you’re bound to get five different opinions on what works the best. Morty has a list of questions she asks skaters before recommending wheels. She considers the skating surface, how often you skate, stature, experience and what exactly you want to accomplish by buying new wheels. Trigger Mortis suggests buying two sets of wheels of differing hardness and then using them to mix and match depending on your surface and needs.

Wheel Diagram

For a great and very comprehensive article on wheels in derby, the following article written by Ivanna S. Pankin from Sin City Skates is hugely informative: (go to the Wheels on Which Surface and/or Wheels – Grippiness and Durometer). Among her many excellent points is the fact that wheel durometer or hardness is more of a range than a precise measure of the hardness of that particular wheel. For instance, if you bought a wheel rated at 91 it could actually be somewhere between 86 and 96.

She says that durometer is a good way to measure wheels of the same manufacturer against one another, but that the differing compounds between different wheel manufacturers makes it hard to know if a wheel rated at 92 from one manufacturer will feel the same as a 92 from another manufacturer. If you’ve considered all of the previous information and you still feel like you don’t know where to start, ask your friends if they’ll switch out with you for a night. No article will ever give you as much information as actually trying them out.

When you buy wheels, you will need bearings to go with them. Bearing cost anywhere between $35 and $300 and there are sixteen in a set, two for each wheel. Trigger Mortis prefers higher quality bearings for the noticeable difference in roll, but cautions against jumping straight into a practice or bout without adjusting to them first. On the other hand, Morty doubts she could tell the difference between a good inexpensive bearing and a high end bearing in a blind test. She makes the point that bearings are more likely to blow out in derby than other roller sports and that $35 bearings are much easier to replace. Bonnie Thunders likes to practice in bearings that are a bit worn for the extra workout.

Bearings either need to be cleaned or replaced on occasion. You’ll know when they’re dirty when they start making noise. Bonnie Thunders describes the sound of a dry bearing as squeaking or crunching. If yours sound like this you may need to add some oil, but Morty warns that one drop will suffice. More will send oil spraying all over the track and will actually attract more dirt. To remove your bearings, start with the flat side of your wheel and gently pry them out.

You can use the axle of your skate, although Trigger Mortis recommends using something like a Utilitool to avoid stripping or bending your skate axles. For the bearing on the recessed part of your wheel, Morty recommends pushing them through on the back side, but be sure to push on the metal part of the bearing, not the inner mechanisms. Finally, Bonnie Thunders says that if you do plan to remove your bearings in order to clean them rather than simply replacing them, have someone show you how to do it.

Bearing Removal_0.png

If all of this makes your brain spin, take a deep breath. There is a lot to consider when purchasing and maintaining your skates, but fortunately derby is a team sport. Even if you’re not on a league yet, there are bound to be plenty of skaters in your area to help you wade through the information. Don’t try and go it alone, ask for help. After all, Bonnie Thunders says, “just because you’ve never skated doesn’t mean you should be intimidated,” and that is advice I would take to heart.

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