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Published on November 11th, 2012 | by Fire Wally

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Wheel Shopping Guide, Featuring the Wheel-a-ma-jig

It was at the moment that I was flipping back and forth between derby wheels in two browser tabs, frantically asking myself “What’s the difference?” that I decided that there must be a better way. I needed to create a listing of all the wheels that are made for roller derby, and none of the ones that aren’t. I needed a way to choose wheels by hardness, width, height, and hub materials to find that perfect combination. I decided to make a better way to shop for roller derby wheels, and I called it the Wheel-a-ma-jig.

(If you already know what “durometer” means and understand the trade-offs between 62mm and 59mm wheels, then this article really isn’t for you, but I think that the Wheel-a-ma-jig will still be useful to you, so go forth and find your favorite derby wheels.)

The two sliders and two sets of check-boxes at the top of the Wheel-a-ma-jig represent the four biggest things that differentiate one skate wheel from another. Different wheels will skate differently because they have varying hardness, width, hub materials, and/or height, and sets of wheels that share these characteristics will function very similarly. Different manufacturers will still make a difference, but the Atom Poison (for instance) is much closer to the Reckless Envy (same hardness, width, height, and hub) than either of them are to the Atom Juke.

The first row of controls on the Wheel-a-ma-jig filter the wheels list by materials. Roller skate wheels are made up of a urethane “tire” attached to a rigid “hub”, and the composition of both play a part in how the wheel will roll. As a wheel is rolling, only a small part of the wheel is in contact with the floor at any given moment. The size of this contact patch determines how much friction is created between the wheel and the floor. Now, friction can be both an enemy and a friend while you’re skating – friction robs you of speed while you’re rolling, but it keeps your wheels stuck to the floor while skating through the corners. This trade-off between “grip” and “roll” is the fundamental characteristic that is affected by a wheel’s hardness, otherwise known as durometer.

Hardness for derby wheels varies from about 80a to 101a on the durometer scale, with most skaters on most surfaces requiring something in the 88-96a range. Harder wheels have a smaller contact patch and less friction, while softer wheels will deform more and provide more friction. The ideal wheels will have hardness matched to the skating surface to strike a balance between grip and roll – not so hard that you lose grip in the corner, not so soft that you can’t bring your feet around for a snowplow or hockey stop. Which durometer is right for you will depend on the surface you skate on (stickier surfaces require harder wheels, smoother or dirty surfaces require softer wheels) and your own size (larger skaters will need harder wheels than smaller skaters). Various guides exist matching surface type and hardness to a durometer rating, but with different finishes, polishes, and cleaning schedules your best bet if you’re skating on a new surface is to seek advice from someone about your same size who has skated on that surface before.

The piece in the center of a skate wheel that gives it structure is called the hub. Derby wheels have a hub made of either nylon or aluminum, which also affects how the wheel performs. Nylon hubs are lighter, making it easier for you to step, jump, and juke, and they are also less expensive. Aluminum hubs are more rigid, meaning that you conserve more energy from each push into the floor. I recommend trying wheels made of both types of hubs, but if you’re choosing your first set of wheels I recommend nylon – they’re cheaper and you’ll have less of a hard time installing the bearings.

The second set of controls on the Wheel-a-ma-jig filter the wheels list by size. Roller skate wheels are roughly cylindrical, so the two dimensions that affect a wheels behavior are the width of the wheel across the contact surface and the height (diameter) of the wheel across the hub.

Roller Derby wheels come in varying widths between 31 and 44 millimeters. Wider wheels offer more lateral stability and push-off surface, but are heavier and make you more likely to “wheel lock” with other skaters in the pack. Narrower wheels are more nimble and maneuverable at the cost of a less stable platform. If you’re new to derby, I’d recommend starting in the middle (36-38mm or so) before you try either very narrow or very wide wheels.

The traditional height for speed/derby wheels is 62mm, but now every major manufacturer offers a brand of 59mm “short” wheels as well. Shorter wheels will be lighter and more maneuverable, but offer less flat-out speed. I recommend getting used to 62mm wheels first, then eventually borrowing a set of 59mm wheels to try them out. If you’re like most skaters I know, after one practice with 59mm wheels you’ll either fall instantly in love with them or swear by 62mm for the rest of your life.

If you’ve got questions about wheels or the Wheel-a-ma-jig, ask away on twitter or in the comments.

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