The wheel thing

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

ROSS LAVER May 15 1995

The wheel thing

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

ROSS LAVER May 15 1995

The wheel thing



A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure


Ask anyone who sells sports equipment to predict how many pairs of in-line skates Canadians will purchase this year and the likely response will be a shrug and a gleeful smile. Both the uncertainty and the obvious delight are understandable. In the six years since the first mass-produced Rollerblades began to appear on roads and sidewalks across the country, in-line skating has progressed from a fringe activity to the fastest-growing segment of the sporting-goods industry. In the first two years, Canadian demand held steady at about 150,000 pairs annually, but after 1991, sales took off—surpassing 400,000 in 1993 and an estimated 800,000 in 1994. This year’s sales are anybody’s guess, but forecasts within the industry range upward from about one million pairs. Put another way, by next fall the number of Canadians who own in-line skates should easily overtake the 2.5 million who regularly skate on ice.

No longer just a fad, in-line skating has gone mainstream. Baby boomers concerned about their health are discovering that skating provides an excellent cardiovascular workout—one that can bum as many calories as running, without putting nearly as much stress on the joints. Many skiers use in-line skates during the off-season to build endurance and improve their technique, since many of the skills necessary for skating on pavement—such as steering and upper-body control—are transferrable to the slopes. And across the country, demand for in-line hockey leagues is increasing so fast that organizers sometimes find it hard to keep pace. “We’ve gone from 160 players last year to 750 now,” says Peter Abbott, program director of a rollerhockey minor league in Calgary, one of at least 60 such organizations across Canada. Adds the 29-year-old Abbott: ‘The growth rate is absolutely phenomenal.”

The very popularity of in-line skating, however, has bred more than a few problems. Hospitals across the country are reporting a rising

toll of related injuries, ranging from minor scrapes and bruises to serious head injuries. At the same time, motorists in many cities rightly complain about in-line skaters who career recklessly along congested downtown streets—refusing to observe traffic regulations even as they insist on their right to use public roads. As a result, many communities are considering legislation to crack down on undisciplined skaters.

Critics of the sport are not the only ones who see a need for tighter regulation. “It’s hard enough for drivers to avoid every other hazard on the road without having to watch for someone whizzing past on eight wheels,” says Holly Kemp, part owner of Recreation Rentals, a Vancouver-based company with three locations in the city. Four years ago, Kemp’s firm kept 23 pairs of in-line skates in stock for rent; this year, the company has more than 500 pairs available. But although Kemp welcomes the sport’s newfound mass appeal, she adds that something needs to be done soon to bring unruly skaters under control—for their own safety as well as for the sake of drivers and pedestrians. Among other things, she believes that skaters should be barred from congested traffic areas and ticketed if they fail to wear protective


Asure sign of in-line skating’s popularity is the explosion in the number of models designed for specific types of buyers—from the casual weekend skater to the dedicated enthusiast. No two brands fit or perform the same, so consumers should try on several pairs before buying and, if possible, skate around the store.

Some retailers allow customers to rent skates by the day and apply the cost to the eventual purchase price— which can range from under $100 to more than $400.

It also helps to understand the major components of in-line skates:

Frame: Constructed of plastic, nylon or metal, the frame is the skate’s chassis— the channel that holds the wheels in place. For most skaters, the stiffer the frame, the better. The vast majority of

; frames have four wheels, which offer the : best compromise between speed and j handling. Faster five-wheel frames have ; a wider turning radius and are intended : for experienced speed skaters only, i Boot: Boots are either injection-molded,

: like ski boots, or stitched, like traditional : hockey skates. The best molded skates ; feature memory-foam liners that con: form to the contours of the foot. Novice i skaters should also look for a high cuff,

: for improved ankle support.

! Wheels: Wheels vary in diameter and I quality of bearings. A 70-mm wheel is : suitable for beginners; larger wheels ; give more power with every stroke. The I best bearings are certified by the Annui lar Bearing Engineering Council and as; signed a rating between 1 (for recre: ational use) and 5 (for speed skating).

: Avoid bearings with no ABEC rating.

Once a fringe activity, in-line skating goes mainstream

equipment while using public roads. “The reality of the situation is that in-line skaters are not going to go away,” she says. “We’re going to be out there, which means that governments need to allocate us some space—things like special lanes and designated paths.”

In the meantime, an increasing number of skaters are banding together in clubs and associations to lobby for changes in legislation or for access to public areas where they car^ practise their sport in

relative safety. Keith Gare, a 30-year-old computer programmer at the University of Western Ontario in London, founded one such club, the Forest City Rollers, a year ago at a time when there was growing pressure in that city to force skaters off the streets. “It started when an inexperienced skater lost control on a hill and crashed through a plateglass window,” Gare says. “After that, there was a hue and cry in the local media. Tensions got so high that we were afraid we were going to be legislated off the roads.”

So far, London city council has resisted that approach— although bylaws prohibiting skaters from roads do exist in such communities as Regina and Guelph, Ont. Several other cities, including Ottawa and Vancouver, technically prohibit skaters from roadways, although the laws are not enforced. Earlier this year, Toronto city council gave police the power to hand out $90 fines to reckless skaters. Far from seeking to discourage in-line skaters, however, the council also approved in principle a bylaw that reinforces skaters’ right to use urban streets, provided they obey traffic rules. As part of the new policy, skaters aged 13 and over would be barred from sidewalks except when they are supervising children or when traffic conditions make road use unsafe.

For his part, Gare says that skaters have to take more responsibility for their own—and others’—safety. “What’s going to get everyone in trouble are the people who don’t obey stop signs, who weave in and out of traffic and generally ignore the rules,” he says. Although Gare says he does not require members to wear helmets and pads while taking part in club-organized group skates, peer pressure generally means that they do. “I tell people that if they think they’re not going to fall, they’re deluding themselves,” he adds.

The message, in fact, seems to be getting through. Three years ago, roughly 20 per cent of consumers who purchased in-line skates simultaneously bought a set of protective pads, according to Shaun Morris, president of Benetton Sportsystem Canada Inc., the Montreal-based company that distributes Rollerblades in Canada. This season, he says, the figure has risen to about 60 per cent. For those concerned about the sport’s future, both the growth in skate sales and the increasing use of protective equipment are reasons to celebrate. “It’s a great way to have fun while building up the muscles,” says Gordon Pannell, 66, of Mississauga, Ont. Three years ago, he and his wife, Vicki, marked their 25th anniversary by buying skates for each other. Now, he competes in races and she is secretary-treasurer of the Toronto In-line Skating Club. Says Pannell: “Once you start, it’s easy to get hooked.” □


A list of safety tips adapted from guidelines published by the International In-line Skating Association:

• Always wear protective gear (a helmet, wrist guards, knee and elbow pads) and keep all equipment in good condition. Wheels need to be rotated regularly to ensure they wear evenly. Replace them every 80 to 160 km.

• Practise braking before venturing onto roads or sidewalks. Instead of fixed-rubber heel brakes, some newer skate models feature adjustable brak-

ing systems, which allow users to slow down without lifting their front wheels off the ground—a worthwhile feature for those concerned about stability.

• Skate on the right side of sidewalks and bicycle paths and pass on the left, signalling your intention by saying, loudly and clearly, “Passing on your left.” Skaters should steer clear of heavy traffic areas and obey all traffic regulations. Leave headphones at home.

® Watch out for potholes and ruts in the road surface. Avoid water, oil and sand.