Urban Rollerblading

I enjoy rollerblading in cities, especially New York City. People often ask me how I rollerblade in cities; how I get around people and taxis, and generally how I avoid collisions with the many obstacles of a city street. I’m now asking myself –how is it done? I’ll try to figure out how people can rollerblade through such formidable territory.

The two basic elements of mastering rollerblading are practice and technical ability. I’ve had lots of practice. I got my first rollerblades when I was 14. It wasn’t very hard for me to learn the basics because I already knew how to use ice hockey skates. My first rollerblading was in street hockey games and on sidewalks around town. Soon I began taking them to New York City to skate on the sidewalks there. The sidewalks are often rough and broken up with cellar doors, subway vents, and steel gutter strips. I don’t remember ever falling down in NYC, but I probably did during some of the first times there. Central Park has always been a favorite with me. I remember going through Times Square on the sidewalk, at a snail’s pace, and thinking how much easier it would be to go on the streets. After I begun using the streets instead of sidewalks, the city seemed somewhat manageable. On rollerblades, places were not so far apart. I could be at the Battery with the Twin Towers only a few minutes away. I did the Brooklyn Bridge several times, although the narrow walkway planking has a way of turning the strongest ankles into jelly. Experience is probably the number one assistant when rollerblading around New York City. Navigation can be challenging, and the ability to make a snap decision while speeding through an intersection is valuable in destination rollerblading.

For me, it’s important that my technique is symmetrical. I watch the wear patterns on my wheels and try to adjust my skating style accordingly. Wheels should be worn equally side to side, front to back, and skate to skate. Using alternate braking feet, and using both feet to push forward will result in a more equal physical workout, increase a skater’s flexibility and spontaneity in critical situations, and conserve energy and muscle strength. Here are a few methods of acceleration, or propulsion, that I use. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

*Standard Acceleration
*

The Good:

  • Most efficient transfer of energy to forward motion
  • Fastest travel speed

The Bad:

  • Wide path because of swinging legs
  • Only one foot on ground during power stroke is not as stable as two

*‘Snake’ Acceleration
*

The Good:

  • Both feet on ground
  • Maximum stability under power, good for navigating crowds of peds
  • Narrow width path

The Bad:

  • Not very fast
  • Higher rolling resistance

Acceleration technique is important to know when on the streets. Sharing lanes with taxis requires speed matching. You don’t want the traffic going faster than you are. In fast traffic it’s sometimes better to run the yellow line or go against traffic. When on the FDR or 9A I prefer running against traffic. (Disclaimer: Skating the FDR can be a frightening task; aside from the fast car traffic, the road goes through tunnels, under buildings, over bridges, and this coupled with narrow lanes, steel plates, loose gravel, and huge potholes, should only be undertaken with a good knowledge of the road conditions and impending consequences of even a minor stumble. Doing so is at your own risk.) Traffic goes very fast here, sometimes in excess of 70 mph. By going against traffic, I can see what’s around me. Buses coming past from behind can be absolutely terrifying because they are silent until they’re beside me, and buses seldom give the skater any room at all. Many times I’ve been squeezed between two buses only slightly more than a shoulder width apart. These conditions can induce panic in claustrophobic individuals. The rollerblader needs to be in full control all the time; full control means knowing how wide of a path you need, where your backpack is, and where your feet and arms are swinging. You don’t want to stick your foot under the wheel of a passing trash truck. I personally prefer a backpack that I can instantly remove and hold over my head if necessary to squeeze between cars or thread peds. Braking is equally important to know. I don’t have a heel brake on my skates, and you won’t want it either, after learning to brake. Here are a few of the basic moves I use to stop and slow, with many variations:

*‘T’ Braking
*

The Good:

  • Very controllable braking
  • Fairly stable
  • Tight path

The Bad:

  • Wears wheels quickly
  • Not good for long hills

*‘Snake’ Braking
*

The Good:

  • Maximum stability
  • Long hills or gradual inclines without traffic

The Bad:

  • Don’t use around cars
  • Limited effectiveness

*‘Pizza’ Braking
*

The Good:

  • Long hills and gradual speed control

The Bad:

  • Limited effectiveness
  • Unpredictable on rough terrain

When on the streets, be alert for parallel grooves or ruts on the road surface. Subway vents can be nasty if you allow a wheel to sink in beside them. It’s a good idea to skate with both feet on the ground as much as possible, and to always keep one foot slightly in front of the others to safely conquer perpendicular obstacles. Keep your knees slightly bent and your back arched a little. ‘Knees over toes.’ Speed is your friend; try to maintain a safe speed that’s fast enough to allow you to coast past close cars and through packs of peds. This allows you to accelerate where there is room and keep both feet planted when maneuvering in tight spots. If you go too slow, you’re forced to kick off in crowds and between cars, and this is an invitation for disaster. There is very little that can upset a well-balanced skater who has knees bent and both feet on the ground. Messenger bikes are a blader’s closest competition. Be alert for bikes that come out of nowhere. Share what little lane you have, and follow their back wheel.

Approaching a red light can be intimidating even for experienced bladers. There’s potential that you’ll have to stop at the front of the line of taxis. I usually wiggle through bumpers over to the middle of the street and approach with enough speed to either thread the crosswalk with its ped traffic, or veer down the intersecting street for a car-length or two until I can safely cross. Many times it’s possible to simply reach the crosswalk with a good head of speed, and skate straight through the peds, keep going across the street, thread the peds on the other side, and then I’ve got the whole street to myself because the cars are still waiting at the light. Here’s a good place to throw in a Grapevine move for all those gasping peds.

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