If you’re a musician, people want to know about your gear. If you’re a turbonerd programmer like me, people (or at least other turbonerds) want to know about your keyboard. But if you’re a rollergirl, people always want to know about your skates.
I hear this question a lot from people who are new to derby: “Why are your skates so expensive? I could get a pair at Goodwill for twenty bucks!” While that’s certainly true, I think a question like this reveals that most people simply don’t know what’s required out of derby skates. Let’s look at some of the components of a quad skate, and how each part affects how a rollergirl skates.
As you can probably guess, the boot is the part of the skate you put your foot in. It’s ultimately just a specialized shoe that’s bolted down onto the rest of the skate. Despite this, there are important differences between a derby boot and a boot meant for the roller rink.
Roller rink boots are typically modeled after figure skates, which means that they lace up above your ankles, and they also have a pretty high heel. The fit varies from person to person– some people like their skates tight, and others like them loose, but it’s mostly a matter of personal taste.
But all these features of rink skates would be working against you if you tried to use them on the derby track. Stability and agility are crucial: you’ve got to be able to take a hit or, better yet, dodge it and escape. Stability comes from keeping your weight mostly in your heels, and the low heels of derby boots help support this. Most (but not all) derby boots lace up below the ankles, so that skaters have their full range of ankle motion available when they need to juke around blockers. (Some skaters just prefer the additional ankle support of a higher-top boot.) And since derby is already exhausting enough, it’s really important for derby boots to fit like a glove. If your feet are sliding around in your skates, that means that you’re wasting energy that could otherwise be used to make you go really fast or juke really hard. Why work harder than you have to?
The Plate and Trucks
The plate and trucks work together to transfer your foot’s energy into skating power and to help you steer. The plate is a piece of stiff material (usually plastic or metal) that is bolted onto the boot, and the trucks are the T-shaped pieces of metal that attach the wheels to the plate. Between the trucks and plates are small rubbery pieces of urethane called cushions or bushings that can make it easier or harder to turn sharply. (These are the little red shiny things in the picture above.
As an aside, the way you steer on quad skates is by shifting where your weight is. If your weight is centered in the middle of the skate, you’ll go straight. But by shifting your weight to one side of the skate, you change the angle between the trucks by compressing one side of the cushions, and this is what’s responsible for steering you. The more dramatic the angle between the trucks, the sharper the turn you’ll get.
If you’ve rented skates at a rink, you know they typically come with heavy, basically indestructible aluminum plates. Skates you find at Goodwill might even come with nylon ones. For derby, plates and trucks need to be as stiff as possible so that very little energy is wasted when you stride. As a result, most derby skates have metal trucks. But aluminum trucks can also add weight to your skates, so some some skaters have magnesium plates, which are both stiff and lightweight (but more expensive). There’s a lot of thought about how where you mount the plate on the boot changes how you skate, and about how the construction of the plate itself can really affect how you turn, but that’s outside the scope of this column. The rabbit hole goes way deep!
That’s all the space I have for this week. Next time, we’ll talk about wheels, bearings, and toe stops.