My Adventures in Speedskating

What is the difference between a recreational skater and a speedskater? While there are exceptions, some general differences stand out. Most obviously, speedskaters wear "speedskates" while recreational skaters wear "rec skates". Another difference is that speedskaters tend to skate in long snakey lines with one skater immediately behind the skater in front. This technique is called "drafting" and is used to reduce the wind resistance of the entire group of skaters. Finally, speedskaters usually go faster than recreational skaters.

In the summer of 1999 as at fitness project and semi-productive goal, I decided to try to skate 1000 miles on my trusty Rollerblade Spiritblades™. It quickly became apparent that if I couldn't go reasonably fast that the goal was not going to be met. Accordingly I pushed the Spiritblades to their technological limit, installing 78mm wheels, Boss Swiss bearings and a metal hop-up kit. This improved their performance dramatically, but even so, it became clear that speedskaters were in a different league. At the end of the summer, in late September, I entered the Prospect Park inline-skating marathon to see what actual racing was all about. There were three flavors to the race: a 13 mile half-marathon, a 26.2 mile full marathon (which I entered) and a stupidly long (it seemed to me) 60 mile / 100 kilometer super-marathon. The 26 mile distance seemed to be split about half-and-half between people on speedskates and people on rec skates. The people with the speedskates won. :) I had such a good time, that I decided to give speedskating a try for this year. A web search turned up the Empire Speed speedskating club in New York, a branch of the larger Empire Skate club. At the end of the year, Heather and I joined Empire Skate and I additionally joined Empire Speed.

I found the prospect of making the transition from rec skating to speedskating a daunting task. It is very hard to know where to begin. It seems that the first step should be to purchase speedskates, but speedskates don't come cheap, starting at around $400 and then going up in price with no real practical upper limit. Even in Manhattan, it is difficult / impossible to find a retail store with any kind of selection of speedskates, even though the web reveals a staggering array of brands, styles and models. The few models that I did manage to try on only emphasized how different the various brands were without shedding a lot of light on the situation. I hoped that the people of "Speed" as it seems to be called would be able to help.

I got an email from the Speed emailing list that there was going to be an organizational meeting on Wednesday, February 23rd. I had no idea what to expect, but I RSVP'd that I would be there. It turned out that I managed to crash a meeting of the Speed executive committee (at least I think that's what it was) but no matter. The food was spiffy and the people made me feel welcome. My first impression was surprise at the diversity of people on the committee. I guess I was expecting fitness-fanatic-looking frenetic 20-somethings, like the maniacs trying to win the 100 km race seemed to be. The reality was that the group was made up of a mostly surprisingly "normal-looking" group of men and women of widely diverse ages. There were discussions about the upcoming racing season, some sympathizing about Nick's injury the previous year, about ways to make the website more novice-friendly and about ways to make speedskating and Empire Speed less intimidating for new people to try. It was actually quite encouraging. I asked a few people about what the best way to get speedskates was and invariably they said, "Talk to Nick about it."

A few days later I got an email from Heda asking if I would be willing to keep a write-up of my experiences making the transition to speedskating, which I agreed to do (and which you are presently reading). She also mentioned that until the weather got nice enough to skate outdoors that people practiced at an indoor roller-rink in the Bronx on Thursday at 6 pm for beginners, and on Sunday morning for a mix of skill levels. I think there was also a session for the pros on Tuesday. She mentioned that Nick would probably be there so I figured I'd check it out Thursday after work.

Key Rink is a short ride up on the 4 or 5 train to 138th St. I had actually seen it several times before from the Metro North Harlem-Line train. It has two different indoor skating surfaces which looked pretty spiffy, like they had just been resurfaced. I was expecting some kind of banked oval type of setup, but the speedskaters were on a flat, rounded-corner square, coated parquet-type surface. I didn't bring the Spiritblades, but went mainly to scope the scene and see if Nick was around. By the time I got there there was about half an hour left in the session. About a dozen or so people were skating around in a counter-clockwise circle, most in one pack, but with a few individualists too. It looked to me like they were practicing their crossovers but I heard later that they were actually working on passing people within a pack. It looked like they were having a good time. Some skaters were just getting things figured out, but looked like they were getting it pretty good, and a few skaters were clearly experts, with many people somewhere in between. Everyone seemed to be helpful and supportive of each other. After the skating session Heda (who I didn't recognize in her speedskating getup while out on the rink) came over and introduced me to Nick.

Nick and I didn't have long to talk since the rink was being taken over by a different group, but he told me that there was huge variation in boots, for example in how they deal with the arch of the foot. My feet are more-or-less flat, with no real arch to them. Bont makes boots that fit this type of foot. In contrast, Verducci for example makes boots with quite a large arch to them. You just don't get this kind of valuable information from the boot manufacturers. I told Nick that I was a European size 41. He fortunately had some 41-size boots for my type of foot, so I made an appointment with him for the next day to try them on.

I met Nick at his apartment on Central Park West. He had two pairs of boots in my size. One was a Bont Redback and the other, I don't remember what kind it was -- a smaller manufacturer, but it was a solid all-over brick color. The red boots had apparently been custom-ordered in red by someone who then failed to pick them up, so they were going for cheap. Nick showed me how to lace them up and how to try them on and I gave them both a pretty thorough working-over. Finally, even though I kind of liked the red color, I thought the Bonts fit just a little bit better so I figured I'd go with Bont.

Having decided on Bont, we next discussed the various boots that Bont sells. The Redbacks were pretty sweet, but too much money for me. For about $250 less, Bont makes a high-end boot called the Black Widow which sounded plenty reasonable to me. The Redbacks are better made, so while the Widow's might self-destruct after a couple of seasons, the Redbacks might be good for five years. Then again, after a couple of years I figure I'll be ready to try something newer and whizzier, regardless of how good what I've already got might be. Also, although there might be a performance difference between the two boots, I'm pretty sure that for me they would be pretty much the same, since I physically will certainly be the rate-limiting factor in how fast I can go, not the subtle differences between the two boots. Finally I got set up with the Bont Black Widows, a Mogema Millennium frame, and some ZeroDrag™ bearings. Now I am just waiting for them to arrive courtesy of UPS. How long can it take to ship boots from Australia anyway? The weather is getting nice and I'm ready for some Speed!

March 30th, 2000: The new gear has arrived and I'm making some first impressions.

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