By Tony Chen
Back in the good old days of inline skating, shopping was easy. You bought skates from Rollerblade, and wheels from Hyper or Kryptonics. The big decision about buying new wheels was deciding what color to get.
There are now at least a half dozen well-known wheel brands and many lesser-known ones, each with a multitude of models and styles. Hyper and Kryptonics are still the big names, but they've been joined by other brands such as Labeda, Grizzly, fr Progressors, and Volcanix. With so much to choose from, it's both a blessing and a curse.
Making matters more complex, wheels are now as specialized, and potentially as confusing, as skates. First, you have to decide what type of skating you want the wheels for: hockey, aggro, speed, or all-purpose recreational. Second, you have to consider your budget and any performance trade-offs that you're willing to tolerate.
Once you know those things, you'll have a good idea on how to compare the primary wheel elements: durometer, diameter, core type, and profile.
Durometer is the measured hardness of the wheel. This is denoted by the "A" number, where the larger the number, the harder the wheel (on a scale of 1 to 100). Most wheels on the market are 78 or 82A durometer. The harder the wheel, the longer it lasts, but also the less it absorbs shock and vibrations from your skating.
Diameter is the height of the wheel, measured in millimeters (mm). Most wheels are 70mm, 72mm, 76mm, or 80mm, the major exception being aggressive skating wheels, which are often in the low 60s and may go as low as 57mm. In general, given the same conditions, the taller the wheel, the faster you can skate.
The core contains the hub and spokes of the wheel. The hub houses the bearings and bearing spacer (where the axle goes through); the spokes and outer hub bond to the wheel material itself (the polyurethane). Core designs range from solid (no spokes) in aggressive wheels, to super-light spoked designs in racing wheels.
The profile is the cross-section of a wheel (looking head on). The profile curve determines how much of the wheel contacts the skating surface at any given time.
The durometer and diameter will have the biggest effect on your skating, so you should base your wheel choice based on those factors first. Cores and profiles have significant, but more subtle consquences, so you can compare them after you've figured out the durometer and diameter.
Choosing a Durometer
One important thing to keep in mind is that you are not required to use the same durometer on all your wheels. Many skaters use mixed durometers to achieve a more desirable blend of grip, shock-absorption, and durability than is possible with a single durometer setup. At first it's hard to know what mix to use, but here are some things to look at:
- Wear patterns
- Before you rotate your wheels during your routine maintanence, note the wear pattern on the wheels. Do any wheels tend to wear a lot more than the others? If so, you might want to put harder wheels in those positions. For example, I tend to wear my rear wheels more than the others, so use 78A's in the front three positions, and 82A's in the back.
- Durability and shock-absorption
- You may find your wheels wear down faster than you'd like because you skate on rough surfaces. You could opt to buy all harder wheels, but it might give you a pretty rough ride. One alternative is to replace only half of your wheels with a harder durometer, like half 78A's and half 82A's. The order that you put them in, isn't really that crucial (although I would suggest 78,82,78,82, or 82,78,78,82). What this mix gives you is the shock-absorption of 78A's and the durability of 82A's.
- Skating style
- Speedskaters and aggressive skaters are the ones who use mixed durometers the most. Speedskaters do it for the hybrid durability and shock-absorption mentioned previously. Aggressive skaters often use the anti-rocker setup where the middle two wheels are very short and hard, and the front and back wheels are tall, to make rail slides easier.
Choosing a Diameter
Okay, had enough of durometer talk? With the wheel diameter there isn't a whole lot to consider. Most recreational skaters prefer the tallest wheels they can fit on their skates (typically 76mm on middle-range skates, and 76-82mm on high-end skates). Taller wheels means more speed and the wheels last longer than shorter wheels of the same durometer.
Aggressive skaters will obviously favor shorter wheels, possibly even wheels under 60 mm, to give room for grinds and slides, and also to keep their skates closer to the ground (or whatever is being skated upon).
Hockey players may opt for 70-72mm wheels, to keep their center of gravity down, but still let them maintain reasonable speed during play.
Speedskaters usually go for the tallest wheels in the 80 to 82mm range. However this varies depending on the race situation. For example in sprint races, 76mm may be more appropriate.
Comparing Core Types
Cores can vary significantly in design. On race wheels, the core may incorporate spokes, and comprise a large portion of the wheel. This is meant to lighten the wheel, and provide cooling for the bearings. A larger core will make the wheel lighter, but that means there is less polyurethane on the wheel to wear down. If speed is the top priority, then that shouldn't matter. If durability is more of an issue, then you may not want wheels with extra large cores.
Cores are usually made of nylon type materials similar to the material that make up the runners and boots of your skates. Some cores are now being made of aluminium, but most are still made of plastic. In the past, some wheels have suffered problems in the core, where the core loosens from the polyurethane. However, this hasn't been as much a problem recently, due to improved bonding technology that binds the core to the wheel.
In general, there's not too much to worry about the core. The main exception is if you do lots of jumping. There have been cases in the past where the spokes on the wheel fracture and then collapse after lots of stress. This is more the exception than the rule, but you may look for a sturdier core if you think you might crush your wheels.
Choosing a Wheel Profile
In general, hockey wheels, recreational wheels, and speed wheels are somewhat interchangeable. That is, you can use any of those types of wheels for any of those skating activities. You won't get the optimal performance, but you won't have to swap wheels every time you switch activities either.
However, if you're looking for the best results, you may want to look at wheels designed for your type of skating. In the following diagram (drawn approximately to scale):
you'll notice that
- Rec wheels have average height, average taper.
- Speed wheels are taller, thinner, more tapered.
- Hockey wheels are shorter, wider, rounded.
- Aggressive wheels are short, with a wide, rounded profile. Often they are very short and have a solid core.
Eventually any type of wheel will wear down to the point where the original profile is lost. There's no way around that unfortunately. Whether you replace your wheels then, or not, is mostly up to you. For most people, the profile only makes a subtle difference, so unless you're in a highly competitive skating situation, I'd just use the wheels until they're worn all the way down.
Most non-race wheels range from $3 to $6 apiece; race wheels from $6 to $10 apiece. You'll find this wide range is often dependent on your wheel source. Obviously, if you're in a one-skate-shop town, they may feel that their monopoly gives them the right to gouge you, but even in some large cities, there can be a noticeable shop-to-shop disparity. Also, mail-order has usually been much cheaper than retail, but in many cities that's been beginning to change for the better. So regardless of what type of wheel you're looking for, remember to shop around first.