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Skating Downhills

(and surviving!)

by Tony Chen

For whatever reason that you're tackling downhill skating (you want to cross-train for skiing, you like the speed, there's no other way around, etc.), you should never take it for granted that you can just "pick it up". Otherwise, the paramedics might be the ones doing the picking up (of the pieces of your shredded body).

Note that skating downhill can easily exceed 30-35mph. Skaters have been clocked at over 75mph, so downhill skating should NEVER be treated lightly. Even if you're a seasoned skater you have to keep your mind and body on the hill. It only takes a small pebble or crack to toss you into a tree or car.

Time for an anecdote, to make my point:

Back in 1992, while I was still at Princeton, some of my skating buddies and I rented skates for a whole group of our other friends who didn't have skates. We went over to a short campus road that was nice and flat so that everyone could practice their skating. After maybe 15 minutes of zooming back and forth on that stretch of asphalt, we decided to take the whole group down to the wide-open backlot behind the gym.

One thing we forgot about: the only way to the gym was downhill on the main campus road. As the group turned onto the main road (some on the sidewalk grass, others hanging on to the better skaters) one skater started rolling down, ever so slowly. By the time she was pointed fully downhill, she was already going fast enough to be beyond her control level.

She continued accelerating for 20 or 30 yards, calling out for help. The road went by a dorm, so there was no grassy areas nearby. Nothing was nearby for grabbing. I saw what was happening and sprinted to the main road and then down the hill after her. I had to get her to grab my arm, and then I stomped on the brake. After a few seconds of brake screeching, we finally stopped.

Okay, happy ending, no one hurt, and all that. The point is, it doesn't take much to get out of control when you're going downhill. My friend was probably only going 10 mph, but when you feel out of control it SEEMS like 50mph.

Downhill skating should be attempted only after you've learned some of the basic skating skills: turns, braking, and balance. Braking means not only the heel brake, but alternative speed control methods like the T-stop, slaloming, toe-drag, and others. If you don't know how to control your speed, the ground hitting your face at 30mph will do it for you, so take your pick 8-)

There are 6 main components for downhill skating:

  1. Safety and your gear
  2. Safety and the road
  3. Safety in your mind
  4. Braking ability and power
  5. Speed control
  6. Relax!
1. Safety and your gear
Although you should be wearing your helmet even for non-hill skating, it goes double and triple for downhills. Wiping out at even 15-20mph can cause major road rash and brain damage, so wear those pads!

2. Safety and the road
All the skating equipment in the world may not help if the hill you're skating on is pothole-ridden, debris-covered, or just downright bumpy. Make sure you scout a hill on foot so that you know what to expect. If you're in a car, get out and walk. Your car will make the road seem deceptively smooth. Your skate wheels will feel every bump and crack, so take the time to know what you're getting into.

3. Safety and your mind
Even if you've got great equipment and scouted the hill, it won't make a difference if you go out and skate like a reckless maniac. If you know that there is occasional car traffic, you have to keep your eyes and ears open. If a car is about to pass you, get narrow, near the curb, and let them know you see them. Know where there are stop lights, intersections, and pedestrian crossings so that you'll be prepared.

It helps if you've got other skaters watching out for traffic, both downstream and upstream. Not that I'm advocating that you have hordes of skaters on a hill, but if you're going to be skating downhill with others, watch out for each other.

4. Braking ability and braking power:
First, I would suggest a lot of practice learning to stop quickly using only your brake skate. But before you try any of this, you must be comfortable using the heel brake! If you're not, practice using the heel brake first, even if it takes a few days or a week or even a month. Trust me -- braking won't be any easier to learn while you're zooming down a hill dodging cars. It has got to be so ingrained that you can brake automatically.

Part I: flats

  • Find a good open area like a parking lot (no traffic, etc.)
  • Start at one side, skate as fast as you can towards the other side
  • When you're halfway across, try to brake as fast as possible
  • Repeat until you can stop with all your weight on the brake. You'll have to lift your back skate and press into your braking heel.

Part II: hills

  • Find a reasonable hill that has little or no traffic
  • Start at the bottom and skate up to the point where you feel comfortable skating all the way down.
  • Coast down, braking as needed.
  • Repeat until you're comfortable with that height. Then do it again, but from a bit higher up the hill.

The main thing to keep in mind is the leverage, with the pivot at your braking heel. You want to apply all the pressure into the brake. Also, make sure to lean back slightly, to counter your forward motion.

5. Speed control
You won't always want to stop completely as you coast downhill. Most of the time you only want to keep your speed at a certain level. To do this, you want to apply your brakes every 5-10 yards, or even more frequently if you need to. You can also apply the brake continuously, but at only half-pressure. If you've practiced your braking in step 1, then this should be no problem. The idea is that if your speed stays within your comfort zone, you'll be in much better control.

6. Relax
When you attain braking proficiency and speed control, then being relaxed while you skate downhill should come fairly easy. Being relaxed isn't just some Zen thing or a way to look cool. Keeping relaxed is critical for unanticipated bumps or debris on the road that could make you trip and wipe out. When you're relaxed your body reflexes can respond better than when you're all tense from fear of wiping out.

Hopefully, when all is said and done, you'll be a much more adept skater when you've mastered downhill skating. Not only will you be a better skater overall, since many of the skills will transfer to other skating methods, but you'll be a much more confident skater.

Good luck, and skate smart!


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