Monday, January 18, 2010

Does Wheel Hardness Matter for Big Girls?

I occasionally receive questions from y’all via email or comment, and I usually respond the same way, however I felt I could expand on this question and post it here! I am certainly not a skate “expert”, but I have been rolling for 5 years now, and if you know me, you know I’m always more than happy to give you my opinion about pretty much anything. So, if y’all got any more questions, keep ‘em coming and I’ll address them to the best of my ability every now and then!

Q: Wanted to ask of the girls on my team said something about some type of wheel that is better to use if you're heavier. Something about how the material is harder. Do you know what she was talking about? Since I can't play right now, I'm gonna get my derby fix by ordering gear I can't use. (Sinead O'Clobber)

A: Wheel hardness is a personal preference and only one of several variables that work together to enhance how you perform on a pair of skates (the skate surface share equal weight with wheels, IMO, and plates and bearings play supporting roles too).

Let’s start with a little overview of wheels in general:
  • Most indoor derby wheels are a standard circumference (62mm)
  • Wheels are rated and listed by firmness, and this is usually denoted by a number followed by the letter “a” (e.g., 90a) – the higher the number, the firmer the wheel
  • A general range of firmness for derby wheels is 86a to 98.5a, softer to firmer
  • In general, firmer wheels are faster wheels (this is why jammers often wear firmer wheels)
  • The firmer a wheel, the less “grip” it has on the skating surface
  • Wider wheels provide better grip and more stability (e.g., Hyper), while narrower wheels (e.g., Heartless) allow a skater to be more agile
While wheels are an important component to this equation, you can’t decide on a wheel without first considering your skate surface. Doing so would be like packing a suitcase of clothing without knowing if you’re headed to the North Pole or the Caribbean. The type of wheels you use depend on the surface on which you’ll be skating, which also has its own grip-factor. Polished concrete is generally the slickest surface, and sport court generally provides the most grip, while wood lies somewhere in between depending on its condition.

Wearing an 86a wheel on sport court (especially tile) would make you go the slowest (and keep the most contact with the floor), while wearing a 98.5a on polished concrete would allow you to go the fastest (if you could keep a grip on the floor and not wipe out at sharp turns). What many skaters do is adjust for the floor by changing their wheels. For instance, if a person used to skating on wood with a 90a may want to switch to an 88a if skating on polished concrete or 92a if skating on tiled sport court.

When I first started skating, we all wore really grippy skates because our muscles weren’t conditioned to keep us firmly planted to the floor, and we’d easily lose control around the turns. As time went on, I feel like the jammers started experimenting with the firmer wheels first, the full-time blockers second, and the bigger girls third. This is completely contrary to what your teammate said, which is why I was so intrigued by this question. In my experience, I think I stayed with a more grippy wheel longer than most people, because I wanted the stability. I now know I like a wheel with more grip because it allows me to dig into the floor better to make a really hard hit. And please realize these trends I mention of jammers versus blockers and small girls versus big girls are very broad generalizations. I know plenty of tiny, svelte jammers (Flo Shizzle) who refuse to skate on anything other than Witch Doctors (a soft wheel). It all comes down to personal preference!

Another thing skaters do is mix and match wheels of different firmness. I’ve never been a big fan of this, but many, many skaters swear by the combo, so try it and see what you think. While this is a popular thing to do, I often see people doing it wrong. The idea here is to wear the wheels with the most grip on the left-hand side of each skate (if you have them on and are looking down at your feet). Why there? Because those wheels make the most contact with the floor for the longest period of time while you’re skating. Think about it. Prior to crossing over with your right leg, which wheels on your right foot touch the floor last? The ones on your instep – the ones to the left. When your left leg is passing behind you to form the second motion of a cross over, which wheels on that skate are the last to leave the ground? The ones on the outside of your left foot – the ones to the left. By putting the grippier wheels here, you’ll make the most contact with the floor, thus elongating your stride and causing you to use less energy to skate at the same speed.

Like anything else, picking a type and firmness of wheel is a personal preference. If you have the chance, try out your friends’ wheels. By trying out as many different types of wheels as possible, you’ll get to know what you like by how it feels. Bottom line: there is no hard and fast rule for wheel firmness as it correlates to body weight. As you gain more experience as a skater, you’ll get to know what you like more. Be patient and listen to your body instead of the trends, because the only thing that’s going to make you a better skater is you, and you’re going to have to be comfortable in your skates in order to do so. No harm in trying a trend, but pay attention to how YOU feel.

I’m actually really excited, because I just purchased a pair of Heartless Creepers yesterday, and tonight will be my first time skating on them. After having skated for 5 years, I feel confident enough to try a skinny wheel that’s slightly more firm than I’m used to wearing. I’ll keep you posted on how I like them. Best of luck in finding a wheel combo that’s good for you!


DayGlo Divine said...

Having both "pusher" wheels on the left side of each skate is the most popular configuration for derby, but it's not the only correct one. People with speed skating backgrounds often put the rear pusher on the right side. I presume it's to avoid heel slippage, because that's what I found it did when I tried it.

Anonymous said...

Solid explanation. I'm new to skating, and this cleared some things up for me.

-- The Ill Reverend Mic

Anonymous said...

I went from Fugis to Witch Doctors and felt like I was skating better than ever. But when I switched to Radars (because they stopped making Witch Doctors for a while), I skated like crap but kept the wheels because new ones were too expensive. Even though I practiced harder and better, I never skated as well as I did with the Witch Doctors. In retrospect, I should have experimented more with wheels.

So yeah, wheels, for any size person: very important.

Allie Gator said...

I personally use a mix of pushers and blue Fugi's. I do what DayGlo mentioned, pushers on my left back and right front. This was suggested to me by some very knowledgable coaches and I've enjoyed the placement.
I'm interested to hear how you like the Heartless wheels, I'm tempted...

Anonymous said...

Here's what our local wheel expert has to say on the topic of wheel hardness. How does that agree with your experience? Obviously friction is the product of three factors: the grippiness of the floor, that of the wheels, and the weight of the skater, but the amount of friction you actually need depends on harder to quantify things like strength and skating style.

Sinead O'Clobber said...

The only wheels I've ever used are the ones that came on my skates. The skates are Riedell R3's and the wheels are Cayman something-or-others. We skate on a wooden floor. An old one that's kinda jacked up in places.

The idea of having the grippy wheels on the inside and the firmer ones on the outside sounds good to me. I've been told a hundred times to try Flat Outs, so I'm probably gonna give them a shot. It just sucks that it's $100 or more every time you decide to experiment with a new wheel.

I'm going to take my wheels apart at practice tomorrow night and see how the bearings are looking, too. I understand that the type and condition of your bearings can be a factor as well.

Thanks for the info! Very helpful.

Terra Incognita said...

I have green Hyper Shamans and they are the first wheel I have ever used all eight of. But, our floor is slick and dirty, so big gals like me need all the grip they can get!

Angela F said...

I really like my Heartless wheels, but they had no grip until I broke them in. Be sure to give them a couple practices if you feel you're sliding around. -Jalapeno Business (Rat City Rollergirls)

Tiara said...

Here's my question, is there anywhere where girls can post wheels for trade? Like, someone buys the Heartless and they don't work for them so they want to try Atoms- is there a site somewhere where she could find someone with Atoms looking to trade or sell? I agree with the thought you had that it's a shame one has to shell out $100 or more when they want to experiment. That's what's kept me on my wheels for the last three years, though I would love to try out something different.

Anonymous said...

One thing I have found with wheels is not so much the hardness but the core - someone explained to me that with bigger girls the nylon core with actually flex with stress - that will slow you down and also mess up your bearings - I always use the aluminum core wheels and although they are heavier they seem to work better

Anonymous said...

I ran across this video with Atomatrix discussing their newest wheel for concrete.

Anyone tried these yet?