Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Shopping for roller derby wheels

 

I’ve been playing this sport for a long time. I’ve never understood the anxieties over wheel setups. People often ask me for my advice, and I always feel like anything I say needs an asterisk. Since there are no playoff tournaments this week, here are my general thoughts on wheels.

If you’re stressing about what wheel to use when, here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter. Except for outdoor versus indoor wheels, there really is no objectively right or wrong wheel. So chillax, my dude.

If you don’t want to pay $150 for a set of high-quality wheels, then don’t. Go for the $50 ones. There’s no rule saying you have to own multiple sets, either. You can still be awesome even with those worn-in hand-me-downs. You can have a killer season and never once change your wheels.

Sure, there are extreme situations when a floor can be really sticky or really slippery, but it all boils down the individual. Different positions, skill sets, and even body types play into what works best. You can spend a fortune on wheels, guaranteeing that you have all durometers and styles for all surfaces and carry them all around with you to every away game. People do that. But it’s not going to make you a better skater.

A good athlete can adapt to any situation. Slick floor? Take smaller strides and allow for longer stops. Grippy floor? Sit lower into stops and be prepared for a fast game. The condition of the floor is just another factor that can’t be controlled, just like the calls of the ref crew, the strategies of the other team, or the drunkenness of the fans. But you can adapt to these conditions.

If your fundamentals suck, they are going to suck on any surface. Rather than stressing about wheels, get really good at edgework. Get your stops as clean as possible. Train on as many different surfaces as possible. Improve your core and lower body strength. The floor is not your enemy; your lack of edgework is. Get to know the wheels that you have, and get really good at adjusting your skating style.

All that having been said, wheels do wear down. Someday you will need an upgrade. So what should you try?

Beginners (first 6 months): Literally anything. You won’t feel the difference. You’re still learning how to skate; you’re still wobbly, you have no edges to speak of, and you have limited speed. Different durometers won’t change how any of that feels. I’ve seen freshies do great things on some pretty terrible setups. (Take it from someone who started out on Cobras.)

Blockers: Lower durometers (80s range). Blockers must be able to dig in on stops and hold at low speeds. Lower durometers allow for more grip with less effort. Wider wheels will give you a little more traction.

Jammers: Harder durometers (90s range). Unlike blockers, jammers need to have agility at high speeds. Harder wheels mean more speed with less effort. Narrow wheels will also aid in agility. However, coming out of turns at high speeds may cause extra slippage, while stops are generally easier to control with more slide. Figure out which you are more concerned about. You can start with some kind of middle ground by using “pushers” (grippier wheels on the left side of each skate) or consider purchasing hybrid wheels.

 

OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND

  • -As your edgework improves, you may find a preference to harder wheels. As a default, start with lower, grippier durometers and work your way up.
  • -Heavier wheels will allow you some more stability, but will make you less agile. Lighter wheels are faster and put less stress on your feet.
  • -If you train more recreationally, say 1-2 times per week for only a few months out of the year, there’s no need to invest in high-level wheels. But if you do train more intensely, it will be worth investing in wheels that will last a long time.

Many skaters do a lot of blocking AND jamming. There is no one wheel that will work in every situation. So basically, get used to doing everything with whichever setup you choose. While there are different factors to consider that may aid in certain circumstances, remember: it’s not the wheel or the floor, it’s your skill and adaptability that make the difference.

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