Talking to one of our new rookies the other night made me remember how much of a mystery skates are when you first start out in roller derby. If you haven’t come from a skating background, how the heck would you know what all that business is below your boots? I’m not claiming to be an expert in this area, but I’ve picked up a few basic tricks in the past 18 months that I think it would have been handy to know at the start. Hopefully some other fledgling skaters will find this stuff useful!
First things first: I would recommend buying a skate tool at the same time as you get your skates. It’s a pain in the butt not to be able to make adjustments whenever you want. I have a Powerdyne Y3 which was £15 and does everything I need.
1. Fine-tune your wheels
Wheels should be loose enough to spin freely, but not so loose that they move side to side on the axle. I like to tighten the axle nut (the bit that holds the wheel on the skate) until the wheel doesn’t spin at all, then loosen a tiny bit until the wheel will go for around 5 seconds when spun. Remember that the flat side of the axle nut should be against the bearing (the bit inside the wheel). Cost = free
2. Adjust your toe stops
Personally, I would say that’s it’s worth upgrading your toe stops as early as you can. Entry-level skates come with tiny little things that can make getting to grips with toe stop work more terrifying than it needs to be. I shudder when I think of how unstable I felt before upgrading to toe stops with a larger surface area. I like Gumball Superballs which will set you back just under £30, but there are plenty of options on the market at the £20 mark. Cost = around £20
Whatever the toe stop, you’ll also want to try playing around with height. Probably the easiest way to judge height is to go by the distance your back wheels are off the floor when the top stop and front two wheels are down, and a basic way to measure this in fingers. I like to go for 3 fingers from the ground (because Scald Eagle told me that in a bootcamp, and I do what Scale Eagle tells me), but personal preference is a big factor. However, as a newbie, you might find this a little low and that you keep catching your toe stops on the floor on crossovers. In that case, simply try them a little higher, e.g. 4 fingers. In short, if your toe stops are screwed all the way in and you feel like you’re precariously balancing on your tippy toes when you try and stand on them, they’re probably too high. Cost = free
3. Upgrade your wheels
Here’s something that’s probably true – the wheels that your starter skates came with are crap.
Any wheels designed for quads will fit your skates. Your main consideration will be durometer – the hardness of the wheel. The lower the duro, the softer the wheel. Anything 80a or lower is good for outdoor skating. Something around the 84a mark (like the well-known Atom Poisons) can work for very slippery floors, but generally you’ll be looking at 88a or higher for indoor surfaces. How high exactly will depend on a few things, a big factor being the type of flooring. Ask around your league to get an idea of what people usually skate on at your practice venue – it will be the best indicator of what you should be aiming for.
Another thing to factor in is weight: the heavier you are = the more downward pressure being put on your wheels = the gripper it’s going to be. Ergo, heavier skaters may prefer a harder wheel. Similarly, a lighter skater might prefer a slightly softer wheel. Don’t get too caught up on widths and heights at this stage – as a guide, wheels used for derby are generally around 38mm wide and 59 or 62mm high. Cost: around £50-120 for a full set
4. Re-lace your skates
If you’re having foot pain, it can’t hurt to try lacing your skates a different way. Here’s a handy diagram of some patterns to test out.
You could also have a go at using two sets of laces (one on the bottom half of the eyelets, and one on the top half) to really give yourself some options – more on that over here. Cost = free to £5
5. Change your cushions
On the underside of your skates, you’ll see that underneath each truck (the metal thing that your wheels attach to) there are these rubber-looking doughnuts stacked one on top of the other surrounding the truck. These are the cushions (or ‘bushings’), they tend to be red or black on most starter skates and they also tend to be hard as a rock. An easy, quick upgrade you can try early on is to buy some new softer cushions. Softer cushion = more squidge = more tilt = more lateral agility. If you’re not sure which cushions to get for your particular skate, try and pop into a shop like Double Threat who will be happy to advise. Here’s a photo step-by-step of how to change your cushions. And here’s a long article on cushions by people who know more than me. Cost = about £15
6. Adjust your trucks
As well as changing out your cushions, you can also play around with lateral agility by adjusting the tightness of your trucks. Straight out of the box, trucks are often screwed on super tight; play around with loosening them a bit and see what feels good for you. A little can go a long way here, so start with a quarter turn at a time and see how you go. Cost = free
7. Protect your toes
You’ll find out pretty quickly that roller derby wrecks the toes of your skates. Even if you have some ‘cheap’ entry level skates that you don’t plan to use forever, you don’t want to wear through to your socks! Protecting your toes is easy, and you have a few options. Personally, I hate the strip leather toeguards like these that Suregrip make – they shift around and seem to cause endless issues with toe stops coming loose. If you have your heart set on a physical leather/faux leather guard, you might like some fun snouts like these ones on etsy etsy which cover the whole toe of the boot. Far cheaper though (and not at all difficult to do) is to tape your toes. Simply buy yourself some duct tape or (my favourite) hockey tape for about £3.50 a roll, and retape when it wears through. Cost: £3.50 through to around £30