You don't need to pass a proficiency test to use in-line skates.
As the popularity of the pastime increases, so does the legion of novices careening down paths with flailing arms and shrieking something loosely translated as "I can't stop!"
Neophytes and more accomplished skaters alike can sharpen their skills Saturday as Cycle Across Maryland sponsors the first in-line skate festival, at Columbia's Gateway Commerce Center.
"It's very fascinating how many people consider themselves skaters and can't stop," says Pat Bernstein, founder and executive director of Cycle Across Maryland. "If we can teach people correct technique, then it makes it better for everybody."
The daylong festival will feature a self-timed, one-mile skate course, roller-hockey demonstrations, exhibitions, instruction, a 10- or 15-mile skate tour of Columbia and workshops on such topics as equipment, maintenance and nutrition.
Organizers have set a limit of 2,000 participants for the event at the industrial park, which may seem an odd choice of venue for a festival -- unless you're an in-line skater.
"Industrial parks are great," says Alan Davis, executive vice president of Princeton Sports in Columbia and Baltimore. "It's just an awesome thing. It's a four-lane highway with no traffic."
Howard County's contingent will include the Hunt family of Ellicott City -- Teri and Gary, and their daughters Julie, Kristi, Katie and Sarah -- all of whom have been infected by the in-line skating bug.
Katie, an eighth-grader at Ellicott Mills Middle School, was the first in the family to skate after receiving a pair of in-line skates for her 10th birthday.
Mr. Hunt started skating 2 1/2 months ago and skates regularly with Kristi, 20, mainly on weekends at Loch Raven Reservoir.
"It looked easy," he says. "I'm still a rookie at it, but I'm getting better. A good day is when you come back with all your skin."
Mr. Hunt says all his children wear a helmet and pads. Outfitting his younger daughters costs him about $150 each for skates, $50 for pads and $35 for a helmet.
"If I catch you without pads, the Rollerblades are mine for a month," he admonishes his daughters.
In-line skates aren't the old metal roller skates tightened with a skate key. The skates -- named for the straight line of wheels under the boot -- are quicker and more maneuverable, which has led to the ancillary helmet and elbow, wrist and kneepad industries.
MetroSports magazine estimates 20 million people are in-line skaters. The magazine also says that from 1993 to 1994, the pastime grew by 57.2 percent.
Saturday's event is intended to provide beginner and intermediate skaters with such fundamentals as the art of stopping.
"I would not completely say that I have the hang of it," Mr. Hunt says.
Nine-year-old Sarah says in a whisper, "I don't know how to brake. I just slow down."
Mr. Davis can remember first stocking in-line skates about five years ago "when they were still trying to call them roller skates."
He says demand for the skates hasn't slackened or peaked -- even on the West Coast, where the craze began. This year, the ESPN sports cable network's "Extreme Games" included in-line skating competitions among other nontraditional avocations.
One key to enjoying in-line skating is safety. There are "very few injuries if you skate safely and wear proper protection," Mr. Davis says.
If not, the injuries can range from skinned knees "all the way up to a broken head," he says.
Cycle Across Maryland will hold its Maryland In-line Skate Festival from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Gateway Building, 6751 Columbia Gateway Drive in Columbia, near Interstate 95 and Route 175. Rain date is Oct. 1. Admission is $15 for the premium passport and $5 for general admission. Information: 653-8288.