Once you get started with in-line skating, it's hard to stop -- literally and figuratively!
Take it from a middle-age newspaper scribe who recently took up America's fastest growing sport after watching his kid on skates. I discovered a relatively inexpensive, year-round form of fun, convenient exercise to supplement seasonal cycling and skiing.
But those first few weeks, quaintly referred to as "the learning curve" by skate instructors . . . ouch!
Believe them when they say you should wear that protective gear, including a hard-shell helmet and wrist, elbow and knee pads. Yet once in control of the initial skills -- especially the technique of braking -- it's easy to understand the boom in this form of roller-skating.
The inaugural Maryland In-Line Skate Festival, taking place all day Saturday at Gateway Industrial Park in Columbia, is aimed at introducing people to the sport and offering skaters of all ability levels a chance to roll around together.
Often generically called "Rollerblades" (after the trademark name leading skate manufacturer Rollerblade), in-line skates feature three, four or five wheels affixed in tandem to an ankle-supporting boot, often a hard-shell-and-buckle model much like a ski boot.
They permit maneuverability and speed far greater than conventional "four-wheel" roller skates for, much like an ice skater, the in-line enthusiast glides on a knife-edge plane.
The technology has spawned active competitive pursuits, including a variety of racing forms, figure skating, stunt (or "street shredding") skating and hockey. But it is growing fastest among general fitness participants of all ages.
This weekend's festival "really is for everybody who has the slightest interest in the sport," says director Pat Bernstein.
A "premium passport" admission of $15 gives participants the chance to try skating, with skate rentals (for two hours) and a 40-minute lesson (for the first 400 registrants). A $5 general admission gives skaters with their own gear (or skates rented elsewhere) a chance to try a self-timed one-mile course or take a 10- or 15-mile skating tour of Columbia. Non-skaters are also welcome for the $5 general admission.
Through the day, workshops offer advice on the benefits of skating, nutrition for endurance, how and what to buy, skate maintenance and repair, a racing introduction and a roller hockey introduction.
An exhibition area offers skilled skaters a chance to show off the capabilities of the sport.
Ms. Bernstein says she began planning the festival as an offshoot of the successful Cycle Across Maryland annual bike tour, which she co-founded in 1989 and of which she is executive director.
"A couple of years ago, we were approached by someone who wanted to skate the route of CAM Tour, and we frankly hadn't thought about it. But we were open to the idea," says Ms. Bernstein.
That first CAM skater was Wendy Gramm, wife of presidential candidate Sen. Phil Gramm. She completed the 1994 CAM on skates with a friend, Jerry Gay, and made the news again this past summer after dropping out of the difficult 1995 CAM because of heat exhaustion suffered in the hills of Western Maryland.
Ms. Bernstein, who is not a skater -- "not yet," she says -- began exploring with area enthusiasts and retailers the idea of skating as a logical outgrowth of CAM, a nonprofit organization that uses proceeds to purchase cycling helmets for children and also helped equip the Baltimore City Police Department's bicycle patrol.
"There is so much enthusiasm for this activity, it's very exciting to be a part of it," she says, noting that CAM envisions this as at least an annual event that may be expanded in scope. Principal festival sponsors are All Sport, a sports drink subsidiary of Pepsi-Cola, and Fila, the sports footwear manufacturer.
So who should think about getting into skating?
"Everybody. It's something that teen-agers are doing, that families are doing. There aren't a lot of things where you can go out and spend time with the kids, and everybody can do it and have fun," says Alan Davis, executive vice president of Princeton Sports and Travel, one of two retailers involved in the festival, with shops in Columbia and Baltimore.
"Who would I not urge [to skate]?" says Hal Ashman, president of Ultimate Sports, a Timonium retail outlet that was among the first skate dealers in the Baltimore area, and which offers weekend instruction in skating. He is directing the instruction at the festival.
"I have yet to meet someone who did not have fun and did not have an early learning curve. . . . You're going to get the freedom you don't get from other sports," he says.
Early registrants to the In-Line Skate Festival range from teens to several people in their late 60s, says Ms. Bernstein. And, Mr. Ashman says, "We're seeing a huge number of people in the 45-year-old to 75-year-old range getting involved."
Enthusiasts rave about the relative ease of skating as a do-anytime activity. Unlike bicycling, skiing or other vehicular activities, you don't need car racks or trucks to carry the gear.
"You just throw your skate bag in the trunk or carry it on the plane wherever you go," says Mr. Ashman.
Except when ice and snow cover skating surfaces, the sport can be pursued through the year. And you can skate pretty much anywhere you can find a smooth, flat, paved surface. (See accompanying article for suggested sites.)
The sport is an obvious, easy crossover for skiers and ice skaters, says Mr. Davis. Runners, too, find benefits in skating, which is free of the pounding that's so hard on joggers' ankles, knees and hips.
But what about that learning curve and the safety issue?
"For the first couple years [since beginning to sell skates in 1990], it was a real hard sell to talk someone into a helmet and protective gear," concedes Mr. Ashman.
But he says the skate industry took heed of the relatively slow acceptance of helmets during the bicycle boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s and has been quick to trumpet the safety message and offer protective gear.
"The shock trauma units are full of skaters and bikers and others who weren't smart enough to wear a helmet," Mr. Ashman says.
Most beginning skaters have the most difficulty learning to stop once they get rolling, especially when the pavement begins to slope downward.
Many skates feature a hard rubber brake pad affixed to the rear heel. Lift the toe, and the pad hits the pavement. But the technique requires practice at slow speeds, and beginners find that lifting those front wheels unsteadies them.
Another technique is called the T-stop, which means turning one foot sideways and dragging it behind as a brake. It's effective but hard on the wheels, which may require early replacement from uneven wear.
In the last year or two, skate manufacturers have begun offering more efficient braking systems.
Leading the market, for example, the Rollerblade "ABT system" features a heel brake that is activated merely by flexing the ankle rearward, keeping all the skate's wheels on the ground.
How much does it cost to get into the in-line thing?
Mr. Ashman says $90 to $100 will purchase a quality outfit for young people, and $140 to $160 will equip adult skaters. About 70 percent of the cost is for the skates, and the rest covers the safety gear. Ankle support and comfort are the crucial factors in skate selection, he says.
Maryland In-Line Skate Festival
When: 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Gateway Industrial Park, Columbia
Cost: $15 full-day access pass includes instruction and skate rental (for first 400 registrants); $5 general admission
Information and pre-registration: (410) 653-8288
Location is everything
Here are some popular in-line skating locations in this area, as suggested by Alan Davis, Hal Ashman and others associated with the Maryland In-Line Skate Festival:
* Gateway Industrial Park, Columbia (the festival location), on the east side of U.S. 29, near Route 175 and I-95. After weekday business hours and on weekends, the area offers "good areas of flat, open pavement that's been swept of debris by all the trucks," says Mr. Davis.
* Hammerman Area of Gunpowder Falls State Park, in Chase, off Ebenezer Road via Eastern Avenue extended. "Just the best around: one mile of blacktop and perfectly flat skating," raves Mr. Ashman. Park admission is free on weekdays; $2 a person on weekends until Nov. 4, when free winter admission applies.
* Loch Raven Drive, in the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed of Baltimore County, east of Dulaney Valley Road and west of Providence Road. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, a 1.7-mile section of this road is closed to automobile traffic and used by many skaters, as well as pedestrians and cyclists. Mr. Ashman cautions that there are hills at both ends of the loop and advises inexperienced skaters to stay on the flats until gaining intermediate skills.
* Baltimore-Annapolis Bike Trail, a 13-mile link between Annapolis and Glen Burnie, is reached via numerous crossroads west of Ritchie Highway. The paved trail offers smooth skating but is narrow, requiring care and courtesy toward bicyclists and pedestrians.
* Lake Montebello, at East 33rd Street and Hillen Road in Baltimore, a 1.3-mile loop around the city water supply reservoir. Although long popular with skaters, Mr. Ashman says the circle is suffering deteriorating pavement, and skaters must also take care around walkers, cyclists and auto traffic using the outer ring of the loop.
* "The closest elementary school," suggests Mr. Ashman, noting that local paved playground areas and basketball courts not in use after school hours offer safe, flat areas to sharpen your skills.
* College campuses present good skating largely free of automobile traffic, "if you're not afraid of a little terrain."
One area not suggested for skating is Baltimore's Inner Harbor Promenade. The walkway linking Fells Point to Federal Hill is closed to skaters, cyclists and other rolling enthusiasts, says Mr. Ashman.