How to rollerblade

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When my 11-year-old sister received a pair of rollerblades on her birthday, I desperately wanted to try them out, but I held my tongue. With my teenage years all but a distant memory, the fear of public embarrassment easily outweighed dreams of blading through the local park.

But, having observed the meteoric rise of the rollerblade, it dawned on me that the pursuit is a pastime for all ages. I subsequently witnessed an endless line of "mature" individuals "blading" around local parks.

Meanwhile, Adam Faith was pictured in rollerblades and the Duchess of Kent and Peter Gabriel were reported to own a pair. Here was my chance to skate onto the rollerblading bandwagon.

One of my trendier friends sent me down to Slick Willie's in High Street Kensington, a specialist outlet for American sporting fads. The staff were happy to enlighten me on the basics, before I handed over the contents of my wallet.

"It's primarily younger people who buy rollerblades," Dan Reed, an assistant, explains. I assume, correctly, that he's an expert, by virtue of his thick American accent. "Rollerblading has become a social sport now, so people of all ages are taking part," he explains. "The average age is between 16 and 30. Many of our customers will have owned rollerskates in the past. Rollerblades seem to attract ex-rollerskaters more than skateboarders."

A pair of rollerblades can be purchased for as little as pounds 80 or in excess of pounds 200, depending on the quality required. Safety equipment is recommended, with a helmet costing in the region of pounds 20-pounds 40. Knee (pounds 12), elbow (pounds 10) and wrist (pounds 13) pads are also advisable.

Rollerblades, of some description, have been in existence for more than 200 years. While early examples are hard to come by, they remain the inspiration for the modern design. The man responsible for rollerblades, as we now recognise them, is American, Scott Olsen.

In 1980 he modified the design of an ancient skate to provide a practise boot for hockey players during the close season. His idea was not an instant hit. In the early Eighties, together with his brother, he peddled his new skate from door to door, without much success.

By the mid-Eighties, however, sales had picked up and the corporate name, "Rollerblade", was coined by friends of the Olsens. The brand name, Rollerblade, is now synonymous with the product. Rollerblade Inc was sold in 1984 and its products now compete in a market which was worth around $700 million (approximately pounds 480m) in 1994.

Rollerblades have been in England for about five years, after visiting Americans brought their skates along for the ride. Stores in the UK sold in excess of 300,000 pairs of blades last year and this year's figure is expected to be higher still. Junior Porter, manager at Slick Willie's, is confident of the pursuit's enduring appeal. "In the States it's still very big," he says. "This country seems to be about a year behind, so sales should continue to increase. I've just come back from Chicago and saw lots of new designs that aren't available in Europe yet. It's definitely going to get bigger."

The accessibility of rollerblading partly accounts for its popularity. It's a social activity that can be equally enjoyed by less-proficient skaters, as well as the athletically gifted. One of the other main attractions, which will come as no surprise to pedestrians frequenting the capital's parks, is extreme speed. Bladers reach in excess of 30 mph.

While blading, skaters distribute their body weight on the knees like a skier, and use leg and bottom muscles to provide power, like a skater.

Traditional rollerskates offer the user more stability than blades, with the user's weight distributed over a wider surface, aiding balance and control.

Dan Reed from Slick Willie's clarified the distinction. "It's similar to the difference between riding a bicycle with or without training wheels," he explains. "Rollerblades have a chassis to hold the wheels in line, the in-line design means less friction or resistance from the pavement. It's this technology that enables you to skate faster."

ALISTER MORGAN

Tomorrow: where to rollerblade

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