It's always life in the fast lane for the rollerbladers: On the road or off the back of a bus, in-line skating is in. James Kanter goes along for the ride

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN spring arrives, city-dwellers' thoughts can turn to romance in the park, but the death of the last daffodil turns mine to crossing London at speed.

Given the many hazards, 'rollerblading' - or wearing rollerskates with wheels in line, like ice skates - may not be the safest way to tackle travelling in the capital. Friends say: 'Why can't you keep it for fun? What's wrong with skating at the weekend?'

I tell them that, after the indignities of commuting from west London to the City all winter, there are better things to be doing with my mornings now that they are warm and dry. Six months of snarled traffic, missed appointments and motion sickness are enough. Door-to-door by way of the underground or by bus takes an hour, sometimes more, you never can tell. I guess that I am the sort of person who likes to be in control of my day.

My 'blades' take me to the City in in about 35 minutes. I can reach a top speed of 25 mph in Oxford Street, if it is fairly clear, but with atrocious roads and pavements in Camden I average about 8 mph, a little slower than a cyclist.

I don't get too early a start because I don't need to. No puncture, stolen handlebars, overheated engine or signal failure is going to stop me. And if I budget an extra 20 minutes, I have time for a Clark Kent transformation at a local sports centre where I keep some clothes.

I head for the main thoroughfares. Bayswater Road, Oxford Street, Farringdon Road. Areas that paralyse commuters are usually best for blading. Councils spend money here on good, dark tarmac and real flagstone pavements. For the blader this means smooth, fast skating with sharper turning and quicker stopping.

And I am not alone. Sven Taylor, 22, a salesman and skating teacher at Britain's only specialist in-line skate store, Road Runner, said: 'There are a lot of people coming into the shop and telling us that they've been skating into work or skating out at lunchtimes. It's a vast range. From the doctor to the hardcore raver, they're all on blades. Transport, manoeuvrabilty, and showing off. That's what they're all into, and that's what they have in common.'

London's interminable bends, stop signs, red lights, flights of stairs and potholes used to terrify me but are now the sorts of friends I am happy to see anytime, even when they spring up out of nowhere. On-road blading, like off-piste skiing, leads to increasingly extreme habits.

Real stars of the street scene can be seen getting towed up Piccadilly and Ladbroke Grove hanging on the back of a Routemaster bus with plastic-wrapped grip bars where passengers alight and skaters hook on.

Sven, who will appear on BBC children's television demonstrating his technique on 5 June, said: 'I've had a few close shaves coming into work and going around a corner on a bus. You know, that can be tragic stuff.'

The bus conductors can also be an obstacle. Sven explained: 'If I was a conductor, I would also worry about people grabbing on to the side of a bus. But I've had conductors when the bus is going along negotiating a fare with me while I'm holding on the back, You know, half price]'

In fact, conductors are pretty reasonable about skaters. When they want to get rid of you they explain that the company blames them if an accident delays service. I always disengage without a fuss, but there are no laws against hanging on to London buses. A Home Office spokeswoman told me: 'In 1990 we introduced an extended bylaw where it relates to skateboarding and rollerskating causing a nuisance or grounds for annoyance. But that has only been adopted by four authorities, Bromsgrove, the Isle of Wight, Port Talbot and Stratford-upon- Avon.'

Tough as all this may sound, I need extra courage to contemplate the kind of sidewalk surfing I see people like Sven, an ex-BMX stunt bike rider, doing. On our 'relaxing' post-pub skate he roared off down Westbourne Grove, spidered up the side of a slanted wall opposite Khan's restaurant, did a 180-degree turn in mid-air over a pothole and still managed to do a backwards, ski-style skid stop at the busy intersection on Queensway.

The problem with skating in the city is, of course, safety. One wet leaf, ice patch, or greasy bit of road could mean a nasty wipeout. This explains why you will not see many bladers on the roads between October and April. It also means most bladers will be wearing protective plastic splints on their forearms, something picked up from skateboarders to guard against broken wrists.

But bladers have something going for them that cyclists and skateboarders lost long ago: an interested public. Buses often brake for me, lorry drivers wave and cabbies sometimes even crack a smile. Our boots still gleam and our wheels still glow. In-line skates, with names like Variflex, Ultrawheels and Macroblade, carry an aura of innovation.

Occasionally, bladers take a whimsical leap off a curb for no other reason than to provide fellow commuters with a bit of futuristic street theatre. 'I enjoy traffic and whizzing in and out of the cars,' said Sven. 'It's also something to look at so they enjoy seeing us.'

Contrast the in-line skater with the unloved courier. The sheen on his mountain bike has long worn off, his walkie-talkie aerial is bent out of shape and his company bib and bag are coated with grime. Looking dirty and downtrodden, he is an easy scapegoat for highway bullies having a bad day.

And while there can be no doubt that resentment lurks around the corner, we are, for now, the fresh faces of a lean, clean hi-tech future. I fear that by the time I finish graduate school and get a proper job, it may just not be as much fun any more.

(Photograph omitted)

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