Spare time: In-line skates: the mechanical banana skin

It's easy, it's quick to learn, and it gives everyone a good laugh. Eric Kendall gets sliding

Staggering from park bench to lamppost, who would believe that they'd be gliding along effortlessly, spinning on the spot and skating backwards (intentionally) in next to no time? Well, not the novice in- line skater, that's for sure. The feeling is about as secure as a Californian hillside in a rainstorm.

Going, unless you're deeply ungifted, is no problem - with weight well forward, almost anyone can rapidly move from a tentative duck-footed walk to a confidence-boosting glide. Cocky thoughts crowd in: "Who needs an instructor?", "Where's that game of hockey?" But it takes only an errant toddler, dog or ambling pedestrian to remind you how hard it is to stop without resorting to violence.

A degree of confidence comes quickly, though there can't be many activities where your self-image diverges so hugely from reality. It's a sorry sight: with all the stability of a bowling pin, you can be hit by a stomach-churning twitch or wobble long after you think you've mastered the basics. And the better you get, the faster you go and the more skin you lose when taking a close look at the ground.

Some recommend learning on carpet, for reasons of comfort and friction: if you fall it's fairly soft, and you're less likely to do so in the first place because the pile slows the wheels. Then a carpet is usually indoors, so you can't be rained on and no one can witness your humiliation. Less controversial, at least with carpet owners, is a dry patch of grass, which has roughly the same properties.

Once on Tarmac, you may feel powerless to prevent the skates running away with you, but that's better than being left behind, on your backside - the one part of your body that doesn't qualify for additional protective padding.

Because your feet stick out almost entirely forwards from the bottom of each leg, the tendency on skates is to go over backwards, especially when combined with a defensive "weight to the back" stance - the main problem for most beginners. In this respect, for the first few hours it feels as though you've glued banana skins to the soles of your shoes.

The side-splittingly funny side of in-line skating is possibly its most unexpected aspect. Your first excursion could leave your solar plexus more battered, from laughing long and hard, than any of your extremities will be from ground contact. With so many cool people on in-line skates, it's hard to believe there's even a hint of frivolity involved, but the effect of either experiencing or watching the one-man Mexican wave brought on by losing and saving your balance, then losing it again as you start to relax, can't fail to cheer you up. And as participants of most complicated activities know, the schadenfreude effect of watching others almost come a cropper increases in direct proportion to your risk of suffering the same fate. Also amusing, in a terrifying way, are small slopes. Up is fine and down would be too, but for a tendency to throw all your training out of the window the moment you pick up speed. All that's left to do is laugh.

As you clock up the miles, the rewards come more through getting it right than in the hilarity of getting it wrong. For fitness freaks (it's great physical training, with the bonus of honing balance and co-ordination), cornering at speed is a sensation that could wean you off ever doing anything else; for adrenaline and for anyone who has to thrash around after a ball at least once a week, hockey on wheels is fantastic and gets your skating abilities into a different orbit. For everyone else who just weaves around the park, it's probably the only time in your life you'll get away with dancing around in a public place, in broad daylight, with a Walkman on.

Where to start

In-line skates, like ice-skates, can be banked over through turns while keeping all the wheels in contact with the ground. The boot can be rigid, with ski-boot style clips; softer boots, some with removable blades, are also available. A brake is usually fitted to one skate, but the better you become the less you use it.

Wrist, elbow and knee-pads are essential when learning. Helmets are also recommended.

You can hire skates and protective gear from specialist sports shops; they may offer a discount if you then decide to buy your own. A reasonable pair of skates costs from pounds 100, and pads from pounds 30.

British In-line Skating Association 01869 321 410; British Federation of Roller Speed 0121-770 7589; British In-line Skating Hockey Association 01323 440 442. A video, `Inside Edge', is available from sports shops.

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