Jim Flood wrote a nice piece in the Huffington Post arguing that men's roller derby provides a model to the professional sports world in accepting openly gay athletes. I was interviewed for the piece, and I'm very happy with how my quote came out. Gay skaters have been a part of MMRD for as long as I've been around, and we'd be much worse off without our gay teammates.
I've been playing roller derby for about two and a half years now, so I suppose that it goes without saying that I like it quite a bit. Even so, I think that sometimes it's worth thinking about why we like the things we like, and maybe seeing if other people like it for the same reasons (or not). There are many things about the sport and the community around it that I enjoy, but as I think about it the two strongest forces that keep me coming back are athleticism and camaraderie.
My main interests before derby were computer programming, competetive debate, video games, and guitar, so it might sound a little strange to hear me talk about athletecism. But many of my best memories of childhood are of playing little league baseball and basketball, learning gymnastics, and (inline) skating around the neighborhood. Obviously it's important for a kid like me to get outside once in a while, but I think the lasting effect of sports was to teach me about self-improvement. Practice something again and again and eventually you'll gain super-powers like cartwheels or fastballs or hitting a free throw. I had many coaches along the way, and all of them told me that it doesn't matter where you start out as long as you keep getting better.
Somewhere around high school, though, it seemed like the sports culture around me started to change. The "everybody plays" mentality of little league gave way to a more exclusive world where if you didn't make the team you didn't get to play much at all. Genetic gifts started to matter at least as much as hard work. And maybe I had already internalized society's bullshit jocks-versus-nerds narrative, but it started to feel like the culture around sports made it really hard to be a weird kid, and I liked hanging around the weird kids.
Well, lucky for me the weird kids made a sport for themselves, and it's awesome. My league has computer programmers and graphic designers and hockey players and stand-up comedians and theater geeks and band nerds and accountants and cross-dressers and we all love playing roller derby. Some of us are life-long roller skaters, others bought their first pair of skates the day of their first practice, but we all come to practice to get a little faster, stronger, and smarter. We're all Amateurs in the original sense; we do it for love of the game. I don't know what every league is like, but I've met derby skaters from around the country and I hear a lot of them saying the same thing: they love the sport and they love the friends they've made playing it.
It's a good thing, too, because without roller derby, the standard story of becoming an adult seems pretty depressing: through your high school and/or college years you make all of your best friends, who you then slowly lose touch with through the rest of your life. Maybe you make some friends at work, but hanging out with them you mostly talk about work. Maybe you have kids and eventually make some play-date friends or PTA friends, but even then you mostly talk with them about your kids. Even in a city full of cool people my own age, I've found it difficult to make friends as a grown-up. I don't know what it is about roller derby, but now all those weirdos are some of my best friends.
My wife and I got married before either of us started playing roller derby; it was a small wedding with family and close friends. We've joked that if we got married today we'd have to double the guest list on account of all the awesome derby people in our lives. It's a problem (and shout out to all our derby friends planning weddings right now: good luck), but I think it's a good problem to have.
So that's why I like roller derby. If you're reading this and you don't play roller derby already, maybe you should try. Oh, and if you're reading this and you're a man and you live somewhere near Minneapolis, Minnesota then you should know that the Minnesota Men's Roller Derby Fresh Meat Locker program is starting again now and it's not too late to join us. All it takes is skates, pads, and the desire to be more awesome.
I need to make an important addendum to my recent post on Helmets. I still strongly recommend that roller derby skaters use a helmet that is certified by either the HECC or both the CPSC and ASTM. I recommended a few specific models in that post, but my league mate Drewraffe informed me that Bell makes a less expensive helmet that carries both the ASTM and CPSC certifications.
The Bell Faction in black is about 30 bucks with free shipping on Amazon, and it's even cheaper if you get a red one with a scary monster on it. Not only is that less than other properly-tested helmets, it's even less than the terrible Triple 8 Brainsaver that you should be throwing away. Right now. Please.
You are out of excuses. Don't skate without a proper helmet.
Before I get started, do me a quick favor: go right now and grab your helmet. Take a quick look at the inside. You looking now? Ok?
Ok. If it doesn't have a sticker either with this logo...
...or both of these logos...
...throw it the hell away.
Alright, let me take a step back for a moment. It's hard to talk about safety gear without sounding like a bit of a pompous know-it-all, so let me make one thing very clear: I don't have any special training about helmets. I'm not a doctor, nor a scientist, nor a materials engineer. I'm just a guy with a big squishy brain that likes to play roller derby. And I want to make sure that that brain stays all squishy and happy, so when it comes to selecting a helmet, I defer to the experts whose job it is to certify which helmets will best protect my brain from all the bumps and falls I'm likely to take.
Now, there isn't yet an official board that certifies helmets for roller derby, but there are three boards of experts who evaluate helmets for roughly similar sports, and I recommend you take their advice seriously. Hockey helmets are certified by the Hockey Equipment Certification Council, or HECC. Skateboard-style helmets are evaluated by both the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). To carry any of those certifications, a helmet model has to be tested by independent labs and meet the requirements specified by the standards organization.
What are these requirements? Well, there are a bunch of them (here are the complete standards for CPSC, HECC , and ASTM F1492), but the most important requirements deal with how the helmet absorbs impact. Basically they put a head-shaped weight in the helmet, drop it on the ground (or otherwise subject it to an impact) and measure how much impact force gets absorbed by the helmet and how much gets transferred to the dummy head. This is important, because if you haven't been following the increasing concern over concussions in other contact sports, brains really don't respond well to being jostled around.
It's impossible to judge whether a particular impact would have caused a concussion with or without a helmet, but the more force a helmet can absorb (and the less transferred to your skull), the better your chances are of sustaining a hit without brain injury. The HECC, CPSC, and ASTM standards judge similar types of impact, at least similar enough that I don't have enough information to recommend either hockey or skateboard helmets over the other. If you go for a skateboard-style helmet, though, make sure it carries both the CPSC and ASTM certifications, as the CPSC standard rates a helmet only on how it protects against a single impact, and most CPSC bicycle helmets recommend you throw them away after a significant bump. That's fine for bicyclists, but derby skaters need a helmet certified for multiple impacts under the ASTM standard as well.
To sell something as a "hockey helmet" or "bicycle helmet" in the United States, it has to meet the requirements set by the HECC or CPSC, respectively. However, you can sell a "skateboard helmet" that carries no certification at all, and I see frighteningly too many derby skaters trusting their brains to helmets that have no standards body behind them. Though they were too diplomatic to name the brand and model, Wicked Skatewear did us the favor of (unofficially) testing how well one of these non-certified helmets protects. I'll spoil it for you: not well.
Roller derby is a contact sport with real risks. I think that the opportunity for athleticism, friendship, and fun times is well worth taking on those risks, but we shouldn't pretend they don't exist. Preventing injury is a complicated subject, but the first and simplest step is to wear effective safety gear every time you hit the track. In my opinion, that should include a helmet that is tested and certified to protect your brain.
As for specific recommendations, I'm a huge fan of the Nutcase Crossover, which is comfortable, comes in a bunch of fun colors, and is certified under the CPSC and ASTM standards. For other skateboard helmets, I know that Pro-Tec and S-One make CPSC/ASTM-certified helmets as well. I don't know hockey helmets well, but the Cascade M11 comes highly recommended by others. These helmets cost a couple of bucks more than the non-certified ones, but the way I see it, there are two different reasons to put down the extra cash on a quality helmet. First, because you're a serious athlete playing a contact sport and you ought to protect yourself, and second, because even the most expensive helmet is a whole lot cheaper than a hospital visit.
One of the first rules of software development is "It's never that simple". I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, then, that my original classification of wheels as having either nylon or aluminum hubs turned out to be too simplistic for the set of wheels in the Wheel-a-ma-jig.
I recently learned that Atom Wheels' "Alloy" hubs are not made entirely of aluminum, but are instead nylon hubs with an aluminum cap. Of course, I've got nothing against Atom for making wheels with hubs containing both aluminum and nylon (although I think they could be more upfront in marketing them — the above picture appears only on page 12 of the Atom Catalog), but it does throw a wrench into the Wheel-a-ma-jig's current two-category system. I considered futzing around with the behavior of the current "Aluminum" and "Nylon" checkboxes, but as these wheels' hubs are neither all-nylon nor all-aluminum, including them into search results when you select either one of those boxes feels misleading. It'd be more technically correct to have them appear only when both "Aluminum" and "Nylon" were checked, but that seems even more confusing.
I decided it'd be best to add an explicit third category for "Hybrid" wheels. Atom's name for the hub itself - "Hybrid Alloy Core", seems perfectly reasonable, as these hubs are a hybrid of nylon and aluminum, the two dominant materials used in hubs for roller derby wheels. I can't vouch for how well these wheels perform or whether they are worth the price premium over all-nylon wheels, but for what it's worth I do have a teammate who swears by the Juke Alloys.
Even though the Wheel-a-ma-jig is "just" a roller skate wheel shopping tool, I do take this sort of thing seriously, so my apologies if anyone has been misled by my improper categorization of these wheels until now.
I've received a number of flattering compliments about the Wheel-a-ma-jig, but hearing from the folks at Radar Wheels that they think the Wheel-a-ma-jig is neat, and can they please send me some free wheels to test out? That was unexpectedly delightful. I've been skating on the set of Radar Bullet 95A wheels they sent me for my last few practices now, and so far I'm enjoying the hell out of them.
Bullets are nylon-hub wheels that are 38 millimeters wide and 59mm in height. They were the first set of 59mm wheels I've skated on, so the most noticeable feature to me was how 59mm wheels perform compared to "standard" 62mm wheels. Wearing smaller wheels means sacrificing some flat-out speed in order to gain some maneuverability and acceleration. I definitely felt both effects, but the ease in stepping, jumping, and accelerating was a huge win for me, well worth sacrificing some speed in the open track.
Smaller, lighter wheels make it easier to step side-to-side. Written like that, it seems so obvious and pedestrian that you might miss the important part, so let me try it another way. Smaller, lighter wheels make it easier to keep your butt in front of the jammer and get that butt past opposing blockers. Shuffling side-to-side is such a fundamental movement in modern roller derby that even a small improvement in maneuverability has an outsized impact on the game. You can get across the track a little bit quicker to make a block. Your first step to match a jammer's juke left or right happens a little bit sooner. You make opposing blockers work just a little bit harder to try and catch your hips as you step around them.
These wheels are also great for starting from a standstill. The technical, Physics 101 meanings of "speed" and "acceleration" are close-but-not-quite matches for what I'm talking about here, so I'll describe it more intuitively. Shorter wheels make you work harder to maintain rolling once you get going, but for those first few chop-chop-chop steps you explode off the line. Obviously this matters for jam starts, but you're also re-starting every time you get knocked down, pushed out, or stopped by a blocker, which are exactly the moments where a little burst of extra speed is most helpful. I'm exploring the scientific explanation of rotational inertia for another post, but my hypothesis is that wheel weight and size matters a lot for those first few steps.
Also, jumping. Jumping! If apex jumps are, or you would like them to be, part of your skill set, I recommend giving 59mm wheels a shot.
Radar's advertisements make a big deal of the new "Shark" hubs on these wheels. Based on my experience, they do a good job mitigating, but not eliminating, the loss of roll compared to a more rigid aluminum hub. They also look neat.
If you're interested in trying 59mm wheels, and you should be, Radar Bullets are a great introduction. Compared to similar wheels, the price point of $80 for a full set is very aggressive, and in my opinion, well worth it. Since these are a brand new product, it's hard to get a handle on how long they'll last, but Radar has a good track record for quality control and durability in my experience.
I do not write sponsored posts.
I disclose when I receive a review item for free.
I don't let business relationships color my editorial opinion.
I'm sure that for many of you, your first roller derby wheels will be "the ones that came with your skates", but if you're creating a custom skate package or replacing the terrible wheels that come on the Riedell R3, then here is my advice on what to get for your first set of roller derby wheels.
You can use this link to the Wheel-a-ma-jig with the controls pre-set to select wheels that are appropriate for new skaters. Set the "Hardness" sliders based on advice from someone around your size who skates on the same surface.
Roller Derby wheels come in a range of widths between about 30 and 44 milimeters, but I recommend that new skaters start with wheels in a fairly narrow range in the middle, about 36-39mm or so. In my experience, this is the sweet spot — wide enough to provide a stable platform, but not so wide as to weigh you down or cause you to lock wheels with other skaters in the pack. Starting in the middle also will give you a good frame of reference if you try out wider or narrower wheels in the future.
I recommend that your first set of roller derby wheels be 62mm in height, primarily because this is the "standard" height for derby wheels. Since you can't mix wheels of different heights, following the crowd in this case gives you a bigger selection of wheels to mix-and-match with or borrow from friends. 62mm wheels will also roll a little better, which should help out learning basic skating skills. You should try 59mm wheels eventually, and if you're like most skaters I know you'll either love them or hate them as soon as you do.
The choice of nylon or aluminum hubs is a little less important for new skaters, as there's really no reason you can't learn to skate on either. All things being equal though, I'd recommend you start on wheels with nylon hubs because they are cheaper and because it's easier to remove or replace the bearings with a less expensive tool. Getting the bearings in and out of aluminum hubs without a full bearing press is kind of a pain in the ass.
The most important factor in choosing the right hardness is matching it to the skating surface the wheels are used on, so unfortunately I can't provide general advice. Your best bet is to seek the advice of a skater about your same weight (heavier skaters will need harder wheels) who has experience with the surface(s) you'll be skating on. If you're absolutely forced to choose wheels before you know what surface you'll be skating on, I'd aim on the soft side, about an 88a. But seriously, find out everything you can about the surface you'll be skating on.
Plug those criteria into the Wheel-a-ma-jig, and you end up with some pretty good options. Out of that list, I can particularly recommend the Atom Omega, Radar Tile Biter, and Reckless Ikon, each of which I've either skated on myself or comes positively recommended by my teammates.
I'm proud to announce that the Wheel-a-ma-jig will now link to Derby 4 All for wheel purchasing information. Replacing the Amazon.com search links with links to a skater-owned, derby-focused skate shop is an important change for me, and I think it's a change for the better.
Now, I have nothing against Amazon; In fact, I'm a pretty effusive fan of how their Amazon Prime service has allowed me to avoid big-box retail stores almost entirely. Amazon has a large selection, great customer service, and free shipping in many cases. What they do, they do very well.
But let's talk about what Amazon doesn't do. Amazon doesn't work with individual skaters to make sure they find boots that fit them perfectly. They don't travel to set up mobile skate shops at tournaments so that skaters around the country can get personal sizing advice. They don't offer clinics and training to new skaters. They don't coach junior derby. They don't (to my knowledge) sponsor any roller derby leagues. They don't focus on growing and nurturing the sport of modern roller derby.
Derby 4 All does all of that and much more. I'm lucky enough to live right down the road from their retail location, so I've seen firsthand how the Derby 4 All Team works to help skaters improve and help the sport grow. Their web store has an excellent selection of wheels, reasonable prices, and knowledgeable and responsive customer service.
I should mention that this move is something of a risk for me. One of the nice features of Amazon's referral program is I could earn a commission on anything a customer purchased after visiting Amazon through a Wheel-a-ma-jig link. With Derby 4 All I won't be earning anything from the sales of books, computer equipment, or toilet paper, because Derby 4 All is focused on derby gear. However, I'm confident that Wheel-a-ma-jig users will agree with me that they'd rather support a business that supports roller derby, even if it means paying a few bucks in shipping costs. Aside from all of the ethical or economic reasons to support independent small businesses, it's simply in our own interests to buy from skater-owned, derby-focused shops: we need shops like Derby 4 All to exist, and they wouldn't exist without our business.
If you were one of the folks who ordered on Amazon through the Wheel-a-ma-jig, I thank you; I've made enough from Amazon commissions to cover the hosting costs for firewally.net. Also, thanks to all of you who've shared the Wheel-a-ma-jig on Twitter, Facebook, and your league's site. If you've used the Wheel-a-ma-jig to find the perfect set of wheels, I hope you'll consider making your purchase through Derby 4 All and supporting this site and an excellent derby shop.
I did a guest post recently on Derbylife introducing the Wheel-a-ma-jig and telling you all you need to know to pick out roller derby wheels. Check out my Wheel Shopping Guide and enlighten yourself.
The Wheel-a-ma-jig has now reached an important milestone - three digits. The hardness controls now allow you to select wheels with durometer ratings up to 101A. That's hard.
Too hard for you? Well, the Wheel-a-ma-jig will also now let you select wheels as soft as 80A, but I can't guarantee it won't think you're a little bit of a wussie.
In both cases, you're likely to see a model of the Rollerbones Turbo, which come in an impressive array of hardnesses. This range probably covers every wheel intended for roller derby, but if you know of a great derby wheel that is either harder or softer than the Wheel-a-ma-jig can handle, do let me know
In addition to hardness, width, and height, the Wheel-a-ma-jig now allows you to filter roller derby wheels by hub materials. So which hub makes for a better wheel?
Well, it depends.
Roller skate wheels are made of a urethane "tire" attached to a "hub" made of either nylon or aluminum. To explain the tradeoffs between different hub styles, start by ignoring the constraints of the real world and imagine a "perfect" hub. This perfect hub would be incredibly light, using less of the skater's energy every time she steps, jukes, or jumps. A perfect hub would also be incredibly rigid and inflexible, allowing more energy from each "push" to act against the floor and propel the skater forward. And while we're at it, our perfect hub would be incredibly cheap and never detach from the tire (hey, a guy can dream).
Unfortunately, here in the real world, wheel manufacturers have to make tradeoffs. Nylon and aluminum hubs are both worse than a perfect hub, but in different ways.
Nylon Hubs are very light and less expensive, but will have some additional "flex" to them, meaning the skater loses a little bit of energy on each push
Aluminum Hubs are very rigid, but they are more expensive and a little heavier. They'll make each step, jump, or hop a little more difficult.
I skated on nylon hubs for the first two years or so of my skating career, but lately I've been loving the additional speed I get from my Radar Zodiacs. If you've only tried one style of hub, I recommend finding a teammate who will swap with you for a practice so you can see how the reduced weight/flex feels.
Weird that I haven't added these yet, since I own a set, but the Radar Tile Biters are now on the Wheelamajig. They've got nylon hubs, are either 31 or 37mm wide, and come in a couple different hardnesses. Actually, these were the first non-crappy wheels I skated on.
I know that there are still wheels out there that I'm missing, but if you want me to add your favorites next, tell me about it on twitter.
So this post is mostly to test out that my blog software is working, but I figure some actual content might be nice as well.
The Wheel-a-ma-jig is a better way to search for Roller Derby Wheels. I'd been growing annoyed with the existing derby/skate equipment sites, which always had an incomplete set of derby wheels, often included artistic and jam wheels that cluttered search results, and didn't allow searching by hardness, width, or height. I thought that there must be a better way to find the right set of wheels.
So I made a thing. It's the Wheel-a-ma-jig. I think you might like it.