We were standing in the shadow of MC Hammer's hillside mansion in Fremont. The view stretched from San Jose to Marin. Hearts hammering in our throats, we looked down the longest, steepest slope we had ever considered skating. It was a bit intimidating, but the pavement was smooth and there were no traffic lights and few cars.
A last deep breath and then, here we go! Turn, turn, turn -- hey, this is fun! Before long, we were starting from Hammer's gate ("It's Hammer Time", says the logo) and linking turns non-stop to the bottom, a third of a mile away. What a great ski season warm-up.
Before You Push the Envelope
In my last column, I taught you to do linked downhill turns. I hope you've been out there practicing on some moderate terrain. As with any new skill, it's best to practice in a comfortable, familiar environment. Eliminating the fear factor allows you to focus all of your concentration on learning.
But sooner or later, we all want to push the envelope. One way to do this is to take on steeper slopes. However, when the slope gets steep, it's imperative to control your speed.
First a reminder about equipment: helmet, pads and heel brake -- use them! Now, we return to our regularly scheduled column already in progress.
Skate Across the Fall Line
So, how do we control speed? By turning, of course! The simple act of making linked turns will slow you down by lengthening the path you follow -- effectively making the hill less steep. On a wide path or roadway, it is quite easy to double the distance that you travel by making long, linked turns. The more you can skate across a hill, rather than down it, the less speed you will pickup. That's not to say you can't go fast while making turns. When the slope is steep or the path too narrow to make wide turns, you'll reach take-off velocity quickly.
What's a skater to do? Make short, tight turns, is what. Short, tight turns are the most effective speed killers short of applying your heel brake (or your skin) to the pavement. They are effective because they not only lengthen the path, but also add a friction factor. In tight turns, the wheels tend to scrub or slide against the pavement. Therefore, each short, tight turn slows you down. The more turns you make the slower you will go.
Warm Up Review
Developing a good short turn takes practice. Let's go back to our practice hill, the one that is wide, not very steep and has a nice run-out at the bottom. Here we will build on the turn we learned last time. Remember, we initiated the turn by twisting the turning (outside) skate slightly in the direction of the turn and by moving our weight onto the turning skate. Turn on the outside skate (left skate for right turns, right skate for left turns), keep your knees bent, and your hands in front of you.
The movement we will add is deceptively simple. We are going to push the knee of the turning leg forward and toward the center of the turn. To be effective, the knee needs to be well bent. This simple action, when added to the twisting motion will reduce the radius of the turn, making the turn shorter and tighter.
Give it a try. Start rolling downhill. When you have a little speed, initiate a turn by pushing one knee forward and in. Your weight should be mostly over the turning skate. Make turns in both directions. Keep practicing--go back up the hill and do it again and again. One warning: don't twist your upper body to make the skates turn. This is a common mistake that reduces the effectiveness of your turns, and it is very hard to unlearn. Keep reaching down the hill with your hands while your skates turn back and forth across the hill.
Practice at Your Own Level
Practice your turns whenever you can: wherever you come across short downhill slopes, when you're slowing down for crosswalks, when you have a strong tail wind. Try to link as many turns as possible in a short space. Remember, short, tight turns are essential to controlling your speed on the steeps. Before you know it, you'll be hammering your own hill.