Not everyone agrees, but I think that downhill skating is the most fun and exciting part of the in-line skating experience! It's fast and thrilling, and opens up a whole new range of potential skating areas. If you are a skier, you can practice your turns in the off season.
Skating downhill is also potentially dangerous. It doesn't take much of a hill to Get Rolling at a speed well beyond your comfort level. Skaters have been clocked at greater than 70 mph on highway grades--on purpose! So it's imperative to learn how to control your speed from the beginning.
First, a few words on gear. Do not try any serious downhill skating without your protective gear: wrist guards, knee and elbow pads, and, most important, your helmet.
Cool or not, a helmet could save your life in a bad crash. Just as you'll probably never need your seat belt, you'll probably never need your helmet. However, considering the potential consequences, it's cheap insurance. There are some cool looking helmets out there, too. Besides, you'll find you're much more willing to try new, fun things when you're geared up.
You probably already have your skates. However, if you have a choice, pick a skate with a fairly high, stiff cuff that provides plenty of lateral (side-to-side) support. A buckle on the cuff makes controlling the support easier.
While speedsters may want to try 5-wheel skates, it's easier to learn on 3 or 4 wheels. Rockering is a matter of personal preference. A rockered skate is much easier to turn, but it's also harder to control at speed. A rockered skate puts less "rubber" on the road making it more likely to break away in a hard turn. It will also tend to flutter during fast runs. This can be quite disconcerting! For serious downhill skating, I like my wheels unrockered.
Finally, before you head downhill, you should be comfortable using your heel brake (don't leave home without it!) and doing swerve or parallel turns on flat ground. The spin stop is a good tool to have in our Tool Time tool belt, too.
At last we are ready to point them down the hill. The ideal learning hill has wide, smooth, clean pavement with an easy pitch, and little or no traffic. If possible, it has a nice, flat run out at the bottom.
Start by going a short way up the hill, turn and face downhill and let `em roll. Now check your body position: knees well bent, hands in front, feet slightly apart and weight spread evenly across them. Roll until you stop, or use your heel brake, if necessary. Go a short way back up the hill and do it again.
Work on your position. Don't stand too tall and don't stick your butt out! A strong, athletic, "ready" position is the basis of all the downhill skills. Keep it up, moving up the hill a little if you're comfortable, until you have the position down.
Now you're ready to turn! The turn is the basic means of controlling your speed on hills. It's fun, too! Pick a nice, wide spot. Before you start, choose a direction to turn. Most people are more comfortable turning to the left. Lefties may want to start towards the right.
Start rolling downhill just like before, in your best ready position. To turn to the left, twist your right skate slightly so the toe points in the direction you want to turn. Try to put a little extra weight on the turning (right) skate. Keep your knees bent. You're turning! Keep turning, up the hill if necessary, until you stop.
Try another turn, but in the other direction, again finishing by turning up the hill. Keep practicing single turns--to one side, then the other. Remember, 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. If you find yourself bending forward, realign yourself into the ready position.
Slinky Linked Turns
Our last exercise is to link turns--to go from one turn to the next without stopping. Start by turning in your favorite direction. Instead of turning until you stop, straighten out your skates while you are still going downhill. Now shift your weight to the "uphill" skate and twist it to point the toe and start turning in the other direction. When you're moving across the hill again, straighten out and turn back. You're linking turns!
One last thought. Practice on a hill where you don't have to worry about your speed. Next time, we'll talk about how to control speed with your turns.