Roller Skiing Equipment
A Guide on How to Select Roller Ski Equipment
A debate has been going on for years now about exactly what sort of roller skis we should be using, barrel wheels, narrow wheels, racing rollers, and what we should be doing on them (skating, classic or both). Probably, if there was one, simple, right answer, we would have found it by now and everyone, except the perverse, would be skiing on more or less the same equipment. The fact that everyone uses completely different equipment probably shows that there is no one correct answer, but in this article some thoughts are offered which, if you're looking to buy roller equipment or update existing equipment, might help you come to a decision. Anyone with a different view is welcome to contact SSE so that these pages may contain a better balance of current thinking.
Narrow or wide wheeled rollers?
It is conventionally believed that roller skis with wide wheels will be more stable than those with narrower wheels. This may be true in general terms, but two other factors are also important: the shape of the wheels and the position of the wheel axle relative to the bar (body) of the roller. Wheels with flat tops will be more stable than those with rounded tops, irrespective of the overall width of the wheel. So a flat topped wheel of about 3 cms wide will, of course, be more stable than a racing roller with very narrow, rounded-top wheels but might also be more stable than a 5 cm wide barrow wheel roller, if the wheels of the latter really are barrel shaped. Also, rollers where the axles are above the level of the bar will normally be more stable than those where the axles are in line with the bar (this is the so-called castor effect, and proof can be found elsewhere). This may well offset the differences caused by wheel width and shape.
In this debate, it is often assumed that it is better, especially for beginners, to start on more stable rollers, the idea being that, in particular, this prevents novices from skiing with their feet too far apart or turned inwards, trying to compensate for the lack of stability. However, a number of other factors are relevant in this debate: existing balance skills, self-awareness, presence of a coach, type of boots and ultimate skiing aims. Using more stable rollers will not automatically lead to good foot position and, for example, using more stable boots and bindings on less stable rollers may lead to greater overall stability than less stable boots or shoes on more stable rollers.
Moreover, if the skier is sufficiently self-aware to know what position should be adopted, is willing to work on developing good balance and foot/body position, or is likely to spend a lot of time being overseen by a coach who can correct any errors that creep in, there may be no more problems starting on less stable rollers than if one skis without these attributes on more stable skis. Three wheeled roller skis are not considered in this article but, even if these are usually considered to be inherently stable, some SSE Coaches can attest to the fact that it is easy to develop bad foot positioning and poor balance even on these. Finally, if the skier wants/hopes to move quickly on to faster roller skis, starting by purchasing slower, more stable skis may, in the long run, be money wasted.
Fast, medium or slow rollers?
For the purposes of this article, fast rollers will be considered to be racing rollers, medium rollers to be those roughly equivalent to skiing on snow and slow rollers to be those which are slower than skiing on snow. With this in mind, two conclusions could already be drawn in respect of racing rollers: they should be used only by people who have already developed good balance, body position and technical ability, and they should be used only for racing, not for training. The reasons for not using racing rollers for training are, usually, that they do not provide a sufficiently demanding physical workout and they are insufficiently representative of skiing on snow, requiring a somewhat modified technique. Both of these are true, in general, but if one wants to be a dedicated roller ski racer, with no interest in snow skiing, these considerations may not actually apply.
The situation is not, though, so clear cut between slow and medium rollers. It is conventionally considered that slow rollers are 'better' because they provide a more demanding physical workout and tend to be more representative of skiing on snow. These are not, however, always true. If the rollers are very slow (as, for example, my new Elpex classic rollers are), they simply do not glide long enough or far enough to be equivalent to on-snow skiing (except, possibly, in very slow snow conditions). So it is easy and tempting to develop a rather rapid, short skiing style simply to keep the rollers moving, rather than a slower, longer style, maximising glide and balance on each leg, which we should be developing.
It does not follow, either, that if a skier can ski at the same speed on rollers as they can on snow, the rollers are equivalent to snow skis. One is really looking at equivalence in terms of physical effort and glide/stroke timing rather than ground speed, and this equivalence could be achieved with a pair of roller skis which are somewhat quicker (perhaps 5 - 7 kms/h) than snow skiing. Taking a ski speed of 15 kms/h, if one was to aim for the same speed on rollers, one would either be using too little effort on faster rollers or too much effort on slower ones than one would be using on snow.
A strong case can be made for any skier to use both slow and medium rollers, the former to provide the necessary workout, the latter to develop technique, balance and body positioning similar to on-snow skiing. As with more or less stable skis, though, very slow rollers should be used only by those who already have sufficiently well developed technique and balance to prevent them developing a technique which works only on the roller skis and does not then transfer to snow skiing.
Soft or hard wheels?
It is usually considered that harder wheels are quicker than softer ones and this is probably true. However, it is possible to find quite fast roller skis with softer (i.e. rubber) wheels, if the wheel bearings are good. The debate here is probably more about wheel wear than hardness. It is a bad idea to use softer wheels for skating, where they will wear quickly and be costly to repair, whereas softer wheels for classic roller skiing may give a 'feeling' closer to that of snow. Beyond these considerations, though, other factors such as stability and speed are probably more important than the type of wheel.
Skating, classic or both?
People often say that we should be spending 60 - 70% of our time skiing classic and only 30 - 40% skating, because the former gives a more demanding, thorough workout, especially for the upper body. This, however, results from the unstated assumption "Because, as a racing skier, you will be skiing both classic and skating, then ..."; if the starting position is "Because you do not want to do anything other than skating, then ...", the conclusion might be somewhat different. Personally, I think that there are advantages in doing both, because it makes one into a 'complete' skier and because there are cross-over benefits from one style to the other. But in the same way as there is no obligation on a track runner to run on the roads or do cross-country, or a cycle time triallist to do road racing or mountain biking, there is no de rigueur requirement for any skier to do both styles.
It is probably true that it is easier to reach a reasonable level of competence in skating than it is to reach the equivalent level in classic skiing and, if the intention is to give a beginner a feeling of achievement and the ability to ski with others, this is an important consideration. If one wants to do only skate skiing, then training by skating, together with other dry-land training, will give all the strength and fitness requirements.
So what rollers should I be using?
From the above analysis, it is difficult not to conclude that, if one is to be a complete, rounded cross-country skier covering all eventualities, one needs six pairs of roller skis, one each for classic and skating of slow, medium and fast speeds, total investment around £1000. This conclusion tends not to go down too well with the wife but, as an aside, why do we never hear of husbands/male partners complaining when their wives spend this much on their ski equipment (Don't answer this. Ed)?
It is certainly true that if one is not intending to do out-and-out roller ski racing, there is no need to have racing (fast) roller skis and, even if one does, the number of classic roller ski races probably mean that there is no need to have fast classic racing skis, so this has already saved you £330. In fact, in Britain, it is perfectly feasible to race on medium roller skis, especially those with harder, urethane wheels.
It could be said that there is a need to have both medium and slow roller skis. At the medium level, one could be inclined to opt for two separate pairs, classic rollers with rubber wheels and skate skis with urethane wheels. Some prefer the 'feel' of rubber wheels for classic skiing and this combination avoids the problem of wheel wear (rubber wheels do not wear very quickly if used uniquely for classic skiing), although you may be reasonably happy with the Start Combi rollers, with urethane wheels, used both for skating and classic, if one really only wants one pair of roller skis. However, I think that these can be a bit too fast to really be considered 'medium'. One further possibility, which can save some money, is to have a single pair of roller skis but more than one pair of wheels, changing one pair from skating to (ratcheted) classic when changing styles. This can avoid wear problems, but can lead to compromises on the bindings. Rottefella bindings have interchangeable inserts and classic skis require softer inserts than skating ones. But it is fiddly to keep changing them. Older Salomon bindings have a similar insert facility to the Rottefella, but current Salomon skate bindings (2006) use a two bar system with the tension supplied by a sprung back bar holder. There is no rubber insert used in these bindings. In any case, the wheels are usually by far the largest cost in any pair of rollers.
Few would find a single pair of rollers which are both sufficiently slow and can be used for classic and skating without the problem of rapid wheel wear associated with skating (so I still need to buy a pair of slow skating skis), although some people maintain that Marwe Combis are good and don't wear quickly. Marwe 610s offer different 'grades' of wheel, which allow for a single pair to be both slow and medium if wheels are changed, although these are for skating only. But perhaps you have a solution to this problem, in which case let us know.
On balance, and for the average skier, if the options were limited to only one or two pairs of roller skis, one could go for medium skis rather than slow skis. Opinions may differ on this, but it may be better to train on rollers which are similar, in terms of technique, timing and balance, to skiing on snow than it is to use slow skis but, while getting a good workout, risk developing a sort of technique which does not then work on snow. There are, after all, many other ways of getting a good, ski-specific workout. One final consideration, in all this, is that if you land up with four (or six) different pairs of roller skis, when are you going to find the time to get out and practice on them all?
So, in the end, a number of options exists. If budget and training time are limited, you could go for one or preferably two pairs of medium speed roller skis, with wide rubber wheels for classic and thinner but flat-topped urethane wheels for skating or, even, a single pair of Combi skis with urethane wheels. If the budget and training time are not so limited, then you could add one or two pairs of slow roller skis. If you have unlimited budget and unlimited training time, or if you are willing to build up your stock of equipment over a period of time, then why not go all the way and buy the five or six pairs needed to cover everything. This latter option may need some concealment from the missus otherwise she might go into a huff and ultimately leave or, alternatively, why not not conceal it at all and solve two problems in one go?
Text - Adam Pinney. Photos - Elpex, Swenor, Mary Wray & Ros Grant-Brown.
Updated - November 2013 SJ