Cushions (sometimes called bushings) are often the most under attended part of a pair of skates, yet they can make a huge difference to performance. Most plates come with rubbish, hard cushions that are designed to enable stability (and are great for learning to skate) but limit the ability to turn. This means that once you want to move around the track, stock cushions can be your worst enemy. It took me a year to even look at my plates, let alone change my cushions. When I did it was magic. I guess that’s why Riedell call them Magic Cushions.
So what are they?
Your cushions are the primary working parts of your truck. Cushions are made of rubber or urethane and sometimes come with a durometer to tell you how hard or soft they are (yes, like wheels). Your cushions are what “cushion” your trucks while you turn, providing recoil and reaction.
Here is how they work…
You steer your skate by leaning your weight to the inside or outside of your foot. As you lean, your cushions flex and allow the axles and wheels of your skate to tilt. At the same time the truck will try to rotate about the kingpin bolt. The pivot pin only allows it to rotate so far. The front truck and rear truck will rotate in opposite directions around their respective kingpins. This whole process is what allows you to turn. As we all know, turning is a very important part of Roller Derby.
A lot of people believe that the looser your trucks are the easier it is to turn, which to a certain degree is true. However, it is super important that you have the right hardness of cushions for your skating style rather than relying solely on loosening your kingpin nut (which is what loosens your truck). If your trucks are too loose you can get the “floppy” truck effect, which causes your truck to rattle around and puts pressure and force on the king pin, pivot pin and pivot cup. This pressure will increase wear and tear on all parts, especially your pivot cup, and potentially break your king pin and/or cause the pivot to punch through your plate. If you wear through pivot cups really fast or tend to bend or snap kingpins you should seriously think about changing cushions to something that allows more flex.
In addition to killing other parts of your plate, floppy trucks can give a false sense of ease in lateral movement (good/easy turning). The reality is that the floppier your trucks are the easier they will turn to one side. What they will not do is recoil and spring you back in the other direction. So you are making it easy to turn one way but not back the other way.
This is where the importance of having decent cushions comes in. When we play Roller Derby we need to be able to move back and forth laterally across the track so we need fast reaction and recoil in our cushions. If you like the feel of loose trucks then a softer, squishy urethane cushion is ideal, with it tightened down enough so the trucks are not floppy. When you make the movements to turn left, it will squish the cushion, then when you are ready to turn right the cushion will spring back helping you turn right. BOOM. Your skates are suddenly working with you. When I first changed my cushions it felt like a barrier had been removed between my foot and my trucks and I was able to get a response I never thought possible.
Getting the right cushions for you
Put basically, the benefits and drawbacks of soft versus hard cushions are that with harder cushions you gain stability and arguably speed, but you sacrifice manoeuvrability and response. With a soft cushion you’re more agile, can juke and make tighter turns, but you may sacrifice speed. If you go too soft, you may feel unstable on your skates, especially when landing jumps or going fast. Softer cushions help skaters achieve a more severe angle on their skates and allow them to change direction quicker and easier. Harder cushions require more force to change your skating angle but they hold a turn better and provide a bit more “snap” coming out of a turn when they straighten out.
Some people combine different coloured cushions to get a feel that is somewhere in between what I have just mentioned. I tried this myself and didn’t think it made much difference.
As with all skate equipment, there is no “right” cushion to use. It is all about personal preference, every skater is different. It is important to try things out until you feel like your skates are really working for you. Here are some guidelines to help you work out which cushions you might like.
If you skate with loose trucks then you will probably like softer cushions as they give a similar feel (more responsive lateral turns, etc). If you like your trucks a bit tighter then you will be best suited to medium or hard cushions.
Typically, a heavier skater would be best suited on medium to hard bushings. This is because of the compression caused by natural gravity, so a heavyweight skater might create more compression simply by having her full weight bearing down on her bushings. A lighter skater would have less.
Another factor that can affect your cushions is what type of plate you skate on. With a plate (which flexes as you skate), more pressure is distributed throughout the bending plate and so less weight is transferred to the bushing.
Important things to remember/look out for
Cushions are typically made of urethane or rubber. Whether you prefer your trucks loose, tight or in the middle, the important thing is that there is the correct amount of compression on your cushions (e.g. your kingpin nut is not too tight or too loose). Too much compression (nut too tight) on soft bushings can cause them to “pancake” out or flatten and make for a stiffer feel than they are designed for. Too little compression (nut too loose) can give the floppy effect that I have described above. It is simple to avoid either of these two things, just make sure you have the right cushions.
In addition to the hardness of cushions, the shape of them can vary – which has an effect on the feel. Most cushions are a standard “barrel” shape. If you have a PowerDyne Thrust, Triton or Aluminium plate, your cushions will be double barrel (both the top and bottom cushion will be barrel shaped). Certain specialty plates such as PowerDyne Revenge or Reactor have unique cushions shapes. Conical cushions (shaped like a cone) are the most popular after barrel shaped cushions. Plates that use conical cushions will (usually) use a barrel cushion at the base of the kingpin and a conical cushion at the end closest to the tension nut. (If you do decide to experiment with the positioning on the conical cushion just be sure the cushion cups always stay with the cushions they’re designed to hold!).
The primary benefit of conical cushions is a greater range of motion when skating. Because the edge slims down, it allows you to lean more before the cushions start pushing back.
If you like the sound of conical cushions but have a plate fitted with barrel cushions then you can get a Hop Up Kit that will upgrade your plate so it can fit conical cushions. The Hop Up Kit includes 4 barrel cushions, 4 conical cushions, and the correct cushion cups to upgrade your standard cushions to a conical set up. PLEASE NOTE: If you have a plate that already fits conical cushions then a hot up kit probably won’t fit for various reasons. You have to buy the specialist parts for your specialist plate.
Replacing your cushions
Lastly, cushions are wear items and are meant to be replaced on a regular basis. The amount of time it takes to wear out your cushions depends on how often you skate but anywhere between 6 months and 12 months is pretty average. You determine wear on your bushings by looking at them. If they are flat like a pancake, cracked, have chunks missing, or are crumbling, GET NEW ONES. Or if you just feel your skates are not performing the way you want them to, experiment and try some new harder or softer cushions.
It is also a good idea to occasionally check your cushion cup that touches the king pin nut for denting or bending inward. This denting can be caused by pressure of the nut being tightened against it. If the cushion isn’t sitting properly in the cup, for example if the cup is cutting into the cushion, it can cause the bushing to split or just compromise the performance.
I hope you have a better understanding of what cushions are and why they are important. If you have any questions about this article or others, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch this space for more articles about what you should know about your skates.