Modern rollerskate wheels come in different durometers, widths and diameters, and with different hubs and lips to boot. All of these things affect the way in which our wheels perform. It is important to understand what each of these things mean and how they affect our skating so that we can choose the correct (and dare I say perfect) wheel for each situation.
Durometer: What the heck does it mean?
Durometer, or duro, is the number rating that indicates the hardness and rebound of the urethane that makes up your skate wheels. Put more simply, it is the number that tells you how hard or soft your wheels are. The higher the number, the harder your wheels will be. The harder your wheels are, the more slide you’ll get from them. The lower the number, the softer the wheels will be. And if your wheels are on the soft side, they’re going to have more grip (usually, though there are other factors that can affect this). If it hasn’t already faded off, your durometer rating can usually be found written on the side of your wheel.
Side note: an actual “durometer” is a tool that measures the hardness of materials such as plastic, urethane and rubber.
Most indoor wheels range between 86a-96a duro depending on the make of the wheel. Outdoor wheels can have a durometer as low as 70a. This is because outdoor wheels need to deal with and absorb a heck of a lot more than indoor wheels. Outdoor surfaces tend to be less smooth, with more unexpected crud that your wheels need to be able to roll over, such as stones or sticks or whatever. Soft wheels can absorb and deal with this much better than hard wheels, making your skating experience smoother and saving your hard indoor wheels from getting chunks ripped out of them. Don’t believe me? Go out and try skating on a rough concrete surface in hard indoor wheels and see what happens.
When you are buying wheels you will sometimes see a recommendation for what duro works well on which surface This is because your wheels will work differently on different floors. Getting the right wheels for the floor you skate on is imperative to being able to train your hardest and perform your best. When buying wheels it can help to ask your team mates what duro they use.
Mixing it up…
When I first started skating, “pusher” wheels (4 soft wheels that you mixed with 4 harder wheels) were a new and exciting concept. These days most skate wheels come in 4 packs, which means you can mix up your duros till the cows come home. You do this in order to take advantage of the grip you get from having softer, lower durometer wheels, without sacrificing the speed or slide you get from a harder (higher duro) wheel. There are many opinions on how to place your wheels if you are mixing them up. I always put my softer wheels on the track inside (left hand side) of both my skates because your inside wheels are where you push from most when cornering and crossing over (hense the term “pusher” wheels). Other people may tell you different ways to place your wheels if you are mixing up your duros. It is important to try out different ways and find out what is right for you.
Durometer is one factor that determines how grippy your wheels are (I would argue the most important). However, factors like hub are important too.
The hub of your wheel is the hard part in the middle where the bearing sits.
Skate wheel hubs most commonly come in two different materials: aluminium and nylon. Some people swear by aluminium and some swear by nylon. It is, yet again, highly up to personal preference.
Because nylon is relatively soft, nylon hubs (like nylon plates) flex more than aluminium when you skate. Because the hub is attached to the urethane of your wheel, this flex moves through the whole wheel and will make the wheel feel slightly softer than the same wheel might with a hard aluminium hub. As I said in the durometer section, a softer wheel gives you more grip. Thus, in essence, the flex and softness of a nylon hub translates to more traction when you skate. However, just like with nylon plates, the flex or give in nylon hubs can “rob” you of speed.
Aluminum hubs will not flex like nylon. This means that aluminium hub wheels will give longer roll because they stay perfectly round when you push, rather than wasting energy flexing like a nylon hub. You will get slightly less traction than with a nylon hub, because the flex of the urethane is stopped at the hard hub rather than continuing into it as with nylon. This makes the wheel feel slightly harder (therefore giving you more slide). Though harder wheels often enable more speed, aluminium is far heavier than nylon, which can slow you down.
Because nylon hubs are universally lighter and cheaper, and because traction is more important in derby than long lap speed, nylon hubs are much more common in the derby wheel industry. I personally find aluminium hubs to be too heavy and love the flex of the nylon option. But as I said before, it is up to personal preference and what you are looking for in a wheel.
The width or your wheel (also referred to as ‘contact patch’ if you are speaking Gear Geek) is how much urethane is touching the ground when you skate. Wheels come in different widths and will affect how your wheel performs.
Wider wheels, which often come with standard skate packages (usually 43mm), have a larger contact patch. A larger contact patch means you have more wheel under you to help you skate. This will often make you feel more stable, especially if you are a newer skater. For skaters with a strong stride, wider wheels (Tuners, Devil Ray, Rollerbones) can mean you have more wheel to push off or “dig in with”. If you use wide wheels to their full potential, the extra dig they give you can help with speed or help you really plant yourself for a strong block.
Narrow wheels have a smaller contact patch, which means pretty much the opposite of what I said above. With narrower wheels you can lose stability and “oomph” in your stride because you have less to push off. However, because there is less holding you to the ground, narrow wheels can help skaters with agility. Narrow wheels (such as Tile Biters, Heartless, Diamonds) are lighter than wider wheels, which helps skaters feel hoppy and light on their feet. The slimmer profile can also help reduce drag, to help with quicker stops. They also prevent wheel clipping. Skaters tend to switch to narrower wheels as they get more experienced and stable on their skates. A downside of narrow wheels is that they wear out a lot faster than wide wheels, simply because there is the same amount of pressure on a smaller amount of urethane.
I far prefer narrow wheels and feel like I a big clumsy elephant if I try to skate on anything over 38mm. Some people feel the opposite. Yet again, it is all up to personal preference so if you can, try out some narrow and some wide wheels before you decide what you want.
The diameter of your wheel is how tall it is from the ground up. Most wheels are 62mm, however this does vary. Shorter diameter wheels such asRiedell Quicky Stickies are capable of faster acceleration because it takes less effort to get them going. Taller wheels such as Heartless have slightly slower acceleration because they take more effort to get going, but are much easier to keep going once you are up to speed. When I am jamming, I like taller wheels to help maintain my speed as I skate around the track. If I am playing in the pack a lot, I like shorter wheels to help me accelerate and decelerate quickly as I move around the pack. Again, it is about what you are personally looking for in a wheel.
What I have covered are the most important factors you need to know about when choosing a wheel. There are other factors that can affect how your wheels perform, such as lip or edge and tread, but no one has ever asked me about these so I will leave you here.