Technical downhill is inline skating down steep urban streets with or without the use of modified ski poles, using a parallel-stance slalom turn similar to that of skiing. The differences begin and end with the technique involved in learning to negotiate increasingly steeper terrain. Learning to skate 15 to 20 percent grades takes specific technique in order to achieve proper balance and speed control.
Unlike snow skiing, in which turns have a varying degree of sliding involved, technical downhill requires perfect arcs turn after turn. This means the path the front wheel takes is the exact same path the remaining wheels take--in other words, no skidding! Now this may sound like an easy task, but the steeper the terrain gets the more your technical skills will come into play. I really can't emphasize enough how important overall technique is to technical downhill expertise. It is honing this technique that will allow you to experience the physical exhilaration this sport has to offer.
Slalom technique should be learned in an empty parking lot with a slight decline. You'll soon learn it doesn't take much of a grade to pick up speed quickly and get totally out of your comfort zone. The gravitational pull of even slight grades can cause you to shift your weight too far back for safe recovery.
The ability to link sound turns down the hill is a combination of three factors: dynamic balance, an effective pole plant, and proper edging. The first thing you'll want to practice is getting your weight or center mass situated properly over your skates. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your knees are slightly bent and your shins are pressing against the tongue of your skates. This puts you in a good athletic balanced position.
There are varying types of pole plants indicative to the terrain to be skated. On the not-so-steep grades, you may want to try an open-handed pole plant which allows for quicker plants and turns. This type of pole plant is achieved with a pronated wrist and a shallow plant. The location of this pole plant would be more to the side of your body. On the steeper terrain, a neutral wrist, and a pole plant as deep as you can get without impairing your balance is imperative. This type of pole plant would be more out in front of your body as opposed to the side.
Executing a proper pole plant is key to maintaining proper balance on the steeps. The most important component in good pole planting technique is to constantly practice keeping your hands out in front of you after you've planted and set your skates on their new edge. Your beginning tendencies will be to hold onto your plant in an effort to slow momentum, which will result in your hands getting behind you, and a lost of balance. As you progress onto steeper terrain, you'll discover a hard pole plant can actually slow momentum through the fall line for an easier edge set. Again, the type of pole plant used is indicative to the terrain being skated.
The Edge Set
The concept of setting the wheels on edge to maintain a perfect arc through the fall line has been subject to many interpretations. What little information there is seems to be overly ski-specific. Too much emphasis is placed on snow ski techniques, which are not effective on the steeper terrain. Those include: total body weight on the downhill skate, an upward rising motion with the body during unweighting, misguided information on over-rotation, or hip angulation. However, I've also read articles on learning to edge by steering your skates with your feet, which can be very effective once you've learned how to properly apply pressure to your skates. After many hours of experimentation and thought, I've come to the conclusion that most ski-specific skating techniques work on slight downhill grades. Once you begin to push the envelope and graduate to steeper terrain, though, these techniques fall short of the mark.
So let's begin! You're in an athletic position traversing to the left on a gentle slope with your poles out in front of you ski-style. Now, turn to the right by making your pole plant and immediately scissor your downhill skate (right leg) forward and onto its outside edge. This skate should be about one skate's length in front of the uphill skate (left leg), which is on its inside edge. A quick word about scissor length between the two skates: the more you separate the downhill from the uphill skate, the more you take away from the natural alignment of your skates under your center mass (hips.) This equates to extreme difficulties in effectively applying pressure to your edge set.
Let's define edge set. With your shoulders and hips pointing straight downhill, roll both knees to one side. Notice, this action also simultaneously rolls your ankles to the sides of your boots. The downhill skate is on the outside edge and the uphill skate on the inside edge. This combination creates hip angulation. Keeping your weight forward by bending at the knees will assert pressure to the wheels, which will initiate the beginning of your carving arc.
Unlike snow skiing, where all of your weight is concentrated on one ski, it is vitally important to technical downhill turns that you maintain weight on both skate edges through the fall line.
The Carving Arc
It's very important to have a clear understanding of the primary factors needed to make clean carves on your inline skates.
First, you must become proficient in setting your skates on edge. Secondly, once the skate is on edge you must apply proper foot pressure to that edge. Both of these factors have to be executed to produce clean carves.
Clean carves allow you to burn-off speed smoothly through the fall line, as well as maintain perfect balance with MINIMAL effort. Getting your skates on a proper edge set is key in maintaining perfect speed and dynamic balance as gravity pulls you through the fall line.
Let's now refine the steps for getting your skates on a proper edge. As described in the 'Edge Set' section above for a turn to the right, you'd scissor your downhill skate (right leg) forward from the uphill skate (left leg) about a skate's length. From this position roll both knees to the right, which simultaneously rolls the ankles to the sides of the boot. This series of movements has angled your skates onto an initial edge set. To complete the edging process, begin pressing both ankles towards the pavement: right ankle (little toe side of the right foot) and left ankle (big toe side of the left foot.)
It is the active commitment to pressing the ankles towards the pavement that causes technical downhill novices the most difficulties. The problem stems from the fact that pressing your ankles towards the pavement is a very insecure and unnatural position. Learn to trust the ankle support designed into a high cuff in-line skate. Practice getting into this deep carving position, as it is a key ingredient to controlling speed on the steeps.
Keep in mind, the steeper the terrain, the more gravitational forces will be pulling you down the fall line. It is imperative you learn to commit to a deep carving edge set.
Timed over-rotation is a great technique for learning to skate the steeper terrain effectively. From a traversing athletic position, you initiate the pole plant, which brings the torso and shoulders parallel to the fall line. After the pole plant, set the skates on edge and begin the carve. As the legs begin to cross under the center mass (the hips), allow the shoulders and torso to rotate parallel to the legs, so at this point, the shoulders, hips, knees, and skates would be traveling in the same direction. The timing of this over-rotation is important. Over-rotate too soon, and you'll have too much speed going into the turn, which will cause your skates to start skidding.
The purpose for timed over-rotation is to allow you to burn off a sufficient amount of speed so that your body can be in a position to easily turn slightly back up the hill. Practice this move, so that you can achieve perfect speed for initiating your new edge set for the next turn. Also, in turning back up the hill by skating a little 'J' arc, you'll stop completely. Remember, the name of the game is total speed control. You should at any time be able to turn back up the hill and stop.
Steve MacDonald enjoys skating the steep hills of the San Francisco Bay Area ski-style, while promoting technical downhill as an in-line entity all its own. For more technical tips or to learn about his favorite slopes, call him at (510) 689-0323.