Skate-bored? In-Line Skate Festival will get you rolling



Once you get started with in-line skating, it's hard to stop -- literally and figuratively!

Take it from a middle-age newspaper scribe who recently took up America's fastest growing sport after watching his kid on skates. I discovered a relatively inexpensive, year-round form of fun, convenient exercise to supplement seasonal cycling and skiing.

But those first few weeks, quaintly referred to as "the learning curve" by skate instructors . . . ouch!

Believe them when they say you should wear that protective gear, including a hard-shell helmet and wrist, elbow and knee pads. Yet once in control of the initial skills -- especially the technique of braking -- it's easy to understand the boom in this form of roller-skating.

The inaugural Maryland In-Line Skate Festival, taking place all day Saturday at Gateway Industrial Park in Columbia, is aimed at introducing people to the sport and offering skaters of all ability levels a chance to roll around together.

Often generically called "Rollerblades" (after the trademark name leading skate manufacturer Rollerblade), in-line skates feature three, four or five wheels affixed in tandem to an ankle-supporting boot, often a hard-shell-and-buckle model much like a ski boot.

They permit maneuverability and speed far greater than conventional "four-wheel" roller skates for, much like an ice skater, the in-line enthusiast glides on a knife-edge plane.

The technology has spawned active competitive pursuits, including a variety of racing forms, figure skating, stunt (or "street shredding") skating and hockey. But it is growing fastest among general fitness participants of all ages.

This weekend's festival "really is for everybody who has the slightest interest in the sport," says director Pat Bernstein.

A "premium passport" admission of $15 gives participants the chance to try skating, with skate rentals (for two hours) and a 40-minute lesson (for the first 400 registrants). A $5 general admission gives skaters with their own gear (or skates rented elsewhere) a chance to try a self-timed one-mile course or take a 10- or 15-mile skating tour of Columbia. Non-skaters are also welcome for the $5 general admission.

Through the day, workshops offer advice on the benefits of skating, nutrition for endurance, how and what to buy, skate maintenance and repair, a racing introduction and a roller hockey introduction.

An exhibition area offers skilled skaters a chance to show off the capabilities of the sport.

Ms. Bernstein says she began planning the festival as an offshoot of the successful Cycle Across Maryland annual bike tour, which she co-founded in 1989 and of which she is executive director.

"A couple of years ago, we were approached by someone who wanted to skate the route of CAM Tour, and we frankly hadn't thought about it. But we were open to the idea," says Ms. Bernstein.

That first CAM skater was Wendy Gramm, wife of presidential candidate Sen. Phil Gramm. She completed the 1994 CAM on skates with a friend, Jerry Gay, and made the news again this past summer after dropping out of the difficult 1995 CAM because of heat exhaustion suffered in the hills of Western Maryland.

Ms. Bernstein, who is not a skater -- "not yet," she says -- began exploring with area enthusiasts and retailers the idea of skating as a logical outgrowth of CAM, a nonprofit organization that uses proceeds to purchase cycling helmets for children and also helped equip the Baltimore City Police Department's bicycle patrol.

"There is so much enthusiasm for this activity, it's very exciting to be a part of it," she says, noting that CAM envisions this as at least an annual event that may be expanded in scope. Principal festival sponsors are All Sport, a sports drink subsidiary of Pepsi-Cola, and Fila, the sports footwear manufacturer.

So who should think about getting into skating?

"Everybody. It's something that teen-agers are doing, that families are doing. There aren't a lot of things where you can go out and spend time with the kids, and everybody can do it and have fun," says Alan Davis, executive vice president of Princeton Sports and Travel, one of two retailers involved in the festival, with shops in Columbia and Baltimore.

"Who would I not urge [to skate]?" says Hal Ashman, president of Ultimate Sports, a Timonium retail outlet that was among the first skate dealers in the Baltimore area, and which offers weekend instruction in skating. He is directing the instruction at the festival.

"I have yet to meet someone who did not have fun and did not have an early learning curve. . . . You're going to get the freedom you don't get from other sports," he says.

Early registrants to the In-Line Skate Festival range from teens to several people in their late 60s, says Ms. Bernstein. And, Mr. Ashman says, "We're seeing a huge number of people in the 45-year-old to 75-year-old range getting involved."

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