Blade Runners : Dressed Up With Neon Accents, a New Style of Skate Speeds Along the Cutting Edge of Fashionable Fitness

Feineman is the editor of Beach Culture magazine

These days, roller-skating not only has a new look but a new name. "We don't roller-skate anymore," says one denizen of the Venice bike path, where skaters and cyclists vie for space. "We roller-blade ."

He is referring, of course, to Rollerblade, the in-line skate that has revolutionized California skating. Unlike conventional skates, it aligns its wheels along a single blade, similar to an ice skate, for a faster, smoother ride. In the past few years, it has made outdoor skating, which was as dead as disco, respectable again.

The new skate was introduced in Minneapolis in 1980 and was marketed as an off-season training tool for National Hockey League players and cross-country skiers. But California's year-round skating season presented the company with a golden opportunity. Since 1986, when Rollerblade began aggressively courting the general fitness market, the new style of skate has gone from a novelty item to one responsible for about $30 million retail sales in 1989. Roughly 20% of these sales were made in California.

Rollerblade, which has captured about three-quarters of the market, understood the importance of California. As the company became more tuned-in to the California scene, says Mary Horwath, public relations director for Rollerblade, it took its cue from the surf-wear industry and upgraded the skate's look.

In the beginning, the skates had all the charm of clunky, unadorned ski boots. Over the past several seasons, however, Rollerblade has dressed the skate up with neon accents and accessories.

For instance, the five-wheel racing model, which will be available May 1 for a record list price of $330, features a medium-cut gray boot with grape and apple-green accents. The Macroblade skate, which lists for about $250 at outlets like Sports Chalet and skate shops such as Rip City in Santa Monica, is aimed at advance skaters; its black boot is set off with fluorescent yellow strap buckles. The most popular model, the Lightning, comes in a white or black boot and can be individualized with a wide choice of laces, wheels and foot liners.

Some attendant safety gear is shaping up style-wise, too. Plastic orbs on elbow and knee pads are now available in grape or fluorescent yellow, not just white. Safety gloves, with their padded leather palms, feature bold grape/mint or turquoise/yellow striped fronts. And, in response to the growth of open-road and ramp skating, Rollerblade has introduced a handsome, hand-laminated fiberglass helmet, with a boldly emblazoned logo across the top.

When it comes to apparel, however, skate wear remains surprisingly traditional. Because the sport attracts an eclectic mix of athletes and because it places no fundamentally unique demands on the clothes, there is no real need for skating outfits.

"The sport does a great job developing the lower body," says Chris Morris, a sales representative for Rollerblade. "Once you've got the musculature, you are going to wear whatever shows that off best."

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