Helmet – A basic well ventilated bicycling helmet works well. I like a mountain bike helmet with an adjustable visor, but most go with a road bike helmet. I heard that all of the fitness skating fatalities had suffered head injuries and were NOT wearing a helmet. As a former Firefighter/Medic I cringe when I see a skater with no helmet.
Elbow and knee pads – Smaller, lighter and well ventilated with a hard outer shell is good.
Gloves – Padded and ventilated cycling gloves are ok, but you might get blisters on your fingers (from polling) and opt for a full fingered light weight cross country or mountain bike glove. I use the basic “Mechanix” brand full finger glove.
Glasses – More than most sports, line picking critical for skaters. Since you can pick a line you can’t see, glasses are maybe the most overlooked piece of safety equipment. Glasses keep vision impairing wind, road grit and bugs out of your eyes. A visually slight variation in the road surface might be significant to your skate. Polarized sun glass cut glare and enhance road surface variations. One of my worst bike wrecks ever was from a little sweat bee in my eye at speed! No fun! Cycling glasses with a good wrap fit work well. You don’t want to be adjusting them often, so if they squirm around, consider a leash or strap to keep them in place. Also, if you wear prescription glasses, use ’em even if they are nerdy.
Clothes – Dress and prepare about the same as you would if you were going to ride your bike. If you are skating on the road, b right clothing helps drivers see you. Clothing with good moisture performance helps you stay cool (or warm).
Kit – A hydration pack is great. Tools for to tighten an axle (usually one or two 5mm Allen wrenches). Pole tips and hydration pack bite valves eject occasionally, so I carry a spare of each. Hopefully you’ll never need them, but a couple of large self adhering, telfa (non stick) bandages and some topical anesthetic wound ointment are a good idea. 2′ of duct tape for pole splinting, repairs or first aid.
Poles– Just as with skates, pole selection is critical. This should help you identify and find the right pole.
Pole Length – Skates raise you up nearly 4″, so a dedicated Cross Blading pole is necessary. Beginners will size up their poles to about the bottom of their chin (with skates on). Advanced Cross Bladers might go up to their lips. My poles come up to my nose, but most experts would say that’s too long. With in this range, longer poles afford you more leverage, but you are also more committed to the lunge, so if your pole tip slips you’re closer to to a fall. Skaters with along reach or stronger upper body might choose a little longer pole and women often choose a bit shorter pole.
Pole Construction – Assuming your goal is fitness, pole construction (carbon fiber, fiberglass or aluminum) is not critical when getting started. An inexpensive aluminum pole might cost under $25us, while a high end race pole could be $400. CF (carbon fiber) is the superior material for a few reasons. If there is one area that light weight makes a difference, it’s poles and CF is often, but not always much lighter. Further, one of the big concerns for Cross Bladers is planting a pole in front of your skate and tripping yourself, breaking a pole or both. Also, it’s easy to break a pole in a fall. Full race ultra light CF poles can be fragile. The best value is a mid quality pole that is light and tough and range from about $50 (typically mixed w/ fiberglass like this Oneway Diamond 630 or Swix Comp RC150 featured at REI) to $150us (for a full CF pole like the Excel World Cup) with an ergonomic grip/strap. For around $120, the Excel Avanti w/ suspension tip and ergo grip is an excellent choice. In the long run, a good utility grade CF pole will serve you better and save you money. So when you know what length works for you, go ahead and upgrade.
Pole grips and straps – modern ergonomic grips and straps improve power and help reduce strain and blisters. Some cross country grips now have shock absorbers.
Pole tips – The two options are a sharp angled carbide “road” tip or ferrule (with no snow basket) and a few rubber designs. Make sure pole tips are oriented perpendicular to the road as you plant them. If you roll your wrists/poles inward, adjust your tips with an outward twist to get them perpendicular to the ground so you’ll get maximum grip.
Most tips are mounted with hot glue (see maintenance for adjustment or removal) while some newer designs have a clip lock system.
Most skaters choose a sharp angled carbide road skiing (no snow basket) tips which grip all paved surfaces well (but not smooth concrete). Carbide tips are inexpensive, can be sharpened (see maintenance) and last a long time. Some carbide tips have a shock absorber which many skaters find are easier on the arms and less likely to slip in the lunge.
Skates – Since speed, hills and alpine turns are involved, most Cross Bladers will appreciate a more substantial skate with a power strap at the top for control and stability. Though a few wild downhill skaters might disagree, a low cut racing boot is not well suited for Cross Blading on steep or rough roads. Brakes are uncool in the speed skate world, but unless you are really good at “T” or Hockey stopping, you’ll want a brake.
Fit is critical which makes buying skates online tough. If you can buy skates in person it’s better, but most of us don’t have local access to the right type of skates for Cross Blading. Skate manufacturers and stores usually stock up in the spring and go on sale in the fall. Blades often go unused, so CraigsList, eBay, etc. can turn up good deals.
Snug gives you control and support, tight gives you pain and loose robs you of control and gives you blisters. If your toes touch the end of the boot, they will probably kill your feet on a long day. If you need thick socks they are probably too big. Socks and foot beds are important. Try different thickness socks. Consider a (mid-high) light hiker socks with a little padding on the bottom and shock absorbing foot beds or orthotics. To further complicate things, most skates have a break in period, so expect there will be a bit more room (not length though) once they have some miles on them.
Wheels and bearings – Fast is good, faster might not be better. A speed skater is all about speed. But a Cross Blader might have to contend with downhills where speed can quickly lead to a fall. I personally use a relatively slow wheel and bearing combination anytime there are hills and alpine turns for speed control.
Wheels size – Generally bigger is faster. 72mm is slow, but a beginner might enjoy that. 80mm wheels are slow by speed skater standards, but might be a good choice where speed control and maneuverability is a concern. You better know what you are doing when you take 100mm and larger wheels out on hilly roads.
Wheel Durometer determines how the grip, shock absorption and durability. Cross Bladers will likely choose between a grippy 78a (durometer) that digs into turns well, but wears quickly on a hot day and an 82a is squirrely in turns, but fast on smooth surfaces. 80a is in the middle and a good all around choice. Colder temperatures cause the wheel to perform like a harder wheel so at about 50 degrees (F) a 78a feels like a harder 80a at 70 degrees. Consider a soft 76a in temperatures below 40. Softer wheels will grip better if you get caught in rain. Softer wheels are faster and much more comfortable than hard wheels on rough terrain. I have completely worn out a 78a wheel set in one 30 mile skate with a lot of alpine turns on a 105 degree day.
Bearings – Bearing quality and speed is (usually) rated on an “ABEC” scale where ABEC3 is slow, ABEC5 is medium and ABEC7+ is fast. Standard size is a 608 while the smaller micro is a 688. Though expensive, ceramic bearings are fast and they last a long time. However there are lots of cheap imposters and scary fast racing bearings to confuse things. Inexpensive and slow ABEC3s are good for beginners while ABEC7s are fast enough for most advanced Cross Bladers.
Mixing durometer and ABEC. This is advanced, but I often put a harder durometer wheel (for durabilty especially on hot days) with a slower bearing (to help keep the skate from squirting out form under me) in the rear wheel position. If you are burning up your rear wheels doing a lot of alpine turns this is a good way to save money, but it creates a (maintenance) rotation annoyance.