Equipment snobs. We all know one. I am sometimes one, unwittingly. But this isn’t a post about having awesome skates with mithril lining and adamantium plates. Nope, this is about bushings, or, how one small (cheap) change to my skate equipment hugely affected my rate of learning and style of skating, from completely raw meat until now, a year and a bit later. (I should point out here that I have basically zero disposable income, so anyone looking for expensive solutions to their skate troubles, look away now or get gored by the Narwhal of Frugal Skate Maintenance.)
About 4 weeks into my fresh meat I realised I’d made a brutally persistent enemy. CORNERS. I’d built up sufficient balance to go forwards at a decent pace, but corners were terrifying – I just couldn’t get enough turn to go round them without risking flying off track. I didn’t even realise this was the problem until coach Isy kindly took me aside and loosened my trucks. Within 2 hours of training, my skating style changed from apprehensive-robot to wobbly-humanoid. And within two sessions I could plow and sticky-skate pretty much out of the blue. No expensive equipment, no new wheels, just a few turns of the truck nuts.
A year later, and I’ve learnt lots more about skate equipment, including the missing link in my skate frustration: bushings.
Just like wheels, bushings come with durometer ratings: e.g. Suregrip ones range from 72a (real soft) to 93a (hard). The colour corresponds to the hardness, but the colours differ across manufacturers.
Bushings (also called cushions) are the little rubber cylinders that go between your skate plate and trucks. Their job is to flex as you lean on your skates, which allows your axles and wheels to tilt, enabling you to turn left and right. As you might expect, the more flexible or ‘squishy’ the cushion, the more easily your skates will turn. Stock skate setups (particularly for beginner/intermediate skates) will typically ship with freakin’ hard bushings, because they are more stable and can give you the feeling of greater control. Ace, right? Well, sort of.
Let’s take this stock setup, and analyse it. You can go fast in a straight line, and your wheels are always facing forwards, allowing them to turn continuously. Little weight shifts will not really turn your skates to the left and right. Cool. Stable.
Now think about a roller derby track. It’s oval-shaped. You’re turning like, all the time. So you have a few options. You can keep these hard bushings, and lean like fuck to turn round corners, just so you can be stable on the straightaways. Except every time you hit a corner you have to sloooooow right down so you can turn enough. Second option: loosen your trucks a little bit. Just a few half-turns of the nuts on the bottom of the trucks can give you the turn you need to make those corners. Problem now is that the ‘snap’ you get coming out of corners is reduced, and it’s harder to get back to your usual skating stance on the straightaway. Your trucks can also feel a little ‘wobbly’ underfoot.
This is actually a skateboard truck, but the setup is the same. A common setup option is for each truck to have a cylindrical cushion (nearest the boot), and then a conical cushion as its partner (nearest the floor, with the point of the cone pointing at the floor, and the smaller cushion cup (^”top cup washer”) also on the side nearest the floor.
Which is where bushings come in. Softer bushings have a similar effect to looser trucks, except without the wobble and the rattle. And they spring you back again after a corner. Just like wheels, bushings come with durometer ratings: e.g. Suregrip ones range from 72a (real soft) to 93a (hard). You can also get ‘conical’ bushings. These are apparently better for the ‘snap’ after corners, and will typically make a pair with a cylindrical cushion. (<< see image for explanation). And just like wheels, it is common for heavier skaters to prefer harder cushions – but like everything in roller derby, it’s a) relative and b) personal preference.
Anyway, this is all great for going round corners and all, but my favouritist most magical thing about softer bushings is how they can revolutionise your stopping power and agility on track.
Imagine you are skating in a straight line, leaning on the insides (arches) of your feet. Your weight is pressing on your 4 inside wheels, which squishes your bushings and turns the axles so your toes are pointing inwards. Hey presto, you’re making a plow. Now imagine this on ridiculously soft bushings. The tiniest little lean inwards will give you a plow with minimal effort. Now expand the movement. Go fast and do a big, wide plow shape, pressing down on your 4 inside wheels. The super soft bushings are forcing your trucks to push your wheels into the exaggerated position below, with minimal effort. Now this wheel position just so happens to be great for stopping without a) sliding like a motherfucka, or b) throwing you to the ground…
This is totally meant to signify two skates doing a plow, but it’s 3am and Photoshop won’t start up… Apologies.
Mega soft bushings might be a little too much to start with, but they exaggerate the point. A lot of people don’t actually like the ‘squirrely’ feel of suuuuper soft bushings, which is why it’s a good idea to try out different ones to see what suits, or taper down through them slowly. (At £10ish for a full set it’s not a major expense, unlike, say, new plates etc, which can often be the temptation if you want ‘more agile skates’.)
Speaking of which, agility. Whilst skate style is immensely a personal thing, it fair to say that agillity is largely centred around being able to jump around, stop, and change direction quickly. And, as you can imagine, being able to turn your wheels with minimal effort has an effect on your agility. Not just turning, but tiny plows when you’re juking or dancing through a pack. And not just for jammers! Blockers need to be great on lateral cuts and blocks – guess what, they help with that too. Minimal lean for maximum turn. I am by no means saying that soft cushions will solve all your derby problems, or that softer is right for everyone, but they made a massive difference for me – and are a good first step before spending a whole load of money on new plates or wheels.
P.s. while I remember, if you get conical bushings, ALSO BUY SMALL CUSHION CUPS! They are the metal washer things that sit on top of your bushings. If you’re changing from the manufacturers cylindrical cushions to the bottom 4 of your cushions being conical (^^see the skateboard truck pic) no-one ever tells you that you also need 4 of the smaller cushion cups too! They’re like, £3 for a set but really annoying to wait for in the post when your conical bushings have arrived without them.
Bear in mind you can also mix and match cushion hardnesses for super-customisable turney-ness. Typically, the softer cushion would go nearer the floor, but that’s not bible, just seems to make sense that the bit near your foot is more stable.