You can spot Taylor Price from half a kilometre away.
Few people rip up the trail on a hot Sunday afternoon like he does. He’s got an incredible combination of force and grace. He’s focused. He’s got speed.
He’s on inline skates. Yes, people still rollerblade.
“I’ve been doing this since the late 1980s,” said Mr. Price , an actor based in Toronto. “It’s a great workout, and there aren’t too many things you can do quite like this.”
Mr. Price is a survivor, one of the few who remained loyal to inline skating after the sport’s epic plummet in popularity in the late 1990s. Inline skaters are now just a scattered few, elbowing for room in a sea of cyclers and runners on pathways and roads across the country.
“You really don’t see many people out here any more, not like you used to,” Mr. Price added.
There is a small contingent fighting hard for rollerblading – those dedicated to seeing the activity return to its glory days. But the biggest challenge is the sport’s unfashionable image that’s had more than a decade to solidify.
Numbers reveal the cruel reality of the poor street skate.
According to John Roe, the director of sales and marketing at Toronto’s Sporting Life, sales of inline skates are down 20 per cent from 2011, following a 30-per-cent decrease the previous year. The Sports Manufacturers Association, an American organization that tracks the sales of sporting equipment and participation rates, saw a 7.6-per-cent decrease in overall sales in the United States from 2010 to 2011.
Inline has not disappeared entirely. Even after the steep sales decline in the late 1990s, companies still made them and stores still stocked them. rollerblading organizations such as the Toronto Inline Skating Club still kick around, and events such as the 24-Hour Roller Montreal, a round-the-clock inline relay that takes place on Labour Day Weekend , still draws hundreds of skaters to Montreal each year.
“But it’s not like it was 20 years ago, when it was seen as fresh and something fun to do,” says York Phonphith, the manager of Blades, Board and Skate, one of the original hot spots to buy inline skates in New York City. “There’s an image of this as a dorky thing, and this could be why it has declined. We still carry them … but a lot of companies that made skates in the past are not making skates any more.”
The early ’90s boom was a double-edged sword, says Justin Eisinger, editor-in-chief of One Blade Magazine, a San Diego-based publication and one of the few that’s entirely devoted to blading culture. The boom created opportunities for sponsorship, funding for events and tours, and the growth of a new counterculture, he says.
“The flipside was that, yes, tens of thousands of new people are strapping on these skates every week, all over the place, but 95 per cent of people that put skates on were brand new to the activity … likely wrapped up in extraneous protective gear and left looking not entirely comfortable on their wheels,” Mr. Eisinger says. “As they took to the streets, sidewalks and boardwalks of America en masse, this less-than-ideal image of rollerblading became the go-to image of the sport to society at large.”
Like anything, you have your believers. Take Leon Basin. Last year he opened up Shop-Task in Toronto, part of Canada’s only chain that exclusively sells blades (Mr. Basin also has stores in Montreal and Vancouver). He’s says he’s fully committed to refashioning the blade’s image.
“Rollerblading was never branded properly. One of the things we’re trying to do with our stores is to change the image of rollerblading,” Mr. Basin says. “The image is really geeky, it wasn’t cool … You know, the neon clothing, skating on the beach decked out with helmets and pads.”
Despite declines in sales elsewhere, Mr. Basin says that business is actually booming, and he believes that inline has returned, or at the very least the return is imminent.
Last year Slate Magazine – an arbiter of cool – took notice of what appeared to be a resurgence in popularity. “Based on the number of New Yorkers I've seen getting back on the bandwagon this spring, I predict that it's only a matter of Sundays before I open The New York Times Style section to find a trend piece on the curious return of that bygone craze: rollerblading,” Julia Felsenthal wrote in the magazine.
But Mr. Basin says the people buying blades are either kids and teenagers who blade up until around 18 years old, or people over 35. He says he’s eager to capture that crucial 20 to 35 market. “This is the challenge,” he says. “You need that market.”
The idea is to simultaneously move inline skating away from an image as a hardcore sport for teenagers – think baggy shirts, low-riding pants and hanging out at skate parks – while also making it cool to those with disposable income. But coming up with a strategy to do this, Mr. Basin admits, isn’t easy.
Mr. Eisinger believes the blade’s comeback has actually been under way for years, but it’s been a slow process because it has to do with changing perception.
“Today, when you see someone rollerblading, it’s typically not the ’90s newbie rec skater with loose ankles and that ‘I’m just trying this out for the day’ technique,” he says. “Instead it’s generally someone who is an experienced skater, and the way they make rollerblading appear is entirely different. It’s smooth. It’s controlled. In a word – effortless.”
Achieving that smooth technique is a slow process, too. On a Saturday afternoon in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood, Scott Parsons strapped on his blades for the first time in years and went out for a skate with his girlfriend. Like Mr. Taylor, you could spot him from a kilometre away. Not for his grace, though: Mr Parsons was notable for how uncomfortable he looked.
“I know I’m going to get ragged on when I go back to work and tell the guys I was out rollerblading,” he said. “That’s for sure.”