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In this report

Large wheels and stiff boots make for a fast, responsive ride

Inline speed skates have extra-large wheels -- 100 mm or even 110 mm in diameter -- to create a fast, smooth ride. Low-profile, rigid boots support your feet but free your ankles up, as opposed to a general fitness skate's boot that wraps -- and supports -- your leg past the ankle. Speed skates are also free of heel brakes that might get caught up as you move quickly around the track.

Once a tiny niche in the inline skating market, speed skating is booming in popularity and drawing more manufacturers into the competition for your dollars. But two skates from industry veteran Bont -- the Bont Jet (Est. $325) and the Bont Semi-Race (Est. $400) -- remain the hottest stock models.

Both come with the option for 100 mm or 110 mm wheels and ABEC 7 bearings, although the Semi-Race is available with lower 90 mm wheels as well -- and both boots are snug and stiff, but comfortable (for a speed-skating boot, anyway) once you've heat-molded them to fit your feet.

Speed skates feel very different from your average recreation skates; once you get used to them, those stiff, supportive boots make for a highly responsive ride. "Their stiff, solid construction makes them feel like extensions of your legs," writes Robert Burnson of InlinePlanet.com about the Bont Semi-Race. Both models also sport a three-point mount that makes the skate a little lighter and gets you a little lower to the ground for better control.

The Semi-Race is actually a speed skate modified to be a marathon skate, with an ankle cuff that's about an inch taller than that of the Bont Jet. The general consensus among reviewers is that if you're a serious, frequent racer you'll do better with the Jet, which is lighter and faster but takes more getting used to. A forum user at InlinePlanet.com sums up its performance in just a few words: "very very stiff, extremely responsive, great support." The Jet's also one of the best values in speed skates, and many reviewers say their heat-moldable uppers give the best fit you can get, short of purchasing custom skates.

If you're more interested in skating marathons and only occasionally racing for time trials, however, it's hard to do worse than the Bont Semi-Race. Although it might not sound like much, that 1-inch difference in cuff height means you get a lot more support from the Semi-Race, and it's still fast -- very fast. "In 1-mile time trials, I only lost 3 percent of my speed when I switched from my racing skates to the Semi-Race. With other marathon skates, I have been as much as 10 percent slower," Burnson writes.

Although Bont dominates the market, relative newcomer Vanilla Skates has generated a lot of buzz too. The Vanilla Assassin (Est. $225) is a particular favorite, with a fiberglass/carbon heat-moldable boot, lightweight aluminum frame, 100 mm wheels and ABEC 7 bearings. It may not be a high-end speed skate, but reviewers say it still provides a fast, stable ride and a hard-to-beat price.

Although the Vanilla Assassin skate has been discontinued, it's still widely available in online stores. And if you feel Bont skates aren't right for you, the other entries in Vanilla's speed skate lineup are well worth exploring. Finally, if you have a child that's interested in speed skating, both the Vanilla Assassin and Bont Jet are available in junior versions.

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