Once a tiny niche in the inline skating market, speed skating has enjoyed increasing popularity in recent years. Inline speed skates have extra-large wheels -- 100mm or even 110mm 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.
As in previous years, two skates from industry veteran Bont -- the Bont Jet and the Bont Semi-Race (Est. $350) -- remain the hottest stock models you can buy. Both come with the option for 100mm or 110mm wheels and ABEC 7 bearings, although the Semi-Race is available with lower 90mm 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 closed-cell memory foam interiors, anti-stretch tapes to keep the boots from loosening over time, and 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 is 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 offers a couple of excellent alternatives. The Vanilla Carbon (Est. $250) is the most popular, especially with young users; it has fast, smooth ABEC 9 bearings, 100mm/85a wheels suitable for indoor or outdoor use and a heat-mold liner in a carbon fiber/fiberglass boot. The Vanilla Spyder (Est. $400) boot is made entirely of heat-moldable carbon fiber, with 110mm/85a wheels and precision ABEC-9 bearings. Both models are built on aluminum frames and come in whole sizes only, although you can heat-mold the boots on either model to get a better fit.
Inline hockey skates or roller hockey skates occupy a distinct niche of their own. Maneuverability is a very high priority, so you'll often find soft, relatively small wheels that grip well enough to provide a fast take-off and stop slips during fast, tight turns. Such wheels tend to wear very quickly outside, but last longer when used in an indoor skating rink.
The largest wheels you'll find on a hockey skate are usually 80 mm, which give a good combination of maneuverability and speed. Hi-lo setups, which place smaller wheels in the front two positions for improved maneuvering and larger wheels in the back two slots for speed, are more common than not.
Three brands of hockey skates stand out as perennial best performers: Bauer, Alkali and Mission. If you want the top of the line skates, head straight for the best-reviewed Bauer Vapor APX2R. You're going to pay for the quality, but in return you get high-end speed, agility and responsiveness in a lightweight skate, with a boot that's tough enough to protect you against direct hits from hockey pucks or collisions with the boards.
A number of experienced users report that these skates make you faster off the line right away. The grippy, sticky wheels (76a durometer), fast Swiss LE 608 bearings and hi-lo 76mm/80mm setup improve your starts, turns and stopping, while the heat-mold liner is very comfortable and the abrasion-resistant boots do a great job of protecting your feet.
The Bauer Vapor APX2R fits true to their sizing guide, running about 1.5 sizes smaller than your typical street shoe. It's available in both full and half sizes and two widths.
For a mid-price roller hockey skate that gives solid performance, we like the Alkali RPD Team (Est. $300). Users are shocked by how comfortable the soft, wicking liners are once you heat-mold them to fit your feet; the boot has a fully ventilated felt tongue to help keep your feet cool. The Alkali RPD Team also has a little extra room in the forefoot and an excellent heel lock.
If you're coming from a hi-lo setup, the all-80mm wheels might take some getting used to. (These skates also come in youth and junior sizes, with correspondingly smaller wheels.) But the RPD Team is pitched forward to help you take an aggressive stance, and the 74a wheels are extra soft and grippy for indoor use. The Alkali RPD Team comes in full and half sizes; users say you should size 1 to 1.5 sizes down from your street shoe size.
Our final entry, the Mission Inhaler DS7 (Est. $130) is a solid skate at a great price. Users say they're smooth and responsive when you turn, with extra wear-resistant panels on the side to help protect your feet. The ventilated plastic toe is a big hit with users, although they also note that it scuffs up easily.
Hi-lo wheels (76mm in the front, 80mm in the back) offer a good mix of speed and maneuverability, and the 82a wheels are best suited to outdoor use. The ABEC 5 608 bearings are on the slow side, though, and the unwaxed laces tend to come undone fairly easily; both issues can be fixed with a fairly simple substitution.
Users say these inline hockey skates fit true to Mission's sizing guide, although they are available in full sizes only.