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Skate FAQs: Techniques - Slalom

Last modified: Monday, 22-Jul-96

A Web page devoted to slalom skating was announced in October 1995. It's called cones+wheels.

From: Robert Schmunk (
Written: November 28, 1994 Revised: October 20, 1995

Having become a regular at New York City's Central Park slalom course, I guess I'm qualified to throw in some comments on the topic:

The Course:

The slalom course lies in the recreational lane of the Central Park loop, between Tavern on the Green and the Sheep Meadow. Just skate in the West 67th St. entrance to the park on a sunny weekend afternoon and you can't miss it. Due to its location, the course has a good slope and you don't have to get up much speed before you start down. Slightly disconerting is that the slope is steepest in the middle of the course, so that it feels like there's a "break" at about the ninth cone. Depending on the trick, the slope sometimes means that you have to "slalom faster" near the bottom of the course because the cones are coming up at you much faster. The course also has a slight curve to the right, which has been known to disturb visiting slalom skaters from other towns.

The standard Central Park slalom course is a series of 27 cones, spaced six feet apart. However, the number of cones has varied on occasion: when the National Slalom Championship was held here in October 1994, the course was 30 cones long. I've heard that in other towns, slalom courses are sometimes only about 15 cones long, but my guess is that future competitions will use closer to 30 because it provides more opportunity for video-genic combination stunts.

When measuring off an area for a slalom course, don't forget approach and exit areas. The Central Park normally has a 60-foot approach, with skaters starting anywhere within that distance, but when pedestrian traffic is light, it may be extended to 200 feet. Depending on how fast you're moving and how hard you can brake, you will also need from 5 to 100 feet to stop.

Occasionally, when the expert skaters want to demonstrate how good they are relative to those who are merely advanced (i.e., separate the men from the boys), or if they want to compete against each other without anybody else getting in the way, they will set up a course with the cones spaced at smaller intervals. Most frequently the distance is decreased to four feet, but lately there's been a lot of experimenting with three-foot separation and an occasional attempt at a vicious two-foot separation. We call such tight courses "technical courses". A clean run through a 30-cone course with three-foot spacing is just about the finest thing I've seen done on a pair of skates, and provides great satisfaction if you can do it yourself.

The cone themselves are 8 or nine inches tall and made out of orange plastic. The original square bases have been amputated. Cones of this size are available in different hardnesses, but the harder kind is best. Softer cones are less apt to fly away when you hit one, and they often bend around your skate in what seems like a deliberate attempt to induce a case of road rash on your exposed flesh. You can usually get cones at sporting goods stores like Herman's, at around $2-$3 per cone.

When the Central Park slalom course is not open, I've seen desperate cone skaters rummage for pop cans, paper cups, or Gatorade bottles and use them for cones, perhaps filling them with water to keep them from blowing away. However, the height of regular cones can be disconcerting if you've practiced a lot using pop cans, so if you're serious about slalom skating, get some real cones.

The Tricks:

One nice thing about learning to slalom skate is that everybody's interests diverge after the couple tricks, and if you stick at it for awhile, you may be doing tricks that the pros (or at least the supposed experts) have never learned. One woman I know devoted herself to learning every conceivable variant of the forward criss-cross (see below) and was doing things after six months that guys who have been skating cones for four years couldn't do.

One last comment before introducing types of tricks: You'll likely be wasting your time if you make your first attempt at many of these tricks on a real slalom course. For example, if you can't maintain your balance on one skate for ten seconds as you skate down a smooth empty street, you're not going to be able to do a forward one-foot. Even after having mastered most of the basic tricks below and a few major variants, I usually practice new ones away from the cones, or on a short course that only has six or eight cones.

Dividing into categories, there are:

· Forwards tricks

Parallel: The first trick all slalom skaters learn, and you don't need a set of cones to do so. Just place your feet next to each other, with one leading by perhaps an inch or so, and alternate which one is leading, thus introducing a serpentine motion into the line of your path. The posture for the rest of the body is very much like that used by downhill skiers, and whenever a newbie me asks how to do a parallel, the first thing I ask is "Do you ski?"

Some other tips:
1) Remember that ski instructors are always reminding newbies to bend their knees.
2) Keep your hands out but not up (i.e., below shoulder level) and somewhat in front of your shoulders. Avoid waving them around a lot, but use small adjustments like a tightrope walker.
3) and on your first few tries, concentrate on a clean skate all the way down the course and don't worry about skipping a cone or three if it makes you feel safer.

I also found that I got the smoothest parallel if my knees were practically glued to each other. I jettisoned my knee pads in order to attain this, but you'll have to evaluate that safety decision for yourself.

Monoline: Exactly what it sounds like. The skates form a straight line, with the heel of one just ahead of the toe of the other. This is a good next-step trick to learn after the parallel.

A variant of the monoline which one frequently sees is usually called a "telemark" due to its similarity to the cross-country skiing posture. Basically, the trailing foot is tilted so that only its toe wheel is touching the ground. Usually the skater is crouched low to the ground, often with one knee almost scraping asphalt.

One-foot: One of the first tricks attempted though not always one of the first mastered (some people just can't balance on one foot through a 150-foot slalom), the one-foot brings out the greatest variety in different approaches to doing it, all of them valid. It's simply skating down the course with only one foot on the ground, but the variety comes in when each skater decides what to do with his extra foot. Some hold it out to the side, some hold it behind, some in front. Some use the extra foot like a rudder, some kick like a Rockette, and some hold it like a dead fish on its way to the garbage can.

Perhaps the coolest variant is the "flying eagle", in which the extra foot is held behind you and you get down in so low a crouch that its wheels may actually be above your head. This can be an extremely fast maneuver, and if you're of short, stocky build, you'll move like a bullet and excite applause.

Criss-cross: Using a scissoring motion of the legs, you cause your skates to pass each cone on opposite sides, with your legs crossed at every other cone. To do this, you'll likely need to cock your hips so that one foot is always ahead of the other and so that your skates don't bump as you cross and uncross your legs. (Learning the forward monoline is an excellent way of getting your hips in the right location.) If your leading foot also has a brake mounted on the heel, you'll need even more clearance.

Even though the criss-cross is one of the first few tricks a slalom skater may learn, it seems to be one which you always have to pay a lot of attention to what you're doing, because when your legs are crossed, there's little room for recovery if something goes wrong. I've banged up my left knee pretty badly from this.

Cutbacks: This looks a bit like a criss-cross, but the crossing maneuver involves lifting one skate entirely off the ground and swinging it around behind the other before putting it back down. Unlike a criss-cross, though, your legs should be crossed at every cone.

· Sideways tricks

Getting your hips to turn out properly to do sideways maneuvers requires differing levels of stress depending on your personal anatomy. Some people can do this almost naturally; some can't do it at all, no matter how hard they try. It took me a couple weeks of practice and stretching to work up to a sidesurf; in the meantime, I had a couple skate sessions which ended with my left knee feeling wrenched because I was twisting it rather than my hip joint. But just recently (Aug 1995), I had one of the best speedskaters on the planet ask me for any tips I could give him on sidesurfing because he'd been trying to learn it for months. An exercise that helps is lying on the floor in a frog-like position. Turn your hips out and bend your knees so that the soles of your feet are up against each other. Now try moving your feet inward (towards your body).

Sidesurf: Think of this as a sideways monoline, with your trailing skate oriented so that its toe is pointing from whence you came. Because of the position that this puts your body in, some people may call it a spread-eagle. However, there is some room for variety, as some sidesurfers will skate with their heels almost touching, and others will hold them a couple feet apart; some skate standing almost straight and others crouched down with derriere sticking out.

A lot of sidesurfers use a pumping motion in their leading arm to get their bodies to swing around the cones, but with practice, you can turn a sidesurf into a very graceful maneuver which requires only a little movement by your leg muscles.

Parallel sidesurf: Instead of the wheels all being in a line, the skates are side-by-side but still pointing in opposite directions. If your skates are right next to each other, it can be very difficult to turn doing this trick, but if they're a few inches apart, it's much easier. Your feet may keep trying to drift apart into a regular sidesurf, so this can be difficult hold.

Independent: Again, skates are pointed in opposite directions, but a scissoring motion is introduced so that the skates pass the cones on opposite sides. I found the most difficult part of doing an indy was getting my trailing skate to come around, as my leg sometimes seemed to lock into one position. (This may be a symptom that you're relying on one foot to do too much of the work. Try to even it out.) Getting low to the ground, almost sitting on the cones, seems to help.

While the other sideways maneuvers can be done fairly gracefully, the independent is almost always raw action. If you really push it, you can actually accelerate quite rapidly, so that an indy becomes one of the fastest slalom tricks there is.

Wave: Seemingly uses the same posture as the sidesurf and a similar sort of zig-zag motion, but rather than follow a single line, the skates are spaced fairly widely and pass each cone on opposite sides, like an independent. Because of the latter, it's also called the "out-of-phase independent". It's certainly easier to do than describe.

· Backwards tricks

In order to see where he is going, a backwards skater can either look over or under one of his shoulders. My choice was to twist my shoulders so that they're oriented just about in a line with cones, and I hold my leading hand (a) low so that I can look over the shoulder and (b) out a bit so that I look towards it and see the cones coming up rather than watch what my feet are doing.

Monoline: Perhaps the simplest travelling backwards trick, and possibly the one I've most frequently seen. When learning this I found that it helps if the toe of the leading foot and the heel of the trailing foot are not really close to each other but are separated by six inches or so. This allows some slight independence in the motion of the two feet. After you've got the basic motion down, you can bring your feet closer together and synchronize their motion.

Parallel: Many skaters who attempt this keep slipping into a backwards monoline. I believe this is because of a feeling that they are losing control as they speed up, and a monoline is easier to do at such a time. One reason for this statement is that I see more children than adults attempt and succeed at this trick, and children's skates are notorious for having wheels that don't spin very fast. Alternatively, maybe kids just don't know the trick is "hard" and that they ought to learn something else first.

One-foot: Slaloming backwards on one foot is a real crowd pleaser and also personally satisfying, so it's a good trick to learn.

Like the forward one-foot, there is some variation in what skaters do with the lifted foot, but not as much and there is often a reason for the posture adopted. For example, skaters who assume a backward one-foot by approaching the course sideways often hold the lifted foot so that it's wheels are perpendicular to the cones, while those who approach skating backwards will hold it so that the wheels are in a line with the cones. The former style is useful when you are first learning the trick because it allows you to move the entire lifted leg (along with your leading arm) in a sawing motion that shifts your weight so that you zig-zag around the cones. On the other hand, holding the lifted foot in line with the cones allows you to more easily put it back down the same way so that you can continue skating backwards, perhaps while doing a combination trick (see below).

Criss-cross: Many practitioners feel this is easier to do than a forward criss-cross because you have to cock your hips anyway so that you can turn your head to see where you're going. However, this presumes you know how to skate backwards in the first place. I will admit, though, that it seems safer to do a fast backwards criss-cross than a forwards one.

The leg motion in a backwards criss-cross is very similar to that of a monoline, so if you're having trouble learning one of them, try practicing the other. Odds are that if you can master one, you can get the other fairly quickly.

Out-of-phase criss-cross (or backwards wave): Another hard-to-describe trick, like its cousin the wave. It is similar to the backwards criss-cross because the legs are crossed at every other cone, but unlike that trick, it has a more zig-zag motion like the backward monoline.

Cutback: Similar to the forward cutback, but the crossing motion is done by lifting and swinging the skates around in "front" of you, by which I mean the direction you came from. The basic motion looks sort of like a series of crossover turns, but you happen to be traveling backwards.

· Tilted-skate tricks

This is an awkward name for a category of trick variants in which at least one skate has been tilted so that only one of its wheels is actually touching asphalt.

Extended and double-extended tricks: The word "extended" simply means doing one of the usual tricks with one skate (almost always the leading skate) tilted so that only the heel wheel is touching the ground. Most common are extended sideways tricks, particularly the extended sidesurf.

Some of the extended maneuvers are surprisingly easy to learn if you have removed the brake(s) from your skate(s); I was able to do a clean 27-cone extended sidesurf on only my third attempt (of course, I'd known how to do a regular sidesurf for three months by then).

With a "double-extended" sideways maneuver, both skates are tilted so that only their heel wheels are on the ground. A double-extended sidesurf is rarely seen done with any speed, but crowds think it's cool because it always looks difficult (it is to an extent; it took me a couple months to build up my thigh/groin muscles so that I could do it). I've seen people do a forward parallel with only the two heel wheels on the ground, which I presume also counts as a double-extended trick (note: in order to maintain stability, their skates are usually spaced more widely than in a simple parallel).

One-toe-down tricks: The close cousin of the single-extended trick, just with one skate tilted so that its toe wheel is down rather than the heel wheel. The most frequent example is a forward monoline with the trailing foot tilted, which if done in a deep crouch is, as noted above, often called a "telemark". Another example is the reverse of this, a toe-down backward monoline, with the tilted skate leading the way.

Toe-and-toe tricks: The only tricks I've seen completed and/or seriously attempted with only the two toe wheels touching asphalt are a forward parallel and a forward criss-cross, and boy do they look awkward. I've also seen a couple goofing around with a toe-and-toe sidesurf, but they never make it past the second cone. And there is one person I know who might be working up to a toe-and-toe out-of-phase forward criss-cross; it's hard to say because he looks almost totally out-of-control.

Heel-and-toe tricks: This time, one skate is on its heel wheel only and the other is on toe wheel only. They can be done forwards, backwards and sideways. A very popular heel-and-toe trick is the forward monoline, but it requires building up some strength in the calf of the leading leg (I still can't do it but know several folks who can). Other heel-and-toe tricks I've seen are the forward crisscross and the sidesurf, plus an unsuccessful (but amusing to watch) backwards criss-cross.

One-wheel-only tricks: At the October 1994 slalom skating championship in Central Park, a French skater went down the course with only one (heel) wheel touching the ground. There's a photo of him doing it in the February 1995 issue of Inline magazine. Control on such a trick is difficult, to say the least, and what might have been a knock-out competition trick was marred by the five or six cones that got knocked aside.

· Combinations:A combination trick is simply that, a combination of tricks done in a sequence. How many different tricks you attempt to do in one run depends on how long your cone course is, and how many cones you do with each trick. (At the Central Park course, we usually require at least four cones per trick for the trick to count.) Very often combos are signature moves; one NYC skater is well-known for a forward criss-cross down the top half of the course, followed by a 180° leaping jump into a backwards criss-cross. Not all combos are that difficult (or impressive), though; e.g., it's fairly simple to slide from a sidesurf into an independent. Better skaters may even disguise a bad slalom run by converting a trick about to go awry into an easier trick. Heck, I've done this in competition and the judges never realized it.

· Alternating tricks: An alternating trick is much like a combination trick, except that the transition between tricks is done once every cone or every two cones and the skater alternates between two particular tricks. Perhaps the most common example is an alternating forward criss-cross, in which you alternate which foot is in the lead. Thus, your right foot crosses in front of the left, then you uncross, and then your left crosses in front of your right, etc. If done well, this is a subtle trick, and spectators may think you're just doing a vanilla criss-cross unless they're paying very close attention. Other examples I've seen are an extended alternating forward criss-cross (the skater alternated which of her feet was crossing in front of the other, but whichever was in front got tilted upwards as soon as it started swinging around to the front), an alternating backward criss-cross, an alternating backward monoline, and what I call the Swiss monoline (because of the nationality of the first person I saw doing it), in which the skater alternates between a forward and backward monoline.

· "Unclassifiable" tricks: Some tricks just don't fall very easily into the classifications above. One such that I've seen is the "half Remy", in which the skater was basically spiraling down the slalom course, doing a 180-degree spin around each cone (this implies that a full Remy involves a 360-degree spin around each cone!). I got dizzy just watching, and the skater looked a little ill when he finished. In any event, it wasn't really a forwards maneuver or a backwards maneuver. I presume that there are other tricks that can't be easily pigeon-holed.

· Ballistics: A ballistic trick is simply one of the above tricks done at high speed. At the Central Park course this is done by launching from 100-200 feet from the first cone rather than the usual 30-60. A ballistic flying eagle really hauls, and a ballistic backwards combo is guaranteed to blow spectators away. Just make sure that you have spotters watching to be sure that nobody blunders into the course during your approach (this is a common problem in Central Park).

· Grapevines: The term "grapevine" apparently has a number of different definitions in the skating world. The one that is most frequently used at the Central Park slalom course is any slalom maneuver which is done traveling uphill.

Some sort of self propulsion is obviously necessary in order to keep your speed from tapering off, so the most frequent maneuvers I've seen done on a positive slop are the backwards criss-cross and the independent. However, I've managed to do an uphill sidesurf, and I've seen others do uphill one-foots and backwards parallels. The backwards criss-cross and independent are useful for impressing spectators because, if done right, you can build up some serious speed when doing them.

A good way to practice grapevines is to set up a flat slalom course, but make sure that it's long enough that you're not just coasting through on your initial momentum. If you can accelerate through a flat slalom course, you're ready to try an uphill course.

Also, equipment can play a large roll in a successful grapevine. Clean bearings and larger wheels help, as do lighter skates. I've found that a grapevine independent is much easier in Aeroblades than in Lightning TRSes.

· Pairs: There's pairs figure skating, so why can't there be pairs slalom skating? Basically, it just requires two people skating the course together while holding one or both hands. A popular example is for the leading skater to do a backwards criss-cross while the trailing skater does a forward criss-cross (this is often done when the leading skater is trying to learn how to do a backwards criss-cross). Exceptionally cool, are pairs doing backwards combos. Tres cool!

And lest you think that there's a limit of two skaters doing a trick together, three of the best Central Park skaters will occasionally do a ballistic independent together. And occasional groups of four or more skaters will get together to attempt a mass maneuver, but more often than not this results in cones strewn in every direction.

There are presumably many more maneuvers, or variants on the above, but the problem is that the names for them may also be regionalized (e.g., I've discovered that what New Yorkers call a criss-cross, Bostonians want to call a crossover). Even within one locale there may be more than name, especially if a trick has a lot of variants (e.g., the flying eagle variant of the forward one-foot), and a name based on a combination of the above terms may have a special, fancy name. For example, I've heard a backwards monoline called a "rattlesnake" and a double-extended wave (wow!) is a "tidal wave".


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