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How to Choose the Right Skateboard Wheels

Shopping for a set of wheels can be a frustrating experience for beginners and advanced skaters alike because wheels are often marketed in a deceptively simple way. Skateboard catalogs often omit important product information and consumers are expected to make purchases based solely on graphics or brand trust. Furthermore, even if you did see detailed product information, would you know how it affects performance?

Contrary to popular belief professional skateboard wheels are made from polyurethane, not urethane. Urethane is a compound made from isocyanate and ammonia and is mostly used in pesticides, medicines, and other chemicals. Polyurethane, on the other hand, is made from polyisocyanate and polyol. Polyurethane can be found almost everywhere, and its uses range from adhesives, foams, sealants, etc. The hard-plastic form of polyurethane used in skateboard wheels is called a polyurethane elastomer.

Pure polyurethane is clear and transparent but it is often mixed with different plastics and dies to achieve the wide range of colors found in skateboard wheels. Therefore, opaque colored wheels wear out and perform differently than transparent or lighter colored wheels because they are less pure.

There are many factors that contribute to performance loss. Uneven wear, development of flat-spots, and decrease in size are likely the biggest contributors to decreasing speed and performance. In addition, over time polyurethane loses its rebound properties, causing the bearings holes to expand and lose the tight bearing fit. Over time, polyurethane also reacts with light and becomes clouded and yellowish, but such discoloration does not seem to degrade the performance beyond noticeable levels. Considering the purity of the polyurethane, how you skate, where you skate, and how often you skate, your wheels could last anywhere from a few minutes to many decades.

It is very vital that you choose your wheels considering the type of terrain where you will be riding. Once you have determined where you will be skating most often, you can then consider the following properties:
  1. Durometer (hardness)
    The number/letter rating used in the polyurethane industry is a bastardized version of the Shore® durometer rating. The Shore® rating is defined and controlled by a testing organization called CCSi (www.ccsi-inc.com). It goes from 0 - 100 / A, B, C, D, O, or OO. So a 99A wheel is also sometimes referred to as 99 Shore A.

    Skateboards do not require a high level of precision so more often than not the durometer is merely estimated by the wheel manufacturers. In the early 90's when wheels formulas started exceeding 100A ratings, instead of using B, C, or D letters, many manufacturers started marketing their wheels with a 101A rating (which technically speaking does not exist).

    Now with the growing popularity of super hard and dual-durometer wheels, some manufacturers are marketing their wheels with random Shore® letter ratings. Worse yet, many manufacturers feel the rating confuses people and have stopped mentioning it all.

    Table of Shore® Conversions
    A B D
    100 85 58
    95 81 46
    90 76 39
    85 71 33
    80 66 29

    Advantages of hard wheels (ex: 100A, "101A"):
    • go super ultra fast in super-smooth surfaces, such as marble, shiny-smooth cement, linoleum, wood, metal, half-pipes, and mini-ramps
    • enable you to perform sliding tricks, such as blunts, lipslides, and grinds

    Disadvantages of hard wheels:
    • wear out and develop annoying flat-spots before you have any fun
    • do not absorb impact and vibration
    • not suited for your average street surface
    • make noise like you wouldn't believe

    Advantages of medium-hardness wheels (ex: 95A, 97A, 99A):
    • perform and go acceptably fast in both smooth and not so smooth surfaces
    • suited for a wide range of terrains, from street asphalt to linoleum
    • absorb some impact and vibration
    • make an aggressive "fart" noise when performing slides or slide tricks
    • grips more than hard wheels on very slippery surfaces like dusty linoleum skateparks

    Disadvantages of medium-hardness wheels:
    • slide ok, but can't quite make blunt or nose-blunt slides; need to cheat by waxing
    • can never go super ultra fast at smooth skateparks
    • lose rebound and start going slow sooner than hard or soft wheels

    Advantages of soft wheels (ex: 80A, 88A, 90A):
    • go super ultra fast on rougher terrains, such as asphalt and cemented sidewalks
    • absorb impact and vibration
    • do not make much noise

    Disadvantages of soft wheels:
    • do not slide at all (grip can sometimes be a desirable thing)
    • do not go fast in super smooth surfaces
    • Suited mostly for cruising and longboarding, not for performing tricks

  2. Size
    Both the width and the diameter are very important considerations when choosing a wheel. However, the only measurement likely to be mentioned is the diameter (in millimeters). If purchasing through a magazine or online catalog the width is usually left to the imagination even though it severely affects weight and durability. Thin wheels develop flat spots very easily and feel inappropriate on wooden ramps.

    The average wheel diameter found in most skateboards is between 50mm and 60mm. For street you might want to consider a wheel between 52mm and 55mm because you don't want it to wear out and become small too fast when skating rough asphalt. Bigger skaters tend to prefer bigger/faster wheels, but the drawback is added weight and height (especially the latter), which severely affects flip tricks and ollies.

    In the mid 90's extremely small 39mm wheels became popular for some time. Smaller wheels provide a super low center of gravity, which is horrible for ollies, but excellent for flips (especially pressure flips) and tail scraping tricks, such as 360 flips and impossibles. The major drawback is that small diameter wheels are agonizingly slow because they have to rotate many times more than larger wheels to cover the same distance.

    Longboarders and Luge Riders are often equipped with soft (88A or softer) and huge wheels (70mm and up). Dirt skaters need special rubber wheels (100mm and up) with traction treads (tires).


  3. Core
    Some wheels combine the benefits of different durometer wheels with an inner-core. The theory is that if you have a hard outer-core and a softer inner-core, you have a wheel that can do sliding tricks and absorb some impact. On the other hand, a softer outer-core and a harder inner-core allows for a more durable soft-feeling wheel which has a good bearing fit.

    Some companies make some obnoxiously hard wheels with super ultra hard outer core and an even harder (or metal) inner-core and the result is something that is almost unrideable in anything other than high gloss marble. This is not funny.


  4. Color
    Transparent wheels have the purest polyurethane and they outlast any other colored wheels by far. The drawback is that they grip a little much for some, so the most popular choice are white wheels. White wheels seem to have the perfect mixture of plastic and polyurethane to provide controlled slides and still be fairly durable. In my experience, the least durable wheels are wheels with multiple colors, strong fluorescent colors, or black.

    In the mid 80's using each wheel of a different color became a common practice which looks really cool. However, this is not a good idea because each wheel wears out and performs differently.
Conclusion
When buying wheels be aware that many manufacturers and retailers leave out important wheel properties to make the catalogs more appealing to beginner skaters. Indeed, sometimes the only thing not left to the imagination is the brand and the price (which is usually the same for every wheel on the same page). This can be a frustrating thing because there are much more important characteristics to consider when buying wheels than just brands or graphics. To get the most speed, performance, and durability, you must select a wheel that is appropriate for the type of terrain that you will be riding.

M-Ed

 
 
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