Beirutis don skates for fitness and daring tricks

BEIRUT: A growing trend is speeding along the winding paved walkway of Beirut’s corniche: rollerblading. On any given weekend in the city, couples skate side by side along the Mediterranean Sea in large-wheeled distance skates, while the younger crowd dons smaller-wheeled aggressive skates to pull tricks on railings and play games.

Lebanon is part of a new, worldwide surge in the popularity of the wheeled boots that first reached its height in the ’90s.

Reports have come in from The New York Times and of Japanese taking up rollerblading in lieu of biking and of Americans again scooting along the country’s coastlines in skates.

In Lebanon, sports shops across Beirut say they are seeing steady sales of rollerblades, particularly to the younger crowd.

At Sports Experts in Ashrafieh, Johnny Bahre says he sells most skates to customers aged 14 to 25 years old. Brands like Razor and Roces as well as K2 are selling particularly well. Of those, he usually sells the basic boot for casual skaters.

“Roller[blading] is popular,” he says.

The exercise is a popular aerobic alternative to biking because it’s easy to do in crowded spaces. Rollerblading, or in-line skating, has also won over some jogging enthusiasts because the low impact exercise is gentle on the joints. Rollerblading works the lower core muscles such as the abs, back, hip and thigh muscles.

Without a permanent ice-skating rink in the country many ice-skating fans are turning to rollerblading as a similar balance-oriented lower body exercise to train in the absence of year-round ice access.

George Khoury was a longtime ice-skater who had nowhere to turn after the country’s last permanent ice arena closed down seven years ago. Khoury and his friends decided to repurpose their figure skates for outdoor use.

They removed the metal runners and attached wheel cages and rubber stops to make the skates move like ice-skates.

“The in-line figure is like practicing off ice,” the 36-year-old nurse says.

Khoury and his friends practice indoors during the winter on basketball courts, and when the weather improves they go to open spaces by the coast.

Khoury says that they hope to attract interest from a large base of ice-skaters already in the country.

“We are trying to start this new sport and get as many people as we can,” he says.

But rollerblading goes beyond a stroll along the corniche in Lebanon. There also exists a dedicated group of aggressive skaters in the country who aim for thrills as well as social exercise.

With smaller wheels, skaters can build up speed quickly to jump up steep ramps, and with metal “soul plates” on the boot’s underside, aggressive skaters can grind along hard surfaces.

In-line instructor Guilbert Abi Rached, 34, has been teaching since he was 14 and says he is the most highly certified skate instructor in the country.

“It’s starting to be much more popular,” Rached says. He adds that his facility runs off a dedicated following of skaters in Beirut as well as an expanding base of young people getting interested in the sport.

Rached teaches everything from basic skating to advanced tricks. He also runs the only skate park in Beirut at the Karantina amusement center next to Forum de Beyrouth, where there is a variety of ramps for skaters to use.

Rached is planning to offer rollerblade tours around the city for casual skaters as well as competitions at his location next to Forum de Beyrouth.

For beginners, Rached recommends lessons and to not begin with expectations to immediately start hitting big air jumps and grinding rails.

There are a wide variety of skates for different sports but Rached recommends keeping it simple.

“If they want to start they should get the fitness skates, and a good quality of skate,” Rached says.

First-time skaters are recommended to avoid stiff plastic skates and look for well-fitting skates with high quality wheels and breaks.

Helmets and proper padding are critical as well, Rached says.

With the proper padding rollerblading is just as safe as many other sports.

“A lot of people say it’s dangerous, but it’s not that dangerous,” he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 06, 2012, on page 2.




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