The worst falls involve deep sand.
That's the take from Steve, one of the Inline Swine skaters who can be found rolling through Houston twice a week. Spills can be caused by gravel. Or slick streets. Or stopping too fast. But sand is the worst, he said.
He recounted one of his worst spills in a semi-circle of fellow Inline Swine, about a dozen of them taking skates off, drinking Topo Chico or eating ice cold watermelon. They had just finished a two-hour trek.
"And I was yelling Sand! Sand! Sand! Sand! Sand!" he said. "Broke a rib. Took us to he bar stop. Skated us home. Couldn't take a full breath for six months."
As flat as Houston is, you'd think roller blades would be more prevalent, despite their post 1990's decline. But say "Houston" and "roller blades" in the same sentence. The average person will probably think of nothing more than Juan Carlos Restrepo, the man famous for skate-dancing at the corner of Montrose and Allen Parkway.
Other than Restrepo (or Houston Roller Derby, or the all-but retired Houston Animals) the Houston street skating scene is virtually limited to Inline Swine, the oldest still-running group in Space City.
It's true that street skating (hell skating in general) isn't what it used to be. There were only 20 million or so Americans still doing it in 2006. Two years ago it was down to 12 million. The number drops to a little over 5 million when you whittle it down to inline skates.
Some people say it's because skating isn't as fashionable as it used to be. Others think it's because skating requires smooth surfaces, coordination and good old-fashioned physical ability.
Inline Swine, which descries itself as a social skater group, doesn't discriminate between in-line blades, quad roller skates and bicycles. Yes, some of their skaters use bikes, they noted right off the bat.
They're more niche than the controlled chaos that is Critical Mass, they have a history far less edgy than the infamous legacy of Houston's Urban Animals, and they're better organized than your Facebook friends who formed a shambling bike group that you stopped meeting with after the first two times.
It's a healthy spectrum of riders. Senior, middle-aged and people in their twenties who pop in and out. Professions range from real estate to medicine to engineering to artistry and everything in-between. Some skate because that's what they've done for decades. Others are keeping fit. A few are in Houston's Roller Derby league. Friends of friends give it a try. Sometimes they stick.
I found Inline Swine in 2016, through a former coworker who would post ride videos online, eventually realizing I didn't have to actually skate to participate.
Over the past few years I’ve attended on and off, archiving how it is to navigate the city with a few sets of plastic wheels under your feet.
Full disclosure, I haven’t put on roller skates in 18 years and don’t have plans to do so anytime soon. More power to you if you do.
Inline Swine meets up each Tuesday and Thursday (weather permitting) around 7:30. In the beginning they met at the Texas Art Supply parking lot in Montrose. The location was changed last year to the parking garage at Carnegie Vanguard High School.
(Inline Swine also has a Sunday skate but this begins at 10 am from Stude Park. I also haven't been awake on Sunday at 10 am in nearly 20 years. Once again, more power to you.)
On an average night they roll out at 7:50, headed at a leisurely-to-moderate pace. They'll head to the bike trail along Buffalo Bayou, or through a series of scenic neighborhoods. They’ll cut through downtown, or end up on the Colombia Tap Trail in Third Ward, or hit Midtown, depending on who’s leading and the location of the bar stop that night.
It’s never the same bar twice in a row, but as a general rule the establishment needs to be skater-friendly (outdoor patio without too many people milling about).
There’s the easy choices like Woodrow’s or Moon Tower Inn. But Inline Swine hasn't shied away from the more packed hotspots, such as Raven Tower, or the hipster day-care known as Axelrad. They've been spotted at some of the newer bars popping up in East Downtown as well, fitting right into Truck Yard.
After a few beers and some water, they head back out. The second half of the skate is where the real work begins. The sun set hours ago, and most of the group has stomachs with a beer or two in them. Not to mention, it's the streets of Houston.
Street skating in the 610 loop is the weaponized hard-mode version of a social bike ride. You're utilizing most of your body parts. You're relying on the attention (and mercy) of Houston's drivers - we all know how stand-up they are. You're sticking a human on tiny wheels, a body that has been hard-wired over the last 10,000 years to NOT glide.
Pedestrians whoop and holler as the Inline Swine roll by. Cars honk - usually in support. Eventually, some passerby will shout out "Who are you?" And get a brief explanation. People on bikes going the opposite direction slow down with cautious optimism.
"We always say ‘The bar’s the other way!’" Steve said. "And they say, ‘What bar?’ And we say, ‘Turn around, you’ll find out.’”
Fatigue sets in on nights with higher humidity and a route involving more uphill (in Houston, can you believe it) paths than average. On longer rides, skaters will gladly take a tow from a bike rider, one hand one the seat of the bike, letting momentum take over. Friendly cars have been known to offer the same.
Hiccups occur infrequently. The group gets segmented from a quick red light. Or a wheel pops off and rolls its way into a ditch. But Inline Swine takes its “no skater left behind” rule seriously. Rideshare programs help, but the group generally tries to get everyone there and back again in one unit.
There’s been instances where someone’s lost steam, or done a flip after hitting a pot hole. I’ve yet to see a skater struck by a car. But wiping out on gravel, swerving out of the path of some scrub driver glued to a phone, or just good-old-fashioned eating it because you didn’t notice that fizzure in the street? All too possible on Houston’s roads.
Chuck, one of the veteran members, has no shortage of close-calls.
“I skidded on my pads. My nose was almost on the ground.” he said, describing an instance years prior when a downhill descent turned into a slide. “When we got down the hill, I rolled down my pants and took out about half a pound of rocks.”
Inline Swine has also been known to roll with Critical Mass. On one occasion a skater ate it hard, going down with a biker rolling right over them. An ambulance was called and the skater was taken away. The biker was devastated, but Inline Swine chalked it up to an unavoidable accident.
“I’ve seen Chuck taken away in an ambulance a couple of times,” Steve, said. “And he always comes back.”
The typical circuit runs about two hours, or 13 miles. They’re always back at the garage at the end, gnoshing on watermelon and Topo Chico (maybe a few shots of Jameson if it’s called for). Another successful skate completed.
The group has morphed over time, but the basics remain static. Annual themed skates for holidays. Attendance at the Art Car parade. They made a point to show up at Discovery Green when the roller rink popped up in 2017.
One member several years before, a cardiologist, didn’t like the “Inline Swine” name (for whatever reason) and decided to start his own faction: Street Hawks. He went so far as to buy shirts for everyone. The name didn’t take, but the “Street Hawks” title still pops up from time to time.
As said previously, Inline Swine isn’t the only skate group in Houston. There's Houston Roller Derby, the women’s competitive skate league, though competitive sport skating in a rink isn't exactly a synonym with outdoor street skating. There's a group of college-aged kids I've spotted rolling around Polk street on the weekend but have yet to track down (that group can feel free to hit me up on Twitter: @nodyah_ to do a follow-up).
Chuck also noted Urban Animals, the misfit bohemian skate group from the 1980’s. Their activity has dropped off, but you can occasionally find their presence at the Art Car parade and various skating events.
Then there's the various kids who roll through Houston's concrete nooks and crannies after midnight. Some on roller blades, others on skateboards or riding BMX bikes. All of them utilizing downtown as one big skate park. All of them a reminder that no, skating isn't dead yet.
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