|IT was an otherwise calm Friday evening
along Montana Avenue in Santa Monica,Calif. I was strolling with a friend past the chic
outdoor cafes when suddenly-whoosh! Dozens of brightly clad nutters on in-line skates
suddenly shot by to the wild strains of "Ride of the Valkyries" blaring from a
boom box on the ringleader's back.
. It looked exhilarating and slightly dangerous at
the same time--Marlon Brando and the Wild Ones with smaller wheels and day jobs. "Who
are you?" we yelled, but they were moving too fast to chat. If you want to know about
these characters, you're supposed to go to fridaynightskate.org.
Fast forward a couple of weeks. This time it was me standing on top of Montana Avenue
with the same pack of 40-odd breathless revelers. Some carried flashing red reflectors,
one wore a helmet festooned with white Christmas lights. We'd already skated some seven
miles at this point, provoked a police man who blasted his horn at us and stopped traffic as startled onlookers yelled encouragement.
Montana's steep slope fell away before us at 20mph, making it problematic to stop for
red lights. Our leader, Christopher, punched on the Wagner, and we moved on. I giggled
from nerves. So did Craig, the bad-boy mortgage broker next to me.
Fueled by the internet, this scene gets repeated in cities all over the world on any
given night of every week. Not only does the Web provide a means of rallying disparate
groups of skaters through email lists, it lets them know where and how to assemble.
Paris is the big daddy of pack blading. On Friday nights an average of 20,000 skaters
stampede past the Place de la Concorde and the Eiffel Tower. They even get a police
These excursions exclude no one. "The idea of skating at night never occurred to
me. It seemed sort of ridiculous," says Nathaniel Antler, a 61-year old San Diegan.
Antler had never donned blades until a fifty-something neighbor coaxed him into them a few
years back. On his first time out he completed a 20 mile night skate in San Diego,
from the beach to downtown. "I was hooked," says Antler. "As far as
a late-life crisis goes, it's a little more fun and a lot less dangerous than a motorcycle
or a mistress."
It all started ten years ago in San Francisco. A group of skaters led by pied piper
David (D) Miles began skating the abandoned stretches of the Embarcadero Freeway shortly
after the 1989 earthquake. After the highway was demolished in 1991 Miles and his
followers took to the streets and showed the rest of the world how to do it.
Every Friday Miles and several hundred "Midnight Rollers" still assemble at
the Ferry Building, and head to Ghirardelli Square, the Palace of Fine Arts and beypnd.
Mercifully, the route avoids the city's steep hills, but it's still taxing.
Regulars like Tsutomu Shimomura wouldn't miss it. He's the Web sleuth famed for
tracking down hacker Kevin Mitnick. There's a vaguely cultish undertone to the San
Francisco skate. At its peak it draws 700 bladers, making it the biggest pack skate in the
U.S. Says Miles, "It's a movement."
On the Friday of my first night skate, the crew of 40 gathers. Every age is
represented. Christopher straps on a homemade harness he's rigged with a car stereo and a
couple of computer speakers, and we're rolling toward Venice Beach on the wings of K.C.
and the Sunshine Band ("Do a little dance, make a little love!").
I haven't skated for three years, but my rustiness vanishes as I pick up the rhythm of
the group. An experienced blader encourages me to hang on to his waist as we hurtle down
into Santa Monica Canyon. Next time solo, I promise myself. Two people take mild spills.
One girl gets her foot stuck in a sewer grate. On the whole, injuries are rare, although
helmets and wrist guards are strongly recommended.
Thomas Grosspietsch, an art director for Leo Burnett in Chicago and a devoted night
skater there, braved a monstrous Paris skate last summer with 65 other Americans. One of
his friends timed how long it took the pack to roar past at full tilt: 20 minutes. Earlier
that same week the Pari-rollers had taken their American visitors on a Monday night
"boy-girl skate." (Men and women take off in opposite directions and the boys
hunt down the girls.)
This got Grosspietsch thinking, and he is now organizing themed Friday night skates
past the historic sites of his native city. Upcoming ones will include a gangster skate, a
blues skate a junk food skate. Last summer Grosspietsch led a skate that traced the entire
area burned in the Great Chicago Fire. And of course the city's historic beer halls are
the last stop on every itinerary.
All of which demonstrates that while a night skate provides a nifty alternative to the
pub, it doesn't guarantee you won't end up there.