PSA: Skid Plates in the UK

For a long time, sourcing freestyle parts in the UK has been an absolute nightmare. Gradually, we’re collectively filling the voids, and our very own Michael Erskine has stepped up to the plate to offer skidplates.

This eBay listing is for skids designed to fit the Moonshine board, but they’ll go on almost any double-kick freestyle board currently available. If you get in touch with him through eBay he can cut some to fit almost anything, so if you’re in the UK or Europe and need some prophylactics, now you know where to look.

Review: Bear Polar Trucks

Bear's Polar 105 Truck

For a long time, freestylers have really only had two major choices for trucks: Tracker and Independent, both of whom offered 10Xmm trucks for cruisers, slalom and freestyle. And while I’ve happily been using Tracker’s 106mm Racetrack X for nearly 15 years, the new flood of longboard companies and cruisers has given freestylers a much greater array of choices for the near-standard 7.25″ board width, and I was starting to get curious as to what was actually available for the modern freestyler.

After searching out as many different options as possible for the still ongoing truck info page (which will appear eventually), there was one that really stood out as the most promising: Bear’s Polar 105mm truck.

Bear's Polar 105 Truck

Bear are Landyachtz’ truck brand, and primarily make high-end RKP (reverse geometry) trucks suited to longboard use. I’d seen their standard Grizzly truck in a few longboard-friendly skateshops around the UK, and while they looked high quality, I’d never actually ridden a set (I have only actually bought one set of RKP trucks in my life – some Holeys back in 2009 – and they’re still going strong). They had one feature that really intrigued me, though; rather than the standard 4-hole or 6-hole mounting pattern, Bear had doubled down and provided an 8-hole pattern to allow for three mounting options. Not only would the trucks fit on decks drilled with the old-school pattern (still somewhat common in the longboard world), but the truck could be moved 1/4″ away from the nose or tail on decks with new-school holes. It’s a great idea – especially for freestyle – and I wondered why no one had incorporated it into regular trucks.

Bear's Baseplate.
The baseplate is fairly standard – apart from the innovative 8-hole mounting pattern.

Well, Bear eventually came through with their 105mm Polar trucks. With a hangar that measures 104mm – 1mm off the marked width – they come in fractionally shorter than Indy 109s (actual hangar length of 108.5mm, according to Michael Erskine) and 106mm Tracker Racetracks (actual hangar length of 107mm). With Seismic Focus wheels, this means you get slightly more lean towards the wheels in rail with a 7.25″ or 7.3″ board, but also opens the possibility of fitting them on a 7.1″ board with fewer washers or shallower wheels. Personally, I feel like putting them on a fresh Moonshine freestyle board with Seismic wheels, you get roughly the same rail stability that you used to get on a Capital Mini with (the slightly wider) Tracker Fultracks and (the slightly shallower) Nicotine wheels, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a very solid setup that lends itself very well to landing in rail.

Hangar lengths of the Bear 105 and Racetrack S
The hangar and axle of the Bear 105 (top) comes in just shorter than the typical modern freestyle sizes – represented here by the Racetrack S.

The ring around the kingpin is substantially beefier on the Bear than the Indy 109.
The ring around the kingpin is substantially beefier on the Bear than the Indy 109.

In terms of finish and strength, the truck looks the part. Out of the box, both the machining and the general design looks good. There are no obvious compromises of strength for the sake of lightness, and typically weak areas in the truck (under the hangar and around the kingpin) have all been strengthened. The “pinch” area in the baseplate (the space between kingpin and pivot cup) is solid, too. Meanwhile, the flat face of the hangar has a large indentation to lose some unnecessary material, so the truck ends up around the same weight as the Indy 109, despite the more solid feeling throughout. One example of Bear’s attention to detail is that during the first skate session I noticed a small amount of lubricant seeping from the pivot cup; this was almost certainly why they felt “broken in” almost straight out of the gate, and is another nice touch. Why more truck manufacturers don’t do this is beyond me.

Another surprise is the ride height. Most modern 10X trucks are fairly tall, hovering around the 55mm mark from baseplate to axle center (the outlier at the top end is the Paris 108, which comes in at 57.15mm due to its taller hangar and thicker baseplate). Meanwhile, the Bear is a mere 50.8mm according to the manufacturer. While I prefer a taller board (more stability in rail, more wheelie clearance, better kickflips), this will probably be a good thing for anyone who likes ollie tricks (I just stuffed some taller risers underneath them). Despite this lower height, you still get full kingpin coverage for no handed pogos without having to compromise with shorter bushings. I was caught out by the Indy 109s – it’s very difficult to fit a standard barrel and cone bushing combination on them, and usually you need a smaller top cone. That’s not the case with the Bear trucks. Not only does this make sourcing bushings a bit easier (important in a country where finding Khiros is hard enough as it is), but it gives you more urethane above the hanger for more rebound and a more reliable turn.

Axle heights of the Indy 109, Bear 105 and Racetrack S
The Bear sits lower than the Indy 109 (left) and the Racetracks (right).

And while the turning might be the last thing many freestylers will care about, I’ve got to say this: they do turn well. I took out three different freestyle setups to compare turning performance (all with 10Xmm trucks, purple Khiro bushings and Seismic wheels to eliminate as many variables as possible), and while the Racetrack S possibly provided the best general turn for freestyle, with the most predictable and stable performance throughout the carve, the Bears were effectively an improved Indy, featuring Indy’s willingness to turn without Indy’s tendency to “dive” into it. What this translates to in freestyle is that you don’t need to crank the truck nut all the way down to remove instability, and can keep some turning performance without compromising the predictability of more technical or awkward tricks. Hopefully, it should also result in fewer broken kingpins, as they’re not under as much stress as the average Indy 109mm or Tracker Racetrack X setup; whether that will prove correct or not will only be seen in time.

On the kingpin front, Bear are also using the modern splined kingpin, which means Tracker may be the only holdout in the 10Xmm size still using the good ol’ hex head kingpin as standard. (For those who haven’t heard the debates on the podcast about why hex heads are arguably better, they’re not only generally easier to remove, they’re cheaper to replace due to the fact they’re just a standard grade 8 bolt.) However, having knocked out the original splined kingpin (which came out surprisingly easily, and I’m not sure whether or not that’s a good thing), it looks almost like the baseplate might be able to grip a hex head kingpin if one was installed. Again, until I snap a kingpin, I won’t know for sure, but it looks like a possibility.

You might get a hex-head to grip in the Bear 105.
You might get a hex-head to grip in the Bear 105. Maybe.

So, overall, the Bears are good. For those who are looking for a low truck, the Bears should be a no-brainer over every other option at this size. I’ll certainly be recommending them over the Indy and Paris trucks wherever possible; I think they’re a much more solid and interesting alternative, with a lot going for them. Another benefit (in the UK at least) is the price – a set of Indy 109s or Paris 108s will typically be around the £50 mark before you even factor shipping into the equation, but the Bear Polar 105 can be had for £37.99 + postage. Against the comparatively-priced Trackers, it’s a bit more even – the Racetrack X is similar geometry and the Racetrack S is arguably a better ride, but the Bears are probably more suited to freestyle than the S (which really suffers under the stress of coconut wheelies) and the X due to the lower kingpin and the wheelbase adjustment options.

The downside is that they’re really hard to find – in the UK at least. As I write there’s a couple of sets on eBay, so grab them now if you’re interested. I think in the US you can buy from Landyachtz direct, but I’m not sure what their distribution is like otherwise. Still, hunt some down – you won’t be disappointed.

Review: Mode Freestyle Wheels

99a White Mode Freestyle Wheels (pic from Mode website)
99a White Mode Freestyle Wheels (pic from Mode website)

Mode Freestyle Wheels. OK, here we go. 

Short version.

I like them. I like both the 99a and the 95a. I like them a lot.

Longer version.

Amazingly, we are now living in the Golden Age of Freestyle wheels.

You, the lucky freestyle skateboarder, now have access to more excellent freestyle wheels than ever before. The 1980s now officially suck. Ten years ago such a statement would have seemed an impossible dream, yet here we are, today, 2016, with more freestyle wheels available than ever before. Don’t believe me? Go to Decomposed’s Wheels Page and see. And that’s not even all of them. It’s missing Sk8Kings. Many of the wheels on that page are deeply offset – a feature usually sought out by freestylers.

Before I get started on the review, and before your are tired of reading, I want to commend and express appreciation to Terry and Jenna Synnott, Dan Gesmer, and Witter Cheng, Richy and Maria Carrasco, and anyone else running smaller companies and creating unique products. We’ll be talking to Terry soon on the podcast, and I want to get into the process and challenges of bringing unique, quality products to market. We in the FS community need to really understand that these are not the massive mega-companies that dominate the skate industry. For Terry, Jenna, Dan, and Witter to actually create products for such a small population of skaters is remarkable and brave. They have invested not only their time, but more importantly their MONEY in these products, and we should be supporting all of them, 100%.

OK, on to the review.

What has been missing from the freestyle scene for several years is an offset wheel less than 97a or 98a hardness. What I personally have missed is having a 95a freestyle wheel. A wheel that’s a little smoother on rough surfaces, a little easier on the ankles and knees upon landing tricks, and a little quieter. In recent memory, Reverse Freestyle has done such a wheel, as has Sk8Kings, but until Mode’s recent release of the 95a version of their freestyle wheel, none have been available for quite a while.

95a Mode Freestyle wheels.
95a Mode Freestyle wheels. Click image to enlarge.

So first, a few words on both versions of the wheels. Here are the stats.

Height: 55mm
Contact patch: 25mm
True width of wheel: 1 3/8″ (35mm)
Bearing seat: Deeply offset

Skaters from the previously mentioned but now not-so-cool 1980s will recognize the shape and overall profile of these wheels as being much like the old OJ Freestyle wheels. This is intentional. The OJs were very popular, and provided the deepest offset of any of the freestyle wheels back then. Terry Synnott, co-owner of Mode, designed these wheels to be very close to these old wheels, but with a 55mm diameter rather than 57mm.

On the rear of the wheels, as you will see if you click on the image to the left and examine the full-sized image, the bearing sits flush with the back face of the wheel. In order to make the wheels handle more quickly and precisely, Mode shaves a lot of material off the wheel, narrowing the contact patch. The result is the width that you need to provide axle-nut coverage on the other side, without creating a lot of drag with a wide contact patch. The outer lip of the wheel is bevelled almost to a round edge, allowing the wheel to break free for shove-its and slides when you want, but still grip impressively when you wish for traction.

At this point, I’ve ridden both the 99a and 95a versions of this wheel, so I want to talk about the differences and strengths of each.

Mode 99a Freestyle Wheels. Click to enlarge image.
Mode 99a Freestyle Wheels. Click to enlarge image.

99a. These wheels are extremely fast. The surface I usually practice on is smooth without being slippery. Testing these wheels, they are certainly hard. 99a feels quite a lot harder than the 98a Kevin Harris wheels I’d been using, even though it is only 1 point more. To me, they feel similar in hardness and urethane quality to the 97a Seismic wheels, just a bit harder. The urethane feels really good. As we have mentioned on the podcast, for a hard wheel they grip remarkably well. This no doubt is a result of both high quality urethane and the shape of the wheel. At the 2015 Philly Freestyle, I watch both Mike Osterman and Connor Burke throw 540 Shove-its at will on these wheels, on a fairly slick surface, with total confidence. Good urethane. Good shape.

When I tried these wheels on my own board, what really hit me immediately was the speed these wheels impart. They roll very, very fast. Incredible, really. For 360 spinning, they offer the speed of an even harder speciality spinning wheel, with enough grip to not kill yourself.

95a. I’ll admit that while I was stoked about the original 99a wheels, when Mode announced the development of a 95a wheel I was even more delighted. For my style, I find a smooth, even roll and a little bit more shock absorption is desirable. BUT – you don’t want to go to soft on the durometer, or the wheels would become too bouncy and imprecise, or too mushy so you could feel them deform under your feet as you skate. 95a is really a perfect compromise. Hard enough to get the job done (that’s what she said), but smooth enough to provide a really nice ride (that’s what she said too!).

Getting on these 95a wheels immediately clicked with me. They just felt right. I’ve enjoyed the excellent Seismic Focus 97a wheels, the Decomposed Synnott wheels, and the Skull Skates/Momentum Kevin Harris 98a wheels. All great wheels, and all have their place. These 95a Mode’s are now my go-to wheels for most surfaces. I can see using the 99s in a lot of smooth surface circumstances, since they still have great grip, but these just seem right to my old taste buds.

Right now, Mode is the only wheel company in freestyle to offer a true softer wheel/harder wheel option. I feel like this took guts. Most skaters these days will be very happy to have hard wheels. They are raised on hard wheels. But for a small operation to actually invest in development and creation of a softer freestyle wheel shows passion.

Which one is for you? Depends on your style, where you usually skate, etc. If you are used to hard wheels and like them, I think the 99s will will for you under most conditions. If you want a smoother ride, get the 95s.

— Bob