Off the Couch Noisy clap skate alters future of competitive speed skating

The equipment is so new, people haven’t agreed on how to spell it.

Clap skates. Slap skates. Klapschaats. Klapp skates. Whatever the description, these ice skates have caused international anxiety and drawn an unusual amount of controversy to the sport. Last year, clap skaters surpassed world records supposedly inviolable until the next century. International competitors and Olympic hopefuls had to resort to last-minute, custom-made models since the few companies in the Netherlands couldn’t fulfill the sudden surge in demand.

This speed skate, which originated in Holland, is used for long tracks such as the 400 meter. The traditional long-track skate affixes the blade to the boot, whereas the clap skate resembles a stapler with its blade hinged at the boot toe. To gain maximum forward momentum, the skater pushes off from the front of the foot rather than the heel. The blade then stays on the ice longer during motion. The applause sound comes from the spring snapping back onto the blade.

Jos J. de Koning, an associate professor of biomechanics and exercise physiology in Free University, Amsterdam, says the “slap skate” was developed out of 20 years of speed skating research by fellow professor of biomechanics Gerrit Jan van Ingen Schenau (www.usspeedskating.org).

Schenau discovered traditional “skaters suppress a powerful ankle extension” to prevent the skate tip from scratching the ice and losing balance. Stopping this extension means stopping the powerful movement that propels other activities such as running and jumping. His hinged skated proposal resulted in a prototype back in 1984. The term “slap” refers not to noise but the effort of “slapping on” more work per stroke. A skater without the physical wherewithal, therefore, may not go faster on clap skates.

Clap skates will likely filter down to the consumer level. Liz and Paul Marchese of New York-based Marchese Racing, which made clap skates for the Milwaukee national and world teams, say “it’s a more natural motion.” You can order a pair, between $250 to $400, by calling 1-518-731-6614.

Shirley Yates, executive secretary/treasurer of the Amateur Speedskating Union (web.mit.edu/jeffrey/speedskating/asu.html), doubts the average speed skater will make the crossover since it would be technological overkill. “A lot of people are in (speed skating) for recreational purposes, ” she says. “It’s not like they’re trying to win a world championship.” At the competition level, Yates believes clap skates will change the sport’s ambience. “If you were skating properly, it would be silent, ” she explains. “It’s a wonderful, quiet sport. Now you get this noise.”

Although some have bemoaned an icy future in which technology, not technique, dictates winning records, Adlai Karim of Berkeley’s Karim Cyclery (841-2181, www.teamkarim.com) points out that the speed skate has undergone several changes, from a bone tied to a leather shoe to a single molded fiberglass unit. “It’s brought a lot of attention to speed skating, and I think that’s a good thing, ” Karim says.

Californians who want to take true advantage of the blades have to go to Salt Lake City for long-distance ice. The warm climes here and in Lake Tahoe don’t allow for long outdoor rinks to stay solid enough to practice.

Clap skates aside, Karim recommends short-track training for locals who want a taste of speed skating. The nonprofit Northern California Speedskating provides lessons at locales such as Oakland Ice Center, 519 18th St., 268-9000. For NCSA questions, call 848-7559 Association or browse www-cs-students.stanford.edu/~friedman/ncsa.htm/#ASU.

Vera HC Chan writes Off the Couch every other week. Send suggestions to her at the Contra Costa Times, P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, 94596, or by fax to 943-8362.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times.

 

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