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Pedal to the Metal: Speedskating Blade Anatomy
Posted by tedwards On Thu 11 Sep, 2014
Ever wondered what your speedskating blades are made out of? Are they made from aluminum, steel, or maybe some strange, cutting-edge aerospace material? And then there are powder metal (PM) blades. What is powder metal, anyway? And what the heck does HRC stand for? We’re here to break it down for you and answer all of your questions about blade anatomy. We’ve even sliced some of our own blades in half in order to help tell the story.

Tubes

Speedskating blades feature two main components: the runners (the part of the blade that comes in contact with the ice), and the tubes (the part that connects the runners to the boots). We’ll cover runners in a minute. First, let’s take a closer look at tubes. The majority of tubes are made from either aluminum or steel. Some companies have experimented with titanium tubes, but titanium is quite brittle and prone to fracturing—not good when you need reliability on the ice. For this reason, titanium tubes have never taken off.

Aluminum vs. Steel

When looking at aluminum tubes versus steel tubes, it’s important to first understand that metal stiffness is measured in something called Modulus of Elasticity. Steel is, on average, three times stiffer than aluminum; however, in speedskating, aluminum tubes are actually stiffer than steel tubes, because of the special way they are engineered. Because aluminum is lightweight, aluminum tubes have to be built with thicker walls in order to increase their stiffness, and to make them strong enough to withstand the pressures of speedskating.



Aluminum tubes are most commonly found in short track, while long track is split between aluminum and steel, depending on the level of the skater. One reason aluminum tubes are so popular in short track speedskating is because the stiffer quality of aluminum tubes allows them to hold the bend you put into them, even under the extreme pressures of short track. And because short track is almost all corners, aluminum is the clear choice. Steel tubes, on the other hand, have the unique ability to flex but not deform. So as long track speedskaters begin their push on a straightaway, their blades form, in a way, to the ice. Steel tubes have the ability to maintain their strength, while still giving long track skaters a solid base to push off from. And while entry-level or recreational long track skaters can choose from either steel or aluminum tubes, professional long track speedskaters prefer steel tubes. In the end, both aluminum and steel tubes have distinct benefits, and what you choose comes down to personal preference.

Runners

Now that you have a better understanding of tubes, let’s take a closer look at blade runners. As already mentioned, runners are the part of the blade that actually come in contact with the ice. Blade runners can be made out of one type of metal, or prepared in a bimetal configuration. If the runner is bimetal, this means two different types of metal—specifically, two types of steel—have been combined into a single piece. They are stacked on top of each other so the steel that touches the ice is different from the steel that attaches to the tube. In fact, if you take a closer look at the side of a bimetal runner, you’ll notice a line running down the length of the runner, in addition to a color differentiation. This indicates where the change in material occurs.

Harder steel gives skaters a better glide on the ice, stays sharper longer, and has a smoother sharpened edge. However, harder steel is more brittle, making it more prone to chips and cracks. The advantage of bimetal runners is that they combine harder steel (the steel that comes in contact with the ice) with a softer steel (the steel that connects the runner with the tube). And by combining the two, the problem of brittleness is eliminated, making bimetal runners more durable.

Metal Expansion and Contraction

Let’s take a look at metal expansion and contraction. (And don’t worry—we’re not like your high school algebra teacher.There won’t be any pop quizzes when you’re done reading. It’s important to remember that aluminum and steel expand and contract at different rates. When the molecules in metal heat up, they expand; when they cool down, they contract. When you have long track blades comprised of steel tubes and steel runners, like the Comet Laser Long Track Blades, for example, the rate at which both expand and contract will be consistent. However, short track blades, as well as some long track blades, are made with aluminum tubes and steel runners, like the Maple Gold Short Track Blades, or the Comet Aluminum Long Track Blades. The aluminum and steel will expand and contract at different rates.
 
Aluminum contracts faster than steel in cold environments. Aluminum blades can become up to three meters rounder after only 20 minutes on the ice. It’s also good to remember that the rock—the radius of the blade from heel to toe—on aluminum blades changes as the blade gets colder. This is good to keep in mind when choosing the rock for your blades. In a race setting, when your blades are in contact with the ice for a shorter amount of time, this won’t have a significant impact. However, in practice settings, when your blades are in contact with the ice for longer periods of time, it’s a different story.

Powder Metal

We know what you’re thinking—you’re excited to impress everyone at practice with all this newfound knowledge. But we’re not finished quite yet. Let’s get the lowdown on powder metal runners. Powder metal, or “PM” for short, is metal that starts out as a very fine powder. The powder is compressed into a desired shape, then heated in a controlled environment to bond the material together. The result is a harder metal with a very fine grain structure. What this means, in speedskating terms, is that powder metal blade runners have an even higher rating on the Rockwell scale than regular blades, which we’ll explain in a minute. Powder metal runners give speedskaters a better glide on the ice and can be polished to a mirror-like finish. Powder metal is, however, more delicate than steel. (An example of powder metal blades is the Maple Twin Laser T-Bone Long Track Blades, or the Maple Curvado Short Track Blades.) Though popular in the mid 90’s,powder metal runners were not available in a bimetal configuration, making them both stiff and fragile. However, powder metal blades are now available in bimetal, which fixes both problems. Powder metal blades are once again gaining popularity, especially among long track speed skaters.
 
So what is HRC, Anyway?

You’ve probably noticed that speedskating blades are represented by a number, followed by “HRC”. The hardness of steel runners is represented on the Rockwell Hardness Scale (HRC) with a Rockwell letter and number designation. Rockwell Hardness tests are used to measure the hardness of metals by pressing a diamond indentor into the surface of the steel with a specific load, and then measuring how far the indentor is able to penetrate the steel. So when you see a Rockwell number like 60HRC, “HR” stands for “Hardened Rockwell”, while the number represents a number on the Rockwell scale that the testing was done with. (Most blades have hardness in the mid-60’s.) And while there are a number of Rockwell scales (A, B, C, D, F, N, T), speedskating blades are usually rated on the “C” scale. The larger the number, the harder the steel in your speedskating blades.

Making an Informed Decision

So now that we’ve gone over the technical aspects of blade construction, you may be thinking, “Great, but what does it matter to me?” When choosing a pair of speedskating blades, it’s important to make an informed decision. Remember that with harder metal blades, you’ll get longer-lasting edges and better glide on the ice. But harder metals can be more delicate, and higher-end characteristics come with a higher price tag.

For entry-level skaters, a lower Rockwell number (58-60) can be advantageous because the blade’s metal will be more forgiving if impact occurs. Blades with a lower Rockwell number are also more affordable. For more advanced skaters, blades containing a mid-level Rockwell number (62-64) and made from powder metal are preferable, as they’ll hold their edge longer and offer superior glide.

While aluminum tubes are most commonly found in short track, they can also provide a more affordable option for recreational and entry-level long track skaters. Aluminum tubes can provide a solid foundation until basic technique is mastered, and a long track skater is ready to move on to steel tubes. But again, both aluminum and steel tubes have different benefits, and what you choose ultimately comes down to personal preference.

If you have questions about any of this information, or if you need assistance selecting the right blades, don’t hesitate to shoot us an email at orders@cascadespeedskates.com.

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