Photo by Richard Lee Owens
If you’ve ever crossed paths with the Barcelona Friday night group skate, you’ll know that in this city, rollerblading is more than just a sport. Hundreds of skaters dominate the streets as they burst through the city together, weaving their way around the tiny corners of the Gòtic neighbourhood and stopping traffic as they navigate Eixample’s grid.
The weekly event is the brainchild (and hard work) of APB, or the Associació de Patinadors de Barcelona. Formed in 2003, APB now has over 600 members, and it runs a pretty tight ship when it comes to organising these, and other, events. Group president, Juan Carlos García, lights up when he starts telling me about the Friday night skates. “This is really a great way to explore the city”, he said, explaining that there are seven different routes, which they rotate every week, and that each route takes you through different, but equally scenic parts of the city. “The routes are each about 15 to 18 kilometres, and usually this takes us about one-and-a-half to two hours to get through,” he explained. “We pass the Sagrada Família, go through El Gótico, skate along the beach. We go at a fairly relaxed pace, so everyone socialises and chats along the way.”
Juan Carlos gives me a quick rundown on how the weekly event works, explaining that in winter it attracts about 150 to 200 skaters, whereas in summer as many as 300 pitch up. “It’s a very organised activity,” he said, “in that we have the support of the Ayuntamiento, and that about 25 of the more advanced members volunteer to help. They act as marshalls, controlling the traffic, and skating in front of and behind the group in order to keep everyone together.” He added that as long as you have an intermediate level (you need to know how to brake, turn and jump pavements), you’ll have no problems taking part in the routes.
A week before meeting Juan Carlos I’d gone on my first skate with a bunch of friends, so his casual mention of jumping pavements far from passed me by. Rollerblading is probably the most fun I’ve had on my feet in years, but it’s definitely not as easy as it seems.
Everyone I tried skating with were novices, bar one, who still has his original Eighties’ roller skates. Despite not having skated in over 20 years, he still managed to swish around like a reprobate teenager, and thanks to him, we had a constant shirt to pull on and a landing pad to crash into, which fast-tracked our progress in that first wobbly hour. I must admit that feeling out of control of my body was terrifying at first, but once we got our rather inelegant rhythm going, the sensation of cruising down Barceloneta walkway, dodging tourists and tackling ramps was nothing short of exhilarating.
We concentrated on learning to brake that first day, and I was surprised at how much we all learned in just two hours, but we still ended the session with some spectacular wipeouts.
So if, like me, the idea of jumping pavements terrifies you, APB also offers free classes every Tuesday night. Xavi Blanch, who runs the classes, explained that they cater to all levels, and that everyone is welcome. “Just come down to el Parc del Clot at ten thirty on a Tuesday evening and we’ll assign you to your level,” he said. “As a complete beginner, you’ll probably need a maximum of 10 hours of skating before joining the routes.”
The Barcelona APB group has no age limits, with the youngest member being just a few months old and the oldest being well into his 70s. “Generally our members are sporty people looking for a fun, new activity,” explained Xavi, “which is why it’s a really social group and a great way to meet new people.”
But while it sounds all peachy, rollerblading hasn’t always been so widely accepted—and it still has a long way to go. Historically, it’s had flack from both ends. In the early Nineties, skaters used to call rollerbladers ‘fruitbooters’ and, considering the sport dorky and less difficult than skating, they refused to allow them in their skate parks. At the same time, general society grouped them with skateboarders, seeing them as troublemakers who made life difficult for pedestrians and drivers alike.
While the sport is generally more accepted today, rollerbladers still have their battles to fight. In Barcelona, the sport is not illegal, but neither is it legal, explained Juan Carlos. “Sure, you can skate. But you’re only allowed to go the same speed as pedestrians, which is at about six kilometres per hour, and you have to keep at least a one-and-a-half metre distance from pedestrians.” No mean feat, trying to make your way down Portal del Angel, added Xavi.
That said, things have changed a great deal in the last few decades. Paris is a great example of how city officials can help make a sport acceptable. The Friday night group skate in Paris (called Pari Roller) is considered the largest repeating group skate in the world, with thousands of participants on occasion; the annual Paris-Versailles charity skate is alleged to have attracted up to 50,000 people. But this is only possible because the city encourages the sport. Police officers act as marshalls, accompanying the weekly group on rollerblades, and subsequently helping to boost the sport’s public image.
The group skate is popular in other cities as well, with the Sunday Skate Night in Berlin attracting over 10,000 skaters during the summer months, and cities as far apart as Copenhagen and Buenos Aires, London and Tokyo, New York and Amsterdam, all hosting popular events.
Back in Barcelona, if you’re planning on trying something new this year, spring’s the perfect time to pull out your skates. Classes and routes with the APB are free, and there is a token annual fee of €30 if you plan on becoming a member (the added bonus is that this buys you insurance, just in case you don’t get the hang of that brake too quickly).
“Whether you come to classes or not,” said Xavi, “the best piece of advice I can give you is to learn to rollerblade in a group. While it’s great exercise, rollerblading is, above all, a social activity, so take advantage of the fact that you can meet new people or spend time with your friends while doing something healthy.”
Click on the related text link 'Word on the street' to read what makes keen Barcelona rollerbladers strap on their boots and where to get lessons and hire skates.