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Riverfront rollers

Summer brings out the in-line skaters and the wannabes Ñ who'll soon see surfaces in a whole new way

The sun's out, the waterfront is hotter than the Santa Monica boardwalk, and you need wheels. Little acrylic ones in sets of four, set in a sort of ski boot.

For your first two minutes on in-line skates you're Bambi on ice. The next 10 minutes you're just RoboCop with a short circuit. But in-line skating is an easy sport to learn Ñ you just put one foot in front of the other, after all Ñ and pretty soon you're serenely skating along with the beautiful people, chin up, tuckus out, arms behind your back.

The paths on either side of the river downtown are easily the best place to do it, especially if you like bumping into tourists. Surprisingly, there's only one place to rent bikes or skates along the waterfront Ñ a fact Karen Stiles noticed in late 2001 while training for the Portland Marathon.

After thinking about it for a month, the former software marketer (she successfully cashed out) found an empty storefront just around the bend from McCormick & Schmick's Harborside at the Marina on Southwest Montgomery Street and hung out her shingle. Under the name Waterfront Bicycle Rentals, she began renting and selling skates, bikes, tandem and novelty 'Trikkes' (those three-wheeled scooters that are so popular with skiers because they simulate the movements of skiing).

In-line skates come with all the protective gear. The armor is highly recommended because you are never more than a second away from shattering your beautiful wrist, collarbone or coccyx. A laid-back mother of two, Stiles sends people toward the Marquam Bridge to practice. 'There's grass to fall on,' she says with a smile.

Stiles then sends people along what she calls the 'river loop.' The route goes north along the sea wall in Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, across the Steel Bridge pedestrian walkway and down the Eastbank Esplanade. This takes you past all forms of Portland leisure seekers Ñ sweaty joggers, racing cyclists, nonmountain bikers, squadrons of young moms walking in formation with their strollers, the Burnside Bridge punks, picnickers, tanners, arm-swinging walkers and businessmen with no offices.

Surfaces count. The chunky asphalt of the marina area gives way to the smoother surface of Waterfront Park's river walk. After that the creamy cement of the Steel Bridge is a treat.

In-line skating is one of those hobbies people force their fat spouses to do, but for James and Kerttu Delaplain it's all voluntary. The lean, married couple, aged 23 and 22 respectively, gracefully coast along the esplanade. James has been skating for 10 years and has all the scars, though he no longer does jumps or tricks.

'Too dangerous,' he says. He explains that the rear brake is no way to stop: You have to drag the wheels of your trailing foot sideways. Which is worth knowing when you come barreling over the Hawthorne Bridge Ñ but not easily learned. According to Stiles, this is a bad bridge for a beginner to cross because of the slope and the narrow sidewalk. You could easily end up under a bus or sinking in the Willamette in high-tech diving boots.

More good news: Last fall the cycle path on the east bank was resurfaced all the way to Sellwood. It's officially called the Willamette River Greenway Trail and now connects to the Springwater Corridor Trail, which could get you all the way to Sandy without encountering a car. Don't bother crossing the Sellwood Bridge, though, as there are gaps in the cycle path on the west bank where you have to use the sidewalk. This big loop of 12 miles would take about two hours to complete, but Stiles recommends a loop of 31Ú2 miles coming back over the Steel Bridge, or the Hawthorne Bridge if you are good.

Waterfront Bicycle Rentals uses quality skates made by K2, and Stiles services them herself. The fast ones with the big wheels retail at $240 a pair. At the end of last season she sold off all her bikes and skates to a waiting list and will this fall, too, because tourists love pristine gear.

'My family used to rent Kawasaki jet skis on Miami Beach, and the experience was great when the equipment worked, but it was terrible when it broke down. We had to swim out and rescue them,' she says.

After an hour you'll easily be in the groove, swooshing along with steady rhythm. It's good for the legs, and less tiring than running. In-line skaters often will stop to admire one another's gear, which means you might make some new friends. Or at least bump into a few tourists.

Contact Joseph Gallivan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .