Slalom Ski Designer Interview: Chris Rossi

Intro notes/thoughts from your humble site author:

I think about equipment in slalom skiing all the time. Perhaps too much. Over the years I’ve rationalized it largely as just being part of the fun for me. I love trying out new skis and feeling how different ski designs behave underfoot. It’s a running joke with my boat crew that I might show up with a different ski on any given day, but I learn a little something from each one. Trying new skis is like putting a different lens over your skiing– one might magnify a technique error I hadn’t noticed before, and another might forgive me for that same error. Some are just pure bliss from the first ride. There’s a lesson in each situation.

A slalom ski has to do a lot of things, including primarily planing on the surface supporting your body weight atop a fluid. In addition to that we expect it to turn left and right with a wide variety of body positions and weight distribution schemes, with any number of binding configurations and skiing styles. The liquid surface we ski on top of can vary in temperature, depth, and suspended particulate matter. Layer in boat speeds and types and we have quite a set of variables that we expect a slalom ski to perform through.

I reached out to Chris Rossi at Radar Skis to see if he could answer some tough questions that have been rattling around in my head regarding ski design. He graciously took the time to thoughtfully answer them and provide some insights for you all on the art of slalom ski design. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

So, without further ado, the interview:

JH: Hey Chris, first of all thanks for taking the time to do this interview. For those that might not be familiar with you or Radar Skis, tell us a little about yourself.

CR: My name is Chris Rossi and I am lead ski designer at Radar Skis. I work with the likes of Brooks Wilson, Eddie Roberts, and the entire Pro Radar Team to compile ideas on what future products need to make them the best possible products on the water and then I get to work making these ideas come to life. I grew up on a public lake in Vermont waterskiing for fun with my family and ended up turning that hobby/passion into a career. My career started with being a professional coach in Florida and evolved into a full blown professional skiing career that blessed me with more than 25 career podium finishes. In 2009, Herb O’Brien turned the designing reigns over to me for the high end Radar skis. He mentorship proved invaluable in my learning process and helped set me on the path I’m on now. 2019 marks the 10th year of my pro model line of skis which started as Strada and has evolved into the Vapor series Radar sells now.

JH: What questions should a ski buyer ask himself and/or the manufacturer before making a slalom ski purchase? Put a different way, what questions do you wish people would think about more often?

CR: The Internet harnesses a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips. This is a blessing and a curse at times for the perspective ski buyer. I am guilty of trolling the web for new products and end up going down rabbit holes where I figure out exactly what I need for any given product I’m researching. All of this without ever SPEAKING with anyone who has any actual insight on the product. So to answer your question, the most important questions consumers should be asking themselves is…”Is this ski I’m looking at actually the best fit for where I am right now in my skiing ability? Will it fill the majority of my needs to progress? Will the selected ski perform the best in my daily skiing conditions? How have the results of this ski been from other skiers demoing this product?” At Radar, countless hours are spent working with our dealers and their sales staff to keep them up to date on each product we make. This includes on the water demos with the sales staff so they have that experience to go along with the product info you are looking for. While I love checking out the internet for products, nothing can replace a conversation with a real live human for insight and personal experience on the product. At Radar, we ask ourselves these same questions, design and produce the products to fill these needs, and provide the resources to help get skiers into that correct product. Along with the best dealer network in the world, we have a fantastic support crew at the factory who can help any unanswered questions.

JH: What should skiers expect out of a new slalom ski and how should they manage those expectations? A slalom ski is such an odd item as far as acclimation and personal preferences and techniques/styles. What’s reasonable?

CR: One of the most common occurrences I see when skiers get a new ski to try is that they ultimately want it to ski like their “old” ski. Meaning no adjustment to their skiing or approach to make the new ski work just like the ski they have been on for the past season or seasons. This is a subconscious thing that happens. My advice is to approach your first rides on a new ski is to be asking yourself, “How does this ski want me to ski it to make it work the best?” This means that on your “old” ski you may be encouraged to throw your weight back at the finish of the turn to get the ski to finish with the appropriate angle. You may have adapted your skiing style to accommodate this over time and created a habit. Then on the new ski, this learned habit of leaning back does not result in a good turn. Does this mean the ski is bad or not a good fit? Well in my opinion, the skier should take a different approach entirely. It would be to ask yourself what does this ski like me to do to make it turn? Do I need to move in a different way to get the result I want/need? And once the skier has found these moves or differences, many times the result will be BETTER than was accomplished on the “old” ski.

JH: What ski attributes are needed or “felt” by a deep shortline skier vs. somebody trying to get up to their max speed or trying to cut the line for the first time? I know in my own experience that I can’t even feel many fin, boot, or entire ski changes until I get into -28, and even moreso at -32. How does that fold into design?

CR: This is a very good question. I’d say that the more technique is honed, the more the skier can feel changes to the ski. For skiers at long lines or ones that are trying to learn the course, binding moves are the only change necessary. Binding moves are typically 1/4” (0.25”) intervals. These are large changes that should be able to be felt by a skier of any level. The skier does not need to be able to describe the effects of the change in great detail, just was it better or worse. I recommend skiers of all ability levels start with binding location as their first changes to a new ski. Make sure to take the first set or two on the manufacturers recommended boot location. If it feels magical and you ski well, then leave everything and just ski. If you feel there’s potential the ski could be even better with a change, I recommend trying the boots one hole forward from where factory recommend is AND then do a set with the boots one hole back of factory recommend. This is probably the max move needed for 95% of skiers out there and should give you an idea of where you like them best. The top level skiers will then continue on to fin tuning. This is called fine tuning as changes to the fin tend to be less than 0.020” at a time in any chosen direction. I only recommend fin tuning by those that have experience. If you don’t have experience but think your ski needs some fine tuning, I recommend going to a professional coach to have them work with you on set up and if you ask, they can most likely give you an introductory lesson.

JH: When skiers talk about “forgiveness” in a ski, how does that translate to the design process? How do we quantify forgiveness reasonably, anyway, and how do you talk about it at Radar? As a reference, for me, it’s two things: one, that the ski will pull through a turn despite fairly egregious errors before the turn and two that coming out of a turn I will not dangerously lean-lock into the wake. 

CR: Everyones perspective on forgiveness will be slightly different. I think your above comments are spot on. I think of “forgiveness” as the ability of the skier to be in less that ideal positions over their ski and be able to make the outcome work for them, or in a place that they are pushed to their limits and can make adjustments that get them through the turn or pass successfully, or it’s the window of error they have that the ski performs for them or maybe better yet, the ability to think less about how to make the ski work and just ski. At Radar, we take info from skiers, dealers, and sales staff on what they hear as positives of our products as well as negatives and those items go onto the motherboard of any new projects as priorities. As the designer of the skis, it is my job to keep the positives, address the negatives, and add some new “magic” to each ski. Theres not one ski design area that I can highlight that makes a ski “more forgiving”. Its kind of like baking cookies, the sum of the ingredients is what makes a cookie good or not so good. It’s my design goal for a ski to work with multiple skiing styles, at all levels of skiing, in all conditions, without the skier feeling like they need to be overly “perfect” to make the outcome successful. That’s not too much to ask is it?

JH: Slalom ski designers are faced with creating a product whose resultant performance and owner perception sits at a critical intersection of athlete technique and design. There is literally an entire human being in between a ski and the artificial power source/gravity we know as a boat. As such, what minimum technique assumptions are used to model a ski, if at all? How do we model a typical slalom course skier? An example would be my perception of a ski skiing with my hips too far back in the course vs. someone efficiently running the same exact ski through -38. We’re not even on the same planet but riding on the same gear and feeling different things. 

CR: I feel very fortunate that throughout my career I have been blessed with a very balanced technique. This did not just come to me, by the way. There’s not a set I take that I am not working on an aspect of my skiing. Actually, that is what I’ve come to love about skiing….my personal pursuit of perfection (ok, I got side-barred there at bit). The point I was originally making is that with a balanced style, a ski that works for me will have a large audience that it works for on the consumer level. In the design process at Radar, we have a core group of skiers who are given the R&D products to test and give feedback. These skiers have different techniques and needs from their ski. Once a ski has passed these initial tests, we have another group of skiers who will test the product that are on the consumer level. Again, these skiers have a wide variety of skiing styles/ abilities and will give input and I will again revisit the design to make sure we have the most complete product possible. Then we spend around a year testing and refining a new ski before it goes to production and ultimately into the hands of the consumer. This gives us time to work on lay ups of the ski to optimize flex and rocker and also lets us establish a factory recommended base line set up for boots and fin. As you can see, the process to get a new ski on the shelf at your local dealer is a long and rigorous one. Getting back to your original question, we take into account all types of styles and levels of skiing while designing and developing a new ski and take the time to hone in factory recommended set up based on testing with this diverse group of skiers. This gives us a very good starting base line that the ski is set to when the consumer purchases the product and ultimately takes it to the lake for their first ride.

JH: What role does an adjustable fin play in ski design considerations? Consider that a snow ski’s interface with the surface is seemingly non-adjustable which seems very different from a fin as a variable on a slalom ski. Further– how do we look at shape and layup vs. fin and wing and how those components interact?

CR: I’d like to say that even though a snow ski seems fairly simple in base design, the results can vary substantially on the snow. I’ve purchased a lot of new snow skis in my lifetime and there have been many that felt borderline terrible on my first ride. That is so disappointing. My brother was a pro big mountain skier and helped me to realize the importance of tuning a snow ski for its intended use. The point being, he could take a ski I did not love, give it his special “tune” and I would go out and LOVE the ski. Between base prep and edge tuning, a lot can be done to a two dimensional snow ski. In waterskiing, the high level carbon construction comes at a significant cost (in $$$) to the consumer. Thus, the art of custom bevel sanding has gone away. Now, the boot location and adjustable fin are our avenues to personalize the ski to us and our needs. The shape, rocker, bevels, concave, thickness profile, and flex of a ski are what gives it its general personality and should be what the consumer is basing their buying decision on. The boot and fin locations are secondary and are set to a factory recommend position solely to give the best initial rides the the widest group of potential skiers. If the factory settings are not optimal, then tuning is a very viable way to get the most out of your new ski.

JH: My wife skis at 26-32mph at 15 off. She struggled getting into the course and completing full passes for years, using various lower-end models of skis until she borrowed that first [2014 green] Vapor from someone at our club a few years back. Instantly making passes, instant improvement. She moved on to a 2015 [blue/yellow] and continues to love it and improve and wouldn’t trade it for anything. The real question from a design standpoint is: why does this ski, which is built to run -41, work so well for someone at her level? This seems contrary to the assumption that lower level skiing requires lower level improvement. Should skiers at that level start looking at equipment differently?

CR: Another great question. It does not surprise me that your wife likes a ski that is a high end competition ski. If you look at how I talked about The R&D process above, skiers of all abilities are utilized in the design process. It also says a lot about construction of the product and why the highest grade materials are placed in the high level competition skis. The materials allow the ski to perform superior to lesser quality materials. Plain and simple. This very thing is a conversation we had inside the Radar family and is why all Radar skis are 100% carbon from the Vapor all the way down to our Butterknife series skis. Knowing this, your wife may like the new 2019 Radar Lyric which is 100% carbon construction and is a 0.2” wider design than the Vapor. The ski has the same design profile and rocker lines of the Vapor but with the added surface area that the 0.2” gives the ski. This added surface area gives the ski more support and lift for skiing at slower speeds and allows the ski to keep its competition shape aggressive feel.

Thanks Chris!

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