INTERVIEW • Donny O’Neill | PHOTOS • Blake Jorgenson
When skiers hear “Rossignol,” the image of a semi-transparent, yellow honeycomb ski tip likely comes to mind. That’s understandable, as the brand’s Soul 7, the plank that sports this distinguishable tip, has been one of the best-selling skis since its release in 2013, and has over-populated ski slopes from California to Vermont. Since then, the brand has been working covertly to develop its newest weapon, BlackOps, a ski line that may shift the way consumers view Rossignol after many years of “yellow tip fatigue.” Rossignol released the BlackOps 98 and 118 last season, but kept hush on specific product specs and didn’t engage in a widespread release. For 2021, however, a 14-ski BlackOps line (both men’s and women’s skis) that runs the gamut in terms of intended use will replace the 7 Series as Rossignol’s flagship all-mountain freeride offering. To pull back the curtain on the process that’s lead Rossignol to the brink of a new chapter, we caught up with Nick Castagnoli, the company’s brand marketing director, for a debrief on BlackOps.
Take me through the development process for the BlackOps. They’ve been in the works behind the scenes for a long time, but they just now seem to be gaining traction.
At the outset, BlackOps was really a skunkworks project. We’d launched the Soul 7 with our full 7 Series collection a few years prior and the reception and sales of those skis was still very strong. But behind the scenes, it was becoming clear to us that something was missing. We’d moved away from developing progressive twin-tip shapes like the Sickle—which was an amazing ski with a strong, almost cult-like following—in favor of the real commercial drivers. This left some of our athletes, like Chris Logan and Parker White, who skied solely on the Sickle and Slat, in a tough spot—we just didn’t have the right product for them anymore.
Those two guys were involved straight away, and we just asked them what their ideal ski would be, based on what they were trying to achieve at that time. They basically wanted a bigger, beefier version of the Sickle; something slashy, playful, built for stomping big hits and capable of blasting through anything you could throw at it. After a few rounds and different layups, the BlackOps 118, as we know it now, was born.
How was BlackOps received in its first year?
The 2019-20 season is the first that we’ve made BlackOps products widely available in shops, online and a part of our commercial offer. Until this season, it’s been in hiding. We’d built them for our most progressive athletes, not John Q Public. Frankly, the market for 110-millimeter-plus underfoot skis today is not what it was seven years ago. But there was certainly curiosity and demand amongst the core ski community—the guys and gals that are out on the hill charging seven days a week. We built a few extra and made limited quantities available. But you had to be pretty savvy to find a pair.
Then we developed the BlackOps 98, which, just based on its dimensions, is a much more commercially viable product, and our approach shifted.
Why the secrecy with the specs?
Before we even had the final BlackOps 118, the number of phone calls and emails we fielded from people looking for information or a pair of skis to purchase was significant. People had seen Chris and Parker on social media and in The Big Picture on prototypes of a ski they couldn’t find anywhere. People were intrigued. Everyone wants what they can’t have. We just shrugged our shoulders and said, “It doesn’t exist” or “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Honestly, at the outset it was just fun to do something different, mess with people a bit. I also think it was a bit the opposite of what people had come to expect from the brand.
But, at that time, BlackOps wasn’t our commercial focus. We were still full gas on the 7 Series. So that gave us some freedom to play and get creative. But some people want to know every minute detail in order to make a purchasing decision. Which is fair. But we weren’t really trying to sell large units of the skis at that time, that’s not what BlackOps was about. It’s 118 millimeters underfoot. Parker, “Dahrk” and Tatum were all slaying on it. What more do you really need to know? Step on it and go give ’er hell. If you need to know what the turn radius or core construction is, you’re in the wrong place.
Now that the whole line is being released, what new innovations went into the 2021 blackops line?
We’ve integrated 2LCT, which improves control without added weight, Damp Tech, high-density visco material that absorbs vibrations and special Diago carbon fiber into the collection to varying degrees depending on the model, but we’ve also been hyper-focused on building products in a more eco-conscious and sustainable manner. To this end, we’ve built the entire BlackOps range using FSC® and PEFC™ certified wood cores. We’ve also incorporated 15-percent recycled materials into the topsheets, 30 percent in the bases and the edges are 100-percent recycled steel. At the brand level, we are looking at everything we do today through the lens of sustainability and reducing our impact on the environment.
It seems like there’s a specific ski for all skier types, from all-mountain directional to freestyle, ski mountaineering, backcountry, big-mountain and so on. Who is the new BlackOps line ideally created for?
Well, you’re spot on. BlackOps has grown into a fully realized, all-encompassing freeride collection. Within the line there are three segments: Progressive, Freeride/Freetour and All-Terrain. Within those segments there are multiple models to address the needs of any modern freeride skier: progressive twins; directional fall-line-seeking missiles; lightweight freetouring skis; all-terrain gunners—there really is a ski for any skier. And each has its own distinct shape, personality and on-snow behavior.
Parker White and Chris Logan had a heavy hand in the development in BlackOps. I wouldn’t refer to them as “regular skiers.” How do you morph the tinkering of two top pros into a consumer-friendly product?
I wouldn’t use the word “regular” when it comes to describing those boys in any sense.
Just like the skiing masses, all of our athletes approach the mountain in their own unique way. We want to develop product at the tip of the spear and validate our products at the highest levels of performance. We travel around the world, test across various terrain and conditions, putting prototypes under the feet of athletes, the product development team and other key stakeholders. Once we find the right balance, we adjust accordingly based on our target consumer.
As a whole, where this new collection really differentiates itself from the previous 7 Series is in the top-end performance that’s available. We’ve made a very conscious decision that we didn’t want to simply rehash a “new-look” Soul 7. After seven-to-eight years of feedback, we knew we wanted to give this new range a more substantial gas pedal.
Internally, we felt it was time to lob a grenade into everything, start fresh and try to follow-up the success of what has, by all accounts, been an iconic, benchmark product. The Soul 7 quite literally changed the industry’s perception of what a “freeride” ski could do. With BlackOps, we’re ready to do that again.
What is the most important thing that shops and dealers should know about BlackOps and Rossi, in general?
That we’re not resting on our laurels over here. The pressure to replicate the success of the Soul 7 is certainly there. But in a lot of ways, what happened with Soul 7 was lightning in a bottle. We can’t let that paralyze us or impede us from innovating, pushing and taking chances. Freeride has been an anchor point for the brand since the inception of “freeride.” It’s part of our DNA. We’re going to continue to drive and lead in this category—but to do so means switching things up from time to time in order to re-energize the brand as well as consumer demand.
What message does replacing the 7 Series with BlackOps send to consumers about the brand?
That Rossignol is unafraid to take risks. And that we’re damn confident we can start fresh, reinvent and deliver a product that better supports the needs of today’s freeride market. I think it will also naturally help us shine a brighter light on our global freeride team. We’ve got such a legit crew. We just spent 10 days in interior British Columbia with the bulk of the athlete team and to see this crew doing what they do was just so much fun; getting creative, hyping each other up, the “Ride Free” spirit of this new collection was on full display.
BlackOps W Rallybird Ti
Lengths: 168, 171, 178 cm
Dimensions: 137-102-127 mm
Radius: 16 m
Geared for aggressive, fall-line skiers, the W Rallybird Ti suits the needs of women who charge. Taking cues from its race line, notably Diago Fiber, a special carbon lay-up, the ski is stiff and stable while providing a responsive flex pattern needed to perform on variable terrain and snow. The 102-millimeter waist can handle day-in, day-out thrashing, while a snappy 16-meter radius ensures nimbleness is at a premium.
Lengths: 176, 186 cm
Dimensions: 146-118-141 mm
Radius: 25 m
The Gamer is the undisputed powder plunderer of the 2021 BlackOps line. Designed with input from team riders Parker White and Chris Logan—who spend their seasons sledding around the vast expanses of the backcountry in search of bottomless snow—the Gamer is built for tricks in deep snow. A near-symmetrical shape, 118-millimeter waist and heavy rocker in the tip and tail allow it to move through powder in whichever way its user desires, opening up a whole world of possibilities for the deep snow enthusiast.