Gigi Ruf Interview: 9191 The Number of the Best

Published in Whitelines Magazine Issue 92, November 2010

Interview by  Ed/Tristan

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Dan Medhurst

Despite having been around for more nearly two decades, Christian ‘Gigi’ Rüf is still something of a mystery to many people. Over the course of this long career, his unparalleled eye for natural terrain has landed him starring roles in the highest profile snowboard films ever. He’s also ridden for two of the biggest brands on the planet, but not much is known about the man himself. In fact, this diminutive Austrian is a wealth of contradictions. He comes across as a quiet polite family guy, but he can sink more beers than Peter Griffin and stay standing. He can boost huge 7s off gnarly Alaskan spines, but he says the Air & Style kicker scares him. He’s the consummate pro who’s somehow managed go his own way while still supporting his sponsors. And he’s a global snowboarding celebrity who’d be mobbed in any park in America, but at home in Austria there are members of his own family who don’t really know what it is he does for a living.

What is certain is that in a business that values easily identifiable personalities Gigi has managed to avoid conforming to type. He’s the living proof that you don’t have to be loud-mouthed and easily marketable to reach to the top of the snowboard tree – rather, Gigi is one of those who lets his riding speak for itself. Which of course is why he’s so popular with ordinary shredders, and no doubt why Volcom decided to accord him the honour – previously granted only to Terje Haakonsen and Shaun White – of his own dedicated movie, 9191. We met him in London on the morning of the final stop of the film’s promotional tour to discover what makes the most famous ‘known unknown’ in snowboarding tick.

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Frode Sandbech

So Gigi, is this your first trip to London?

No I came here for ‘England week’ through school – like an exchange. We stayed in Eastbourne, and so we came to London as well. But it was actually pretty disgusting. The family I stayed with had a rabbit living in the kitchen! And the daughter wasn’t too cute either. She was on the stepper-machine every morning eating cornflakes… and she needed that stepper! [laughs]

How old were you then?
I was like 16 or 17. I scored a piece of hash too at the pub! And got everybody in my class stoned [laughs].

These days you’re married with a kid. Do you find being a dad affects your snowboarding at all? Do you feel more aware of the dangers of riding backcountry?
It’s not like so upfront like that. I mean sure the decision making process now involves that, but there’s a whole load of factors that affect your thoughts and your decisions when you ride. Anyway if I know something is dangerous and I think I’m going to get hurt then I won’t do it. But if I think I’m in control of things then I’ll go for it. In general it’s not like I really overcome fear when I ride, because if I’m really scared then I’ll back down. But I still pick challenges.

It’s always my biggest question, what do people expect me to do…?”

So when have you been most scared on a snowboard?
When the pressure is on. That’s maybe why I don’t really do competitions or anything. I get scared when I feel like I don’t have time to really concentrate, or when pressure is put on me to perform. I don’t really like that kind of feeling.

But you get invited to the Air & Style in Innsbruck every year. Do you get scared doing that?
I get invited because I’m Austrian! [laughs] No, I do like being there because it’s a learning process. Like the last Air & Style the kicker was really poppy, and all that shit happened in the warm-up [Seb Toots and Pat Moore were both taken away in ambulances after nailing themselves]. The jump was just unrideable to me, cos it was too icy. I was so scared. But then it started raining, it softened up and it became like a session, with everybody kind of hucking and chucking. So I thought: “OK, maybe I can get on this too”. I came really close to landing a really hard trick. Though in the end I probably should’ve just done some style – catch some Air & Style! – cos I just tried the hard trick and fell every single jump. But I never really see myself in the end rounds of competitions anyway. Even though I would like some prize money! [laughs] I guess I’m just not the competitive type.

So you feel more pressure there than burning expensive heli fuel in Alaska? What about when you get dropped off and have to make a line or whatever?
Well there it’s your own decision where you wanna ride. And if I don’t wanna burn heli-fuel I go for a hike! It’s much more my own decision where I travel, where I snowboard, and how productive I want to be.

You definitely seem to be pretty productive. You’ve got three movie parts this year and you normally manage to make two at least. How is it that you’re able to get so much more footage than some riders?
Well I just go about it like normal I guess. Just try and stay on the board. I know a lot of people too, so I get to go and visit them.

Is it a case of you landing more stuff first time than other guys?
Well Jake Price says so, the director of the 9191 movie, but I don’t think so. It helps that I’m so in tune with the production guys I guess. For example my friends the Pirates or Justin [Hostynek] at Absinthe, I’m happy to just listen to them. I can’t see myself through the eye of the cameraman, so if I feel like the filmer is trying to say “OK, you can probably do this better” then I’ll do it again. Because they’re there for the same reason you know.

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Frode Sandbech

Do you feel like you work harder than other riders?
Well I don’t know, with pretty much everyone I go with it’s equal. Though maybe my period of hesitation is shorter than some others. I put myself in my mindset and try to imagine myself putting in a turn here or jumping there and then coming back to do another air or something. That’s how I read the terrain. I feel pretty much in tune with the environment. And when I see something that looks good I always get excited to get there and do it.

So going way back then, where did the name Gigi come from?
Oh, I’ve always had that name. From what I’ve been told it came from my sister who’s four years older. I have two brothers, one sister and we’re all two years apart – I’m the youngest. When my sister started talking, she couldn’t pronounce my real name Christian. So she starting saying Crizi, Crigi, Crezy and stuff, and out of that came Gigi.

We were basically using Volcom’s money so I could go ride with whoever I wanted.”

Were you always in the mountains then, from when you were a little kid?
Yeah, I’m from Au in the Western-most part of Austria, so I started skiing when I was in kindergarten. I still have photos of that.

What did your parents do?
My dad is a plumber, and my Mum, when I started snowboarding she started working as like a maid. And I went snowboarding after school – that was my getaway with all my friends.

Does everyone ski in Au?
Oh yeah. Well my Mum skis, my dad doesn’t really do any sport.

So does he watch your videos?
No, I don’t think he’s really seen any of them! He’s too busy, we also have a farm and cows and stuff…

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Dan Medhurst

Who were your snowboarding heroes as you grew up then?
Probably my brother at first, and then my sister’s school friends – there were a bunch of boys that were really ‘the gang’ [laughs] My grandmother would complain, about them like: “That kid is up to no good. He talks too loudly in church!” They were the first ones to go skateboarding too. And when we were up at the resort I always tried to catch up, and find a way to go ride with them. They had a snowboard club and you needed to be part of the club to enter this competition they were putting on. So that’s how it started for me.

Who hooked you up first?
Sponsor-wise? Well I started looking around for sponsors cos my parents wouldn’t buy me new stuff. They would get me like, old rental boards. Hotshop, a local snowboard shop, was my first sponsor. It turned out the guy who ran it, Deiter Schneider, did distribution for some companies as well so he would give me boards out of his distribution. And he also did Volcom. He was into paragliding in a big way – the distribution company was called Glide – and he went to Africa for a vacation. While he was there he had an accident – he hit a rock wall with his paraglider, so he came back and had to go to hospital. He’d already bought a ticket for the San Diego tradeshow in California and so he sent his assistant and he gave his ticket to me! He wanted two people to go for the luggage allowance, to take clothes over there and stuff. I was like 13 at the time, and I went over there and met Johan Olofsson and Sebu Kuhlberg playing pool, and Mike Parillo, everybody was there! It was right at the early days of Volcom, when they were just starting up in like 1993. And shortly after that they put me in an ad – the only ad ever where I’ve ever been called Christian Rüf – along with all those big legendary names.

They saw you as a 13-year-old kid in San Diego and decided to hook you up?
Ah, they were always about youth and big into youth, and when I went over there I brought some print out photos of me snowboarding. I thought I should show them but they were just like: “That’s cool, you can hang.” Then when the guys came and visited Deiter in Austria they’d come to my house and we’d eat food with my family and stuff. All the Volcom guys came over – the owner of Volcom got bitten by our dog! [laughs]. We had a Rottweiler and it didn’t really like him.

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Vernon Deck

First time I came to England I was like 16 or 17. I scored a piece of hash at the pub and got everybody in my class stoned!”

When did Burton come along then?
In ‘96 after… well actually it’s a tragedy. So after Deiter hit the wall with his paraglider in Africa he got a bloodclot in his brain and he went cuckoo. He basically just turned 180 degrees and in the end he killed himself. Shortly after I was thinking I might want to ride for Burton. Somebody had basically told me that if I’d go with Burton I’d be on easy street. So I got hold of Hasi [Martin Haslwanter, Burton’s European team manager] and actually that was the first cell-phone number I ever dialled! [laughs] So I called up Hasi and he would send me boards. And it slowly moved from Burton to become Se7en, and then Un-Inc, and that’s the whole story. And then I left Burton and went to Volcom.

How come the Burton thing came to an end then? I’m sure you’ve talked about this loads of times, but we’ve gotta ask…
Well, it’s not that I have a standard answer for it you know! [laughs] I always speak my mind, but with Burton it was kind of funny. I could’ve got out of the contract a year earlier, cos they missed the option to continue my contract, so I figured “OK, maybe they don’t want me any more”, so I started to think outside of the box. And it became more and more appealing to me. After 10 years… no, 12 years with Burton everyone was saying “you’re just a Burton guy”. And I figured that if I couldn’t make that step outside and find out what snowboarding really is then I’d never be able to.

You wanted to challenge yourself?
Yeah. And at that time I was going to be a dad, so I had to look out for myself. I’d always had a home with Volcom, then Billy [Anderson, Volcom team manager] said they were starting a board program, and he also mentioned that he’d take good care of me and I trusted him. So I kinda had to go balls out and tell Burton: “OK, no matter what, I’m going to be going to Volcom.”

There was a rumour going round that they offered you a Lamborghini to stay. Is there any truth in that?
No. [laughs] Shaun White bought a Lamborghini and crashed it right, and then bought a second one. That’s the Lamborghini story I know… The only thing I have in common with Lamborghini is my new Union bindings, the spokes on the highback they’re kind of based off a rim from a Lamborghini.

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Dan Medhurst

So you were pretty set that you wanted to leave Burton?
Oh yeah. It was also after Un-inc sort of died. I didn’t wanna re-invent myself, just for Burton. I pretty much poured a lot of passion into Un-Inc, and the whole philosophy and everything we had. Romain gave up a pro-model just for that team, you know? And with Burton cutting it that year, they were on about starting something new… and I was like: “I can’t handle this”. It was just like it was with Se7en, with Un-Inc. There was no long-term. I just wanted to do something with more substance instead of a three-year product cycle. My career’s longer than three years. And I felt like I’m not ready to be the horse that’s dragging the new project for them.

Did you know that Romain and DCP were talking about doing a brand at about that time? Did they ask if you wanted to be involved?
Oh yeah. It was about the same time, and we definitely talked about that.

But you decided against joining them?
Well, I just wanted to be loyal to what Volcom was about to create – to Volcom Snowboarding I should say. I guess the other boys wanted to create something else and I wanted to see what was out there. I just saw it as a real bright future. I was excited you know. I was so excited to start something new. That’s how over it I was.

So now you’re with Volcom, and they’re a brand that don’t make snowboards for the general public. How does it work, do you get to decide your spec? What are they like to ride?
Well, they are exactly how I want them to be. We have like three product runs a season so we can change what we want like three times each year. We can make it better, change it, so you constantly get something new.

Does everyone get to choose? Are Luke Mitrani and Arthur Longo’s boards very different to yours?
Yeah for sure. They can go up to Dave Lee [head of Signal Snowboards, who make the Volcom boards] and tell him: “I want my carbon fibre string over there.” Or “I want it to make an X” Or “I want it to make a Y”, and he’ll do it. Like for example I have a tapered tail which is a thicker wood core on the tail.

Are you fussy about your boards? Or can you pretty much ride anything?
I can’t ride a noodle or anything that’s like, anti-camber. I like stiffer boards and I don’t like rocker or whatever you call it. My board is pretty much based off Un-Inc.

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Frode Sandbech

It must be pretty cool being the subject of a Volcom movie. Like following in the footsteps of Terje…
Yeah, I’ve always tried to follow those footsteps! [laughs]

So what should we expect from the movie?
Hopefully nothing! [laughs] That’s always my biggest question, what do people expect me to do…? Erm, expect a Volcom movie. That’s what I want it to be. I didn’t want it to be all about me, I wanted it to be about Volcom Snowboarding and what they’re about. Basically they gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do, and to ride with who I wanted to ride with. So we were basically using Volcom’s money so I could go ride with Wolle [Nyvelt, Billabong and Salomon pro] or with Jake [Blauvelt, sponsored by Oakley and Ride] or Nicholas [Muller, who rides for Nike and Burton]. I was the only rider assigned to the production by sponsors and stuff. The [other] guys that are in it are like free spirits. They were down for the cause and like: “Fuck yeah, let’s just go ride!”

The owner of Volcom got bitten by our dog! We had a Rotweiler and it didn’t really like him.”

So no sponsor pressure or anything?
No. It just happened like that. That was my season. And Volcom just said: “Right, have as much fun as you can” and that just took the pressure right off my shoulders. I could film where I wanted, whatever. In fact in many ways it was a dream come true for myself. Like you mentioned with Haakonsen earlier, having a Volcom movie just about me is something mind-boggling! At first it caused a lot of nervousness for me like: “Oh shit, I have to deliver this in one year, like a full movie.” But Billy from Volcom just said: “Have fun with it”.

Did you have any control over the artistic direction?
Well I brought my camera along. I have a super-8 millimetre camera, that’s my travelling cam. I filmed a bunch of the travel stuff like time-lapses of airplanes taking off and stuff.

And were you sat in the editing suite overseeing stuff?
Yeah, we were at the Volcom house in Hawaii. On the North Shore. We were there for three weeks and I got to bring my family. But I couldn’t hang with the computer. I had to go outside [laughs]. I let Jake do it, he’s the director – I’d already finished my part by then! [laughs]

So did you surf?
Yeah. I surf occasionally, but yeah I did. The only thing I got out of the editing room was that the Southern Hemisphere part was quite weak – that’s what Billy said to me, so we started planning a trip to the Southern Hemisphere, and Volcom wanted us to go back to New Zealand where we’d been before and I was like: “Nah, fuck that. I’ve never been to Chile, I wanna go there,” so we went there for three weeks in August and we finished the movie down there. Then Jake basically edited it on the bus, going to the airport, and we had about another week before the world premiere!

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Vernon Deck

Good snow in Chile?
Yeah, we had to look for it, but we had good people helping us out. Good friends, and locals from down there. That’s kind of the theme of the movie too, just going to places and meeting up with the local cats there, you know? Like Blair [Habenicht] in the North West, and Bryan Iguchi in Jackson Hole. I didn’t want to miss out on Alaska either. Absinthe took me to Alaska, but I got to take Jake Price along to film a bit of a ‘behind the scenes’ thing. It was Jake Blauvelt’s first year riding up there, and he wanted to be riding up there with me, so we ended up doing it as a joint thing with Absinthe.

And with the music, did you have any say in choosing DJ Baron?
Ah that was Volcom. That was the idea from the start. “OK, we’re going to make the movie 23 minutes long, and we’re going to have an original soundtrack.” Jake and me we made a song list, and told Baron what we were looking for. Jake would record various songs over the parts just to give Baron an idea of what he wanted.

OK so how about a more general question – what do you think is the future of snowboarding? What do you think of Torstein’s triple cork for example?
Oh yeah. I’ve seen that. Oh I look through the internet, for sure. But erm… well it’s amazing, that he threw it down. It’s not something I could just throw off a windlip – I mean maybe… Jake Price has tried a triple backflip! But I mean c’mon! For me it’s still the same old problem – cos I never grew up in parks I’m not really that into them. I do enjoy a good halfpipe, even though I can’t really cope with the huge copings these days… But I’m happy with that you know? All the kids are in the park, which means I can just go freeriding!

So you didn’t grow up with parks at all? That must have been a big influence on your style and the direction your career took right?
I don’t really see the effect [laughs] but I guess so, yeah. But it’s so hard to summarise it, it seems it’d be easier some times to write a book about it [laughs]

Like David Benedek?
Well yeah, Benedek is giving something nice back to snowboarding – summarising the history. Because some of the up and coming park kids these days don’t even know who has paved the way for snowboarding. People like Jamie Lynn – they don’t even know! Or nowadays, I don’t even know if they know who Peter Line is. [laughs] Things like that you know, they don’t care! They just see: “Right, I can do this in the summer on a trampoline, so maybe I can do this on a snowboard.” Or they see Shaun White, or someone that’s bringing a lot of cash into their bank account with snowboarding so the parents like it too, but that’s not what it’s like where I came from.

Yeah, it’s interesting you said your dad doesn’t watch your video parts. How does it work in Austria, because the skiers are all pretty famous right?
Yeah we are ski Nazis. [laughs] I come from the ski-Nazi capital [laughs]. We don’t even have a FIS snowboard team in the Olympics right? But that’s just cos we have tight-knit crews, like the Aesthetikers and people who don’t care about anything like that.

So no one would recognise you if you strolled down the street in Austria?
No. I’m anonymous, don’t even have a real name, I have an alias. [laughs] Gigi! Or 9191, that’s my new one. [laughs]

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Vernon Deck

Gigi’s Great British Quiz:

1. Which building is Big Ben a part of?

Part of? Hmmm I know you can see it from the bridge. Westminster?

2. Where doe the Queen live?

3. What’s the name of the river that runs through London?
Seine! [laughs] No, it’s the Thames.

4. Who lives in number 10?
Erm, Mr Bean?

5. Whose statue is in the middle of Trafalgar Square?

Ah, it’s not Napoleon…? No? Ok, it’s uhm. Oh man! I know this. Can you tell me his rank? OK Admiral… Admiral Trafalgar? Oh Trafalgar was the battle? No, can’t get it.

6. In the UK, a pregnant lady can ask a policeman to remove his tall hat so she can pee in it. True or false?

Yes. Cos pregnant ladies have to pee a lot. It’s true huh? Yeah, the bobby squirt! [laughs]

7. OK, London is the capital of England, can you name the capitals of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales?
Erm, can’t we all just be united? [laughs] No, I don’t know the five Boroughs!

8. What football team plays at the Emirates?
Emirates? Isn’t that Arabic? Oh it’s sponsored by the airline? I don’t know.

9. When are the Olympics happening in London?
Olympics? I don’t know, I don’t follow it… I’ve just been in Seoul and they asked me “Should Seoul have the winter Olympics?” and I’m like: “You don’t even have snow here, there’s no mountains” and they said they’d build the mountains! [laughs]

10. What’s the pink line on the London underground called?
It’s not the Jamaican line is it? It is? Noooo [laughs]

11. Name another London airport other than Heathrow.
Gatwick. Or Luton.

12. Who said: “When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life”?
Hitchcock? No… I know everything about history but nothing about London. OK so I sucked on the footyball, but otherwise I did alright yeah?

Gigi Rüf, Photo: Dan Medhurst

5/12 Better than a limp schnitzel from Little Chef, but not quite a full English down your local.

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